7 Ways Project Managers can Improve Status Reports

We are taking a break today from our regular programming.  That is because today (Jan 15) I am running the Phoenix Marathon.  My goal is to finish within 3 hours and 30 minutes in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

In honor of the run, I thought I would share something I put together on how project managers can improve their status reporting.  It made me emotional writing it so that is enough to include it with the rest of Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.  Enjoy!

  1. If a tree falls in the woods, does anyone hear it?  Sometimes you’ll find that if you don’t report something in your status, people won’t even know you are doing it.  In other words, if you don’t toot your own horn, no one else will.  It is one of the official ways of reporting the work that you do so that others have the opportunity to show appreciation.  You should not have to suffer in silence about all the hard work you are doing or drive the bus close to the cliff to get attention.
  2. Status Reports are for the reader, not for you.  Add value with a message that is clear, shows the way, and guides the reader on whether to take immediate action, begin to worry, or relax and let you do your job.  Report it in a way that makes it clear what the next steps should be.  And don’t make the reader work to figure out what is going on.  If math is required, do the math for them.
  3. Soap Opera – Your status report should read like a soap opera or an ongoing dialogue with the reader.  If someone misses a soap opera for a full week, they can quickly get back up to speed.  It should be the same with your status report.  Readers should be able to tell from episode to episode what is going on and if they skip one, they should not feel lost.  Be consistent in style and content from week to week or day to day; don’t introduce major changes.  Avoid surprises, and in particular, cliffhangers or unanswered questions.
  4. But it is real work – Part of the criticism I hear about status reporting is that it should come after the real work.  Believe it or not, as a project leader, communications is the #1 part of your job.  So status reporting is part of a job well done.  It is what sets the great PM’s apart from the others.
  5. Beat that Drum – Just because you said something once, doesn’t mean anyone heard it or paid attention.  Sometimes you need to be repetitive to get the message across.  Don’t say, I sent that to you a week ago in an email.  Michael Hammer of Re-Engineering fame, says that you need to communicate a single message 7 different times in 7 ways to get your point across.  While that may not be necessary for everything you write, it is likely important that you say it more than once.
  6. Signal to Noise Ratio – Where possible, reduce the volume of information to just that which is necessary, important, and critical.  Don’t make the reader sift through a ton of detail to find the nugget of gold hidden in there.  Report on only the most important stuff and have ways to let people know where to go for more information. Be selective.  Weed out the unnecessary noise, or include it as an attachment.  And if there is a nugget of gold, put it right up front.
  7. Be Like Paula Radcliffe – With a time of 2:15:25, Paula Radcliffe is the current world record holder for the women’s marathon.  Paula set that record running a pace of 5 minutes and 15 seconds per mile.  Surprisingly, when Paula runs, she doesn’t even bother looking at her watch.  She uses professional pace runners or pacers.  The pace runners job is to run at a set time, in this case, exactly 5 minutes and 15 seconds per mile.  Paula just needs to make sure she is running with the pacer to be a world champion.

So it goes with your status report.  Develop a plan which will tell you where you need to be on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.  Then, you simply need to compare your progress against that plan to see if you are on target or not.  Report on the variance and the cause.

Bottom Line:  The executive suites are filled with good leaders and good communicators, not technicians.  Make mastery of communications your goal.  Use your status report as an area to practice and to refine and hone your craft.  Strive for excellence, not perfection.

Applied EQ #20: Top 8 Emotional Breakdowns for Project Managers

Self-control helps us avoid emotional breakdowns. What is an emotional breakdown?  An emotional breakdown is an involuntary response to an emotional situation.  We are “losing it” when we have an emotional breakdown.  Road rage is an extreme form of emotional breakdown.  Individuals who experience road rage become unpredictable and out of control.

Dangerbreakdown_2

While road rage may be unheard of in a project environment, emotional breakdowns are not.  The stress and strain of everyday life can cause emotional breakdowns.  Add to that a challenging project environment and the likelihood of emotional breakdowns is very high.

In his book Emotional Intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ, Daniel Goleman uses the term emotional hijacking for these breakdowns.  He contends that our emotions are hijacked by our primitive neurological systems.  These systems were designed for our survival.  Most of us are familiar with the fight or flight responses.  Emotional hijacking is an extreme form of this.

