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Book review: Trust in Virtual Teams

trust in virtual teams2

Trust matters because it helps build a resilient project team. It helps get things done. Trusted team members not only do only what is asked, but what the project needs them to do, because they know that the project manager will trust their decisions and actions.  Trust is a shortcut to better working relationships and better project outcomes.

That’s the premise behind Thomas P. Wise’s book, Trust in Virtual Teams. It’s a (pretty academic) guide to explaining trust and building trust in virtual teams. But first, you have to understand what a virtual team is.

A new definition of virtuality

Wise says that virtual teams are traditionally defined by distance. However, he suggests that a definition based on geography is an old-fashioned way of explaining virtuality in a team environment.

You probably have worked in an office where project team members sit practically next to each other emailing each other, and that use of electronic communication means they could be based thousands of miles apart – their working environment and style makes them part of a virtual team, regardless of where they actually sit. For me, this was the big revelation from the book. Up until now I had always thought of virtual teams as being spread across multiple locations, but the modern way if working really means that most of us are part of virtual teams, even if we are office-based.

Building trust

Trust in Virtual TeamsIn the past trust was built through sharing small confidences and water cooler chat. It comes from knowing that your colleague will make your cup of tea just how you like it. But on virtual teams you don’t have the interaction that you have in colocated teams. So how do you build trust when you never get to meet or talk to your colleagues and there are days of silence between email exchanges?

“Team members learn to trust one another as they come together to work,” says Wise. He talks about them having a connectedness through a common vision that helps them work effectively.

However, in virtual teams you may find that trust is initially based on stereotypes. Wise warns that not conforming to stereotypes can actually undermine the development of trust. I’m not sure if I agree with this as a long term strategy for getting your team to trust you, but it would be interesting to investigate this further.

Other things that you can do more easily to build trust, he says, include acting predictably and working from facts. In other words, if you say your project report will come out every Friday at 3pm, make sure it does. And make sure that it reports facts, not opinion.

Dealing with problems

“A problem can occur, however, when we establish a set of rules on how work gets done, and then have a tendency to bend and stretch, and adjust the rules based on unpublished pecking orders and hierarchies,” Wise writes. This is what happens when you don’t act predictably and from the basis of facts. An example of this happening in a project environment would be when it’s ok not to do documentation because it helps hit the overall project deadlines.

Virtual teams are traditionally defined by distance, but today they are defined by working environment and style.

In order to get round this, Wise says: “We must align our goals, our rules, and our actions in order to establish an environment that can build and nourish institutional based trust.”

He recommends doing this through Quality Assurance on projects (which is discussed in detail) and transparent project reporting. He also says that it is possible to improve success in virtual teams by using techniques like human resource policy, social events, information sharing through social media tools, training and leadership support.

Team members tend to avoid difficult situations in the early days of working on a new team, so you might think everything is working fine until you get a bit further into the project. The difficult situations are pushed aside and dealt with later, when trust has been built up. “Establishing both a trust relationship and an effective virtual work environment, based on that trust, is critical to reducing project risk.”

The book includes stories from his own experience but no external case studies. I thought it jumped around a bit, which made following the flow difficult. I also thought it ended abruptly, as if he had forgotten to write the conclusion.

If poor trust really does increase project risk, and I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t, then it will help you to review the levels of trust in your project team to see where things could be improved. It doesn’t take a book to do that, but if you want to go deeper into the theories of trust and how these can be applied in the workplace, then this book will help.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book Review: From Projects to Programs

From Projects to ProgramsFrom Projects to Programs by Samir Penkar is a business book in story form. I’m not a big fan of business novels, although I did enjoy Critical Chain.

One of the problems I find is that the stories just aren’t that gripping, and that is the case here. Reading about someone else’s day job on an IT programme is pretty dull. It isn’t a true novel format, either. Each chapter ends with ‘reflection questions’ for you to consider and see how the concepts apply to your own work. It also pulls you out of the story by referring to figures.

In pure ‘story’ terms I didn’t think it was as well-written as Critical Chain. The reported speech doesn’t tend to use contractions, so unless the characters are all very particular in their choice of words it doesn’t read naturally.

There is also an awkward mix of past and present tense, sometimes in the same paragraph and even in the same sentence! For example: “Sure,” said Bill and heads down to his desk.” Many of the paragraphs are long and I found there was a lot of exposition.

