Leadership Tip #10: Commit Coherent & Meaningful Work to a Team

Many managers feel the need to get more and more done. They feel pressure from customers and salespeople for more features or products. Or the managers might feel the need for more revenue. So they start many projects. When teams have too many projects, teams take longer to finish. This means all that pressure continues to increase.

Some managers deal with this problem by slicing and dicing feature sets into smaller chunks of work. That can work, but the outcome isn't something the customers can easily use.

Others create “projects” where the team is supposed to deliver on several initiatives at the same time. I haven't found that particularly useful.

How do the managers respond to all the pressure for customer requests and revenue? By “delegating” the meaningful work in the form of a commitment to a team.

That's why managers need to manage the project portfolio with decisions.

How Managers Make Project Portfolio Decisions

In the image above, moving from left to right, you can see the “List of collected work in rank order.” When I facilitate a team's and collection of that work, I suggest:

  • Write a card naming every single piece of work. (I use 3×5 cards to keep the names small. In a virtual setting, use the same size virtual stickies if possible.)
  • If you have related work that you want to finish as a program, collect those cards together.
  • Put all the cards on a wall. (If you're remote, use a virtual wall.)

Seeing the cards all together helps us see the magnitude of the problem and where the pressure arises.

Once we can see all the cards, I ask the Zeroth Question: Should we still do this work? That question helps people decide what to eliminate right then and there.

Then, as a team, the managers rank order the work. There is one #1 project, one #2 project, etc. Multiple projects can't be #1.

Sometimes, we realize we need to group some projects together as we rank the work.

Now, we get to the decisions.

Make the Commit Decision

If the managers want to commit to a project or a program, I remind them that they commit a team(s) to that meaningful work. The team can expect to:

  • Receive all the funding the team needs to deliver the project for the duration of the project portfolio decision. (Not for the life of the project, but until the next portfolio decision.)
  • Acquire or access any equipment they need to deliver the work.
  • Develop any tools they need to deliver the work. (If the team can't easily build or deploy, the team might work on that first.)

These ideas help the managers move from yearly funding to incremental funding. And at some point, from funding projects to funding teams.

How do you know it's meaningful work? When you can create one product vision to serve a customer segment. If you can't, you probably don't have coherent meaningful work.

Make the Transform Decision

The next possible decision is the transform decision. With transformation decisions, the team often makes progress on the work. However, maybe there are more feature sets or there's more pressure on management. In this case, management can ask another team (or several) to collaborate with that first team.

I often see a case where everyone thinks this is a “small” project. After the team works on it for several weeks, they realize this work needs to be a program, not a project.

Make the Kill Decision

Then there's the kill decision. I happen to like a straight kill. We stop this work and do not plan to restart it. If we do restart it, we will probably transform it.

However, some of you are nicer than I am, which is why I use a parking lot. (See Manage “When” with a Parking Lot.)  I recommend you use a parking lot if people hesitate to kill projects. Move the work to a parking lot and don't create a card for the project when you review the rank-ordered work again. Decide when to review the parking lot in the future.

(For more details about ways to manage the project portfolio, see Manage Your Project Portfolio.)

When managers make these decisions regularly and predictably, the teams can focus and deliver. Management creates an environment where teams can thrive. Without these decisions, the teams can't create the products management wants fast enough.

Create an Environment of Coherent and Meaningful Work

In the Modern Management Made Easy books, I write a lot about the environment. Managers, your environment matters, too. Especially if you feel pressure. The more pressure you feel, the more important your project portfolio decisions are.  Decide what not to do and reduce the WIP (Work in Progress) across the organization. (See Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization for more details.)

When you reduce the WIP, the teams can deliver faster. And when you clarify the purpose for each effort, the teams focus on the minimum you need the teams to complete. The more the teams complete, the less pressure you feel.

This is a part of the series of leadership tips.

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