Whether we call it Emotional hijacking or emotional breakdown, the end result is the same; our emotions have been taken over by something else and we are not in control.  Emotional breakdowns are involuntary.  We are reacting to an event without control of our behavior.

I once hired a project leader based on his stated ability to not lose it.  I knew that I felt under pressure on this particular project and I needed someone who would not lose their cool.  In the interview, he said that he prided himself on “staying 1 degree cooler than everyone else in the room”.  That was critical for us on this particular project and his statement got him the job.  We worked well together for 2 years and during that time, he was usually 1 degree cooler than everyone else.

Not everyone is able to run at 1 degree cooler than everyone else.  In fact, most people have some sort of breakdown that they experience.  Here are some examples of emotional breakdowns that you might see in a project environment:

  1. Angry tirades – Haven’t we all seen someone explodes with anger and blasts someone else?  Do you avoid someone for fear they will explode on you?
  2. Door slamming – Not able to take any more, a person leaves the room and slams the door behind them.
  3. Email letter bomb – Angry emails might be one of the most common ways for people to vent anger on a project.  Our modern office tools can make this easier than ever.
  4. Withdrawal and isolation – This is when people pull away, avoid meetings, and perhaps even dodge specific people on the project.
  5. Holding grudges and getting even – This type of breakdown results in a secret vow to get even.  This could be due to a certain unfavorable decision being made, criticism received, or some other perceived slight.  There may even be a secret “score” being kept of who is winning and who is losing.  This breakdown is especially harmful because it may be secret and it can go on for a long time.
  6. Criticizing – This breakdown results in criticism intended to hurt another.  There is a saying that hurt people hurt people and criticism often is the result of a hurt we feel.  Criticism may be buried in helpful sounding remarks or it may be more openly critical.  Either way, the effect is the same.
  7. Sarcasm and inappropriate humor – Sarcasm is a red flag for emotional breakdowns (as previously discussed in this blog).  Both sarcasm and inappropriate humor are learned responses to situations where we don’t want to address the truth directly.
  8. Playing the victim – When someone plays the victim, they act as if they are powerless and not responsible for their actions.  They will blame someone (or perhaps the entire world) for their situation and their actions.  This is disempowering to the individual and unacceptable to the team.

How many of these emotional breakdowns do you experience?  Look at the list and reflect on the last week, month and year.  Have you had more than one of these?  Do you experience all of these or have one or two preferred breakdowns?

My own breakdowns include email letter bombs, criticizing, sarcasm and inappropriate humor.  I have become aware enough to eliminate many of these responses from my repertoire and I have the grace and peace of mind to not go down on myself if I have a relapse.  I just say, “there I go again” and try to determine what caused the emotional breakdown.

If you are having trouble identifying the emotional breakdowns you have, try getting some input from others.  Take the time to ask your peers, team members, or your spouse how they see us.  They will be glad you are investing in yourself and you might be surprised to learn more about yourself from them.

Let me know what you think about this list.  Are there other emotional breakdowns that you can name?

Applied EQ #21: Emotional Triggers may Lead to Breakdowns

In the last post, we talked about the 8 top emotional breakdowns for project managers.  Emotional breakdowns are involuntary responses to some event or situations.  It’s when we “lose it”.  In this post, we are going to look at emotional triggers that can lead to breakdowns.

What is an emotional trigger?  An emotional trigger is a situation, an external stimulus, or triggering event that leaves us vulnerable to emotional breakdown.  They are not necessarily the cause of the breakdown, but they serve as a catalyst or provide fertile ground for a breakdown.

One way to protect we can protect ourselves against emotional breakdowns is to identify the emotional triggers that immediately precede breakdowns.  By sensitizing ourselves to what leads to the breakdown, we can break the cycle.

Eq_diff_book_cover_1 Adele Lynn identified the following 10 emotional triggers in her book called The EQ Difference; A Powerful Plan for Putting Emotional Intelligence to Work.  (Note:  This book was one of my favorites on EQ.  It is an easy read and provides a lot of hands-on tools for developing emotional intelligence.)