Penkar adds in a side-story about the main character’s running group. He uses the running metaphor to explain ideas outside of the work setting, which is a good addition to the story. However, they only seem to talk about work!

Outside the story

The story is only half the book. The rest of it is made up of a glossary, two transcripts of interviews with programme managers, an agile primer, a long chapter on benefits management reprinted from another book and another chapter reprint on PMOs.

I can’t criticise the content. Penkar knows his stuff and this is about programme management. You could argue that he has made the topic accessible and not scary for new programme managers. He includes useful, constructive advice and clearly defines the role of the programme manager. The book is strong on integration management, the use of meetings, team dynamics and communication. There is good advice in here and if learning through stories is your thing, then you’ll no doubt get something from it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.


Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com

1 comment

Book review: Supercommunicator

Summer of books 2014“Too often, potentially great projects are dismissed by management, investors, and regulators simply because those decision makers can’t understand their value”, writes Frank J. Pietrucha in his book, Supercommunicator. “Opportunities can be missed and bad things can happen when content originators don’t explain their subjects in easy-to-understand language.”
If you have recently put together a business case or project initiation documentation, then you’ll know how important it is to set out the benefits of what you are doing. Getting the information across to those who need to know in a way they can understand it is the main challenge of project communications.

Pietrucha writes: “The digital age is about information. Finding new ways to obtain, analyse, and share data is essential. Providing information to audiences clearly is the essence if what we do as communicators, but shouldn’t we aim higher? Our mandate should be to strive not just to deliver information but also to bring meaning to our audiences through thoughtful explanation.”

Data alone isn’t enough

supercommunicatorProject reports often focus on numbers, statistics and the graphical representation of results. Pietrucha says that we often worry so much about data that we forget to explain why those facts and figures are important. Setting data in context and making it accessible is important if you want people to get the message.

He talks about different types of multimedia and digital communication tools like infographics and video as options for displaying data in meaningful ways. He doesn’t recommend a particular approach, instead saying that you should choose what works for your audience. Of course, you need to know how to work with data before you can present it to others.

Communication guidelines

Part 5 of the book focuses on guidelines for effective communication. One of those is to be culturally aware. For example, there’s no point in me telling you that the title of this book makes me think of the Supercomputer running segment in Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Unless you happen to watch the show, which pretty much limits it to UK audiences, it won’t mean anything to you. So, Pietrucha says, don’t use references that your audience won’t understand or you risk alienating them.

The other guideline I found good was about keeping it simple. However, as Pietrucha says, there is such a thing as too simple. “Don’t oversimplify when your audience needs substantial content,” he says. Don’t assume they can’t learn.

In summary, his guidelines are:

  • Simplicity
  • Clarity
  • Relevance to audience
  • Build: start with one idea then add others to allow the audience time to take on new concepts
  • Make it real: use analogies, stories, testimonials and case studies. The book uses a lot of these to illustrate various points (including this one). In fact, this is covered in a lot of detail. He suggests you test your analogies on friends first to make sure you are not introducing ideas that have too many interpretations as this leads to misunderstandings.

“If you can see data, instead of just hear or read about it, naturally you’re going to understand a topic faster and more effectively.”

Getting the message across

“People pay attention when they comprehend there’s something in it for them,” Pietrucha writes. “Do your job and help them get to the ‘aha’ point of realisation.” There’s a lot in the book about communicating effectively including the advice that you should lead with the conclusion.

Pietrucha writes about making difficult subjects accessible by presenting them in a practical, visual way including using:

  • Illustrations
  • Zooms
  • Diagrams
  • Simulations and games
  • Physical models

“If you can see data, instead of just hear or read about it, naturally you’re going to understand a topic faster and more effectively,” he says.

He takes it further than your typical presentation advice. People don’t only learn visually and through hearing information but through experiencing it, he says. As a result, participatory learning is gaining traction. How could you do this on your project? Think about where you could introduce ways of involving users in training and learning.

I thought that the book ended abruptly. I also thought it could be shorter as it does seem to cover the same points several times in different chapters. But overall it has some good advice that can be applied to project communications.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book Review: What Happens in Vegas Stays On YouTube


“The explosion of mobile and social technologies means that we have to live as if our mother, boss, coach and enemies are watching us…because they are,” writes Erik Qualman in his book, What Happens in Vegas Stays On YouTube.