  1. Your Mood
  2. Moods and Attitudes of Others
  3. Prethinking or foreshadowing
  4. Dwelling
  5. Personality
  6. Hot Words/Hot Buttons
  7. Perceived Criticism
  8. Physical Environment
  9. Illness or Physical Conditions
  10. Situations

You may recognize many of these emotional triggers at work in the project environment.  In the next few posts, we are going to look in detail at a subset of triggers that are most relevant to project managers.

Applied EQ #22: Protection against the Moods of Others

In the last post, we talked about emotional triggers.  Emotional triggers are external events that leave us vulnerable or serve as a catalyst for an emotional breakdown.  In the next series of posts, we will talk about each of these triggers and how to protect ourselves against them.

The first of the emotional triggers is Moods & Attitudes of others.  Many of us are vulnerable to the moods and attitudes of others.  When others are feeling down or angry, this can have a negative impact on us, leaving us vulnerable to an emotional breakdown.

This has been the case for me due to growing up with an alcoholic father. All my life I have been acutely attuned to the moods of my Dad.  It was one of the ways I tried (unsuccessfully) to control my chaotic home environment.  If my Dad was in a good mood, I could let up and relax a little. If he wasn’t, well, then I was on edge and always on the lookout for some kind of trouble.

Do you take your cue on how to feel from how those around you feel?  Do you get bummed out when your boss is angry or sad?  Do you ever say, “well I was in a good mood until you called me” or something like that?  If this applies to you, consider taking the following actions to understand and begin to protect yourself from emotional breakdown:

  1. Who is it? – Try to evaluate whose moods make you feel the most vulnerable.  It could be your spouse or your parents.  Perhaps, like me, you are vulnerable to your boss or other authority figures.  Know who it is.
  2. Why is it? – If possible, try to understand why you feel vulnerable.  Is it because you grew up with a parent with addiction or boundary issues?  The cause may be easy to understand, or it could require some help from a trained therapist.
  3. Cut the cord – Try to de-sensitize yourself to the moods of others as much as you can.  Envision yourself with this key person who is in a bad mood.  Practice laughing a little and saying, “Wow, you sure are in a bad mood today” or something like that.
  4. Don’t take it personally – Don’t personalize or try to control how the other person feels.  They are responsible for their feelings, just as you are responsible for your own.  If they are reacting to something you said or did, let them have their reaction.  Don’t walk on eggshells or try to cushion the blow.
  5. Be Extreme – You may find it helpful to practice going to the other extreme with those you are vulnerable with.  Once I was driving in a car with my manager and she commented on how fast I drove.  I slowed down and apologized, feeling small and criticized.  What would have been more self-respecting would have been to say, in an unapologetic way, that I usually drive faster.  The difference between the two approaches is in how much or little I care about the reaction or attitude I was expecting from her.
  6. Look ahead, not back.  If you find yourself in an environment where someone has reacted in an extreme way to a negative event, do what you can to focus on what is important.  Encourage the other person to focus on what needs to happen next and not on blaming or dwelling on the past.  I often say something like, “we can focus on who shot who later, right now let’s get the paramedics working on the patient”.
  7. Who is the victim here? – This type of emotional trigger is closely related to playing the victim.  Evaluate whether you also tend to play the victim when it comes to others.

For some people, just becoming aware of the connection between the breakdown and the moods of others can be enlightening.  It is the first step toward choosing different, healthier responses.

In our next post, we will look at foreshadowing as an emotional trigger.

Applied EQ #23: The End is Near and other Self-Defeating Forecasts PM’s should avoid

These last few posts have been about emotional triggers that leave us vulnerable to an emotional breakdown. Foreshadowing is one such emotional trigger. Foreshadowing is when we predict negative outcomes or events in the future. For example, when we experience a high impact technical glitch, we may predict that our client is going to be upset or worse, that the project will be canceled.Chickenlittle_1

Some of us, myself included, have a tendency to anticipate the worst. We may even pride ourselves on being able to see the worst in every future situation.  But in the project environment, this can be both a deadly poison to the morale of the team as well as a trigger for an emotional breakdown.

Chicken Little was one of those who anticipated negative future events. Chicken Little interpreted a small piece of evidence (a falling acorn I think) to mean that the entire sky was falling.  Of course the sky was not falling and eventually Chicken Little learned a valuable lesson – learn more about emotional intelligence.

 

Before you email me about proper risk management for a project, let me distinguish between unhealthy foreshadowing and proper risk planning.  Project managers need to address risks as well as have a healthy skepticism about the potential outcomes of tasks and projects.  Project managers need to be able to challenge overly optimistic estimates and outcomes and help the team plan for risks and the unexpected. That is all a part of being a good project manager.  (That said, the sky might actually be falling on your project based on the 2004 Standish Group Chaos statistics).

 

How can you tell if you succumb to foreshadowing? For me, it became apparent as I worked with a coach that I was predicting negativity in the future. I often felt like I was about to be fired or cut from the project team. I often tied this to some negative vibes I was picking up or news that I heard. My coach helped me to see that it was irrational, unhealthy, and could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very thing I feared I nearly made a reality!

 

Here are some steps you can take if you find yourself foreshadowing:

 

  1.    The first step is to identify the pattern of negative thinking. Here are some ways to identify the pattern:
  • Keep a journal of your negative predictions and track the outcomes.
  • Check it out with your boss.  This will only be possible to the extent you have an open relationship with them and trust it will not backfire.
  • Develop a trust relationship with a friend or coworker and use them as a sounding board. Check out your thoughts and negative predictions and ask what they think. The more objective they can be, the better.
  • Enlist the services of a coach or mentor to help you identify and break the pattern. The simple difference I see between a coach and mentor is that coaches are generally paid specialists, while mentors are generally unpaid individuals who have been there themselves. Of course, this can vary widely. You can find coaches through referrals or through a business directory. Mentors are usually co-workers or former co-workers and usually involve a one-way investment in time and energy. A mentor could be someone in your company, including your boss.
  1.    Once you see the pattern, try to interrupt it with logic. Be patient, this can involve some level of internal strife. When my coach began to point out my negative thinking to me, I resisted.  I was vested in seeing the negative and I wanted to continue as I always had.  I was mired in it and it was comfortable. It took time to recognize that after 2.5 years on a stressful project engagement, I wasn’t on the verge of being fired.
  2.    It also helps sometimes to say, “there I go again” when you catch yourself predicting negativity. Laugh aloud and say, “whew, glad that isn’t really going to happen”.

 

Breaking a pattern like foreshadowing can be difficult; in particular, if you have done it as long as you can remember.  Remember that even though it is difficult, change is possible and will return a tremendous payoff.

In the next post, we are going to look at ways to deal with another emotional trigger, Dwelling and Obsessing.

Applied EQ #24: Stuck in a Rut; Dealing with Dwelling and Obsessing

In the last few posts, we have been talking about Emotional Breakdowns and the emotional triggers that lead to them.  This post is focused on dwelling and obsessing.

Dwelling and obsessing is when we become fixated on one particular thought, remark, event, injury, or outcome. Our minds obsess and that thought, remark, or injury becomes the focus of all our attention. We become stuck.  This dramatically impacts our performance and leaves us vulnerable to emotional breakdown.

Meter99_v2Have you ever found yourself dwelling or obsessing over something?  If you have, you know that you cannot perform well as a project manager.  It reminds me of the behavior of my computer when it is busy doing something else in the background when I am trying to use it.  Even the most simple task can be slow.  The computer is unresponsive and will sometimes crash.  That is probably how you appear to your stakeholders when you are dwelling and obsessing and they need something from you.

I have fallen prey to dwelling and obsessing on a minor scale.  My mind would get stuck on something and then just churn away.  It was not enough to prevent me from being effective, but it did keep me awake at night on several occasions.

I have also had people who worked for me become so obsessed and stuck on things that they are unable to perform at acceptable levels.  In one particular case, it began to affect their interpretation of events.  They begin to hear things that did not occur, to interpret everything as a personal slight, and to become overwhelmed.  No matter what was said, they seemed to hear “you are a failure”.  This was not actually the case and it caused them to become ineffective.