Summer of books 2014The book is basically 36 rules for better social interaction and for making the right choices about your digital legacy. It’s a two-pronged approach: first, don’t post anything stupid on social media sites. Second, the book recommends that we all live better lives, as if our mothers are watching (Rule 2). The point of that is that if don’t do anything cringe-worthy, nobody can post embarrassing photos of you. Qualman argues that if you don’t post images of what you did at that drunken party, someone else will. (Or you could just get yourself a better class of trusted friend.) So don’t do anything stupid, online or offline.

Most of the short sections include one or more ‘learning moments’. These are little stories of how social media has caught out people and companies, causing problems. For example, after the Toronto riots police used social sites to share photos of rioters to help catch them. Although it isn’t mentioned in the book, after the London riots police did the same here to identify looters. Then there’s a short takeaway lesson.

Lessons in common sense

Some of the lessons are obvious, like think before you tweet and don’t criticise others online. “If you have to think for more than 3 seconds about whether something is appropriate – it’s not,” Qualman writes. “Our tone in digital messages is misinterpreted 50% of the time.”
What happens in Vegas
Some of the lessons are more thought-provoking, for example, it’s not a question of whether we will make a reputation-damaging mistake but how we handle it. “Often it’s not the crime, but the cover up that gets us in to trouble,” he says.

Other advice he offers includes don’t multi-task as you are more likely to post something you’ll regret when you are distracted. The book includes several examples of people who posted stuff on their corporate Twitter account when they meant to do so on their personal accounts. Unsurprisingly, their companies weren’t that impressed when their personal opinions were presented as company views.

This also goes for comments that are published under personal accounts, but where the individual concerned is so linked to a company, team or other group that they can’t get away with expressing that as an opinion without it reflecting on their colleagues. “Know your professional position and understand that while your friends may post something on a particular topic, you may not have this same luxury based on your job, position, team or company,” he advises.

Be Flawsome

“Admit and own your flaws either as an organization or as an individual and the world will think you are awesome,” Qualman writes. “Flawsome is described as owning your mistakes and taking the necessary steps to correct them.” This, he says, it mainly around being authentic, but he also shows through the stories that you can gain customer loyalty by putting things right.

Section 2 of the book is focused on lessons learned and is basically more stories. It includes one about Chrysler which also appears earlier in the book, so that might be an error. The book is so short that you wouldn’t need to dip and out of it, although as it is not organised to present a structured narrative, you could do that if you wanted.

Section 3 is a list of resources and tips, like digital reputation management tools (Klout, Google Alerts etc), tips for protecting yourself against identity theft and tips for looking good on video (not sure how this ties in with the rest of the book). Finally, the book ends with lots of people’s Twitter ‘digital stamp’ (i.e. motto for what they see themselves as doing online and how they want to be remembered). I found this whole section a bit pointless, especially the pages of mottos from people I don’t know.

Do you need this book?

You don’t have to read a book to find out the stupid things people do online. A quick Google search for people who have lost their jobs because of what they shared on social sites is very enlightening. Then there are sites that catalogue the stupid things people share, like Failbook. The book is mainly a collection of social media stories, so if you are worried about your children or junior colleagues and the way they use social sites without regard for potential consequences, it could be something to buy for them. If you feel that you have no knowledge of what could go wrong from having your own Twitter account and have never considered how your use of social networks could affect your career prospects, then by all means read it. But my view is that if you have a mature, professional approach to what you post online, then the stories will make you realise there are plenty of people in the world who don’t think before they act, and that’s about it.

I think it’s a shame, as Qualman’s other books sound excellent and would be well worth a read. This one doesn’t have much substance and although it is a quick read, it didn’t give me any new insights to managing my digital reputation.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book review: How To Be A Productivity Ninja

Summer of books 2014“Time management is dead,” writes Graham Allcott in his book, How To Be A Productivity Ninja. The old time management concepts don’t work anymore, he says, because we don’t have the same working environment. The number of information sources has gone up, and we’re expected to juggle more and manage more complex jobs while our jobs are less defined. “All of this means you have to come to terms with one important thing: you will never get everything finished.”

How To Be A Productivity Ninja is apparently the answer to your time management problems. It is a wide-ranging book looking at loads of different ways to squeeze more out of the day without having to work longer hours. One of the techniques he majors on is attention management.