Let’s hope that you do not suffer from dwelling and obsessing on that same scale.  As a PM, we can easily become obsessed with the performance of ourselves and our team, as well as on the success of the project.  Here are some ideas for dealing with this behavior if you find yourself falling into that trap on your project:

  1. See it for what it is.  Be aware of the behavior.   Sometimes it is enough to acknowledge it in order to break the cycle.  If you have a tendency to do it, become alert to signs that you are getting sucked in.
  2. Take action to be clear or to get over it.  Whatever the hurt, it probably tracks back to some injury caused by someone else.  What do you need to do or say that would help you feel OK?  This might mean having a difficult conversation with someone about their behavior.  It is amazing how often something taking a simple but courageous step can relieve us from the obsession.
  3. Recharge.  Evaluate whether you are getting enough rest and downtime away from the project.  Invest in hobbies; in particular, those that involve other people.  Take regular vacations of more than just a day or two off.
  4. Break the link.  If there is a particular person who is the root of your obsessions, try to get as far away from that person as possible.  While not as effective as getting clear, it may help to eliminate the obsessive behavior.
  5. Don’t try to NOT to think about it.  Sometimes, if we are consciously trying not to think about something we find we cannot stop.  Instead, dedicate a specific time to dwell, obsess and worry about it.  Limit this time to something reasonable like 10 to 20 minutes at the end of the day.  You might find that having a specific time set aside for dwelling allows us to get our mind back on what is important.
  6. Relax.  Try relaxation techniques such as breathing, prayer or meditation.  This can often break the cycle.
  7. Tease yourself about how silly you are being.  If we take ourselves too seriously we often set up conditions that lead to obsession.  Sometimes you can acknowledge the behavior and poke a little light-hearted fun at yourself.
  8. Seek professional help.  If you are unable to break the cycle on your own, it might be helpful to enlist the help of a professional.  Your mental health and professional performance are worth whatever it cost to eliminate dwelling and obsessing from your life.

If your mind is not open and available to work on your project, you aren’t going to be much of a project manager or a leader.  Do what you need to do to remove obsessions; this will also protect you against emotional breakdowns.

In our next post, we are going to talk about Hot Words and Hot Buttons and how they can lead to emotional breakdowns.

Victor vs. Victim

Seth Godin reminds us of the importance of going for it 100% in his post about What is Going to be on Your Tombstone.  He tells the story of a woman whose bosses prevented her from doing what she wanted.  He asked the question if she wanted that on her tombstone.  Just thinking about having a tombstone that said “They wouldn’t let me!” is enough to make most of us squirm.

As a project manager, I am often struck by how often I hear other people rationalize about why they didn’t do what they thought was the right thing.  This includes not completing an activity, changing jobs, staying in a lousy marriage, working for bad bosses, not going for a better position or being a leader, and a host of other outcomes.  They talk about the reasons they couldn’t or the people who “prevented” them from doing what they should have done.  It all smacks of victim-hood.

I know a woman who, after divorcing her husband, continues to work in the same department with him and his new girlfriend.  As uncomfortable as that sounds, she claims she can’t find a better job out there and so is resolved to stay.

We can consciously work to pile up all the reasons we were not able to pursue our goals or the people who prevented us from getting what we want.  Or, we can go flat out for what we want.  The difference in the two approaches is the level of intention and our attraction (or repulsion) to being a victim.

Living life as a victim is not very satisfying.  It is also irresponsible and dishonest.  It is irresponsible because we are all given one life to live.  It is dishonest because it doesn’t address the real reasons for our inaction.  A more honest approach would be to admit we just didn’t want it badly enough or we were too damned scared to go for it 100%.

Are you going for your life 100%?  Or are you creating the list of reasons why you were not able to do just that?  Victor or Victim, the choice is up to us.

The Secret is Out – PM Network Cover Story on Emotional Intelligence

In the February 2006 edition of PM Network, there is a great article on emotional intelligence (see The Secret of Stellar Managers, page 24).  While not as focused as this blog on the application of emotional intelligence to project management, it supported the importance of EQ to project managers and leaders of all types.  The magazine even featured Dr. Richard Boyatzis on the cover. Boyatzis co-authored Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and is one of the co-founders of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence.

I was happy to see the article.  I felt validated to see Emotional Intelligence featured so prominently in a project management journal.

Are we having fun yet?

I caught myself doing it again.  I was applying the diamond technique to my work.  That is when I try to create something of value by subjecting myself to extreme heat and pressure.

I was writing a chapter for my upcoming book and found myself stressed out about a self-imposed deadline.  Apparently, I forgot that the reason I began working on the book was because I enjoy writing.  In fact, for years I had grand visions of plinking away at my keyboard, gracefully writing about interesting and helpful things.  The reality of my writing has been something else entirely.

The missing ingredient has been fun, playfulness and enjoyment.  JOY even.

This reminded me of the concept of Flow.  In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes experiences that are so engaging that we lose ourselves in them.  These activities seem to transport us to a new reality of creativity and discovery.

The interesting aspect of Flow activities is that they occur when we have a balance between our skill level and the challenge of the activity.  If we are over-skilled for the challenge, we get bored since the challenge is no match for us.  However, if the challenge overwhelms our skills, we experience anxiety.  A short description of this with a great visual can be found here.

I recognize that my primary emotion when writing (and perhaps all my work) has been fear and anxiety.  Further, I alone am the source of that fear and anxiety.  I do this by increasing the challenge level of my tasks.  I create artificial and unrealistic deadlines.  I also create unrealistic performance and quality standards for myself.  As a result, I suck all the joy and fun out of my work.

Are you sucking all the fun and enjoyment out of your work?  What emotion do you feel when you work?  Do you experience flow?  Are you having fun and joy?  Or are you creating artificial pressure on yourself and creating anxiety?

I challenge you to track your emotions during the course of your work for the next few days.  If necessary, use the self-awareness techniques we talked about in previous posts.   Are you having fun?  Are you experiencing joy and flow in your work?  If not, what are you going to do to change that?

Applied EQ #25: Hot Stuff including Hot Words and Hot Buttons

Over the last few weeks, we have been talking about emotional triggers that can lead to emotional breakdowns.  Emotional breakdowns are something we are trying to avoid by applying what we know about emotional self-control.  The focus of this post is on a trigger that can affect many of us:  Hot Words and Hot Buttons.

Hotbutton

What is a Hot Word or Hot Button?  This is a word or issue that triggers a specific and undesirable behavior in us.  This serves as an Achilles heel, leaving us open to threats.

Do you have a word or issue that triggers you?   I recently had a team member whose hot button was failure.  He was acutely attuned to feelings of failure and was on the lookout for that condition.  This stemmed from the fact that he perceived himself as a failure.  There was no data to support his feelings of failure about himself.  Those feelings came from an internal sense of inadequacy that no amount of striving would overcome.

Whether it was rational or true, the individual had this sense of failure about himself.  He also projected on me that I was saying he was a failure.  I did not feel this way about the individual and valued him as part of the team.  However, the words I used triggered him to feel like a failure.  When I told him that I did not believe “the team would succeed” using a particular process, he heard “you are a failure”.  My style of challenging people to perform at a higher level backfired; all he heard was criticism.  It would have been more effective to congratulate, acknowledge and give recognition.  This eventually led to an emotional breakdown for this very capable team lead.

Do you have hot buttons or hot issues?  Are there subjects that others would just rather not bring up with you?  If you recognize hot words or hot-button issues for yourself, what can you do about it?

  1. Give yourself a checkup.  Are there any specific issues that you tend to react to or cause you to blow up?  Do you think that others avoid bringing up issues to sidestep an argument with you?
  2. Check it out with someone you trust.  There is no substitute for including others in our analysis and getting honest and accurate insights.  More often than not when we suffer from issues we are trying to work it out on our own.  As noted before, this could be a spouse or significant other, trusted co-worker, or a coach or mentor.  Ask them if there are issues that they feel they cannot discuss with you.
  3. Determine the underlying issue and feelings (e.g. feeling like a failure, lack of self-confidence).  What is really going on for you?  If you are struggling with self-confidence or inadequacy, perhaps you need to focus on that issue rather than the actual hot button or hot word.
  4. Be gentle or humorous with yourself.  I have said this before but sometimes our best reaction to these things needs to be “whoops, there I go again”.  Putting pressure on ourselves to not react to a hot word or button may only make the problem worse.
  5. Get professional help.  If you find that you cannot get to the issue any other way, seek professional help.

The next post will address another emotional trigger, Criticism & Blame.