Managing your attention

Ninja book coverAllcott talks about using attention management instead of time management. In other words, focusing your attention on the right things, because your attention span is far more limited than the time available in a day. You can’t focus at a high level all day as your attention wanders. My own personal productivity killer at the moment is the mumsnet ‘Am I being Unreasonable?’ forum. Attention management, says Allcott, is the key to productivity, which means not spending hours looking up what other people’s children do at nursery and how many people are complaining about their in-laws. So what do you do in periods of low attention when you don’t have the mental focus to tackle the important stuff if you don’t surf the internet?

He suggests:

  • Filing
  • Ordering stationery and other stuff online
  • Printing stuff
  • Deleting emails
  • Throwing away paperwork that’s no longer required
  • Attending meetings that you can’t get out of but know you can add no value to
  • Making coffee!

Some productivity tips

“What’s the one activity that, if you did it consistently for an hour a day every day this year, makes a person in your job successful?” Graham Allcott

One of the things I enjoyed about this book was the tips. It seems as if every page has something useful on it. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Trust your systems. You need to have confidence that your processes will work and not let you down.

Be organised so that when you are in a good frame of mind and in the flow, you aren’t slowed down by not finding the critical information you need to keep going.

Lower your expectations. You can’t get it all done so don’t try.  Trust that you are making the right decisions about what to work on.

However, I didn’t agree with all his advice. “One of the worst things you can do is always make yourself available,” Allcott writes. This lets distractions and interruptions in, so he advises you stay out of the way until you have something to share or some kind of collaboration to do. Shut yourself in the office or find a quiet space away from the rest of your team. I can see this would work from time to time when you have something critical to focus on, but personally I wouldn’t want to make it a regular thing.

He also has lots to say about ‘Inbox Zero’, which is how to filter your incoming mail into folders for reading, action and monitoring. Allcott says that your inbox is not your to do list. But mine is and it works for me. I only have 22 things in there at moment and I can see at a glance what need to be done.

The second brain

Allcott is big on having systems and putting them in place before you need them. He gives the example of the Victorians building sewers and the tube network to have 10 times the capacity required at time. And thank goodness they did, or we’d have some major civil engineering to do right now.

The idea of the second brain is to get stuff out of your head to encourage clear thinking and also to ensure that nothing is forgotten. It’s a system that revolves around lists, checklists and basically having a notebook or app available to store your ideas. Essentially, it’s for when your own brain fails you: you have systems in place to help.

One second brain tool is the ‘waiting for’ list. It’s not a to do list but a list of things that others are doing, for example, getting back to you about the project requirements document by Tuesday. This stops you having to hold the information in your head and means you can chase up project team members as appropriate. “A Ninja achieves Zen-like calm and is relaxed and confident about what they can’t do right now because their second brain is up to date and reassures them that what they are not doing is under control,” he says.

The Power Hour

“What’s the one activity that, if you did it consistently for an hour a day every day this year, makes a person in your job successful?” Allcott writes. Whatever that activity is, do it, and this becomes your Power Hour. It’s quite a good idea, although I’d be hard pressed to think of one thing a project manager does – communication, probably.

Little Ninja illustrations in the book are made from office supplies

Little Ninja illustrations in the book are made from office supplies

“You feel more present in your work, more engaged, calmer and more at ease with the world around you,” he writes. “That world might feel like it’s burning with urgency, noise, panic and stress but you’re locked in a kind of cocoon. You’re quietly doing what a Ninja does best: you’re shipping and clarifying, completing and organising, one thing at a time.”

Allcott spends some time writing about which apps you can use to help store your checklists and notes. I think this might date the book, whereas the rest of the advice has a pretty long shelf life. Overall, if you are struggling to get everything done, then this is a good read, illustrated with cute Ninja characters made from office supplies and with exercises at the end of each chapter so you can put into practice what you have learned. If nothing else, it will reassure you that no one else is managing to get everything done and that picking and choosing your key priorities is the only way to stay sane on your busy project.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com

1 comment

Book Review: Healthcare Project Management

Summer of books 2014At first glance, Healthcare Project Management by Kathy Schwalbe and Dan Furlong is an ugly book. The cover isn’t up to much. However, open it up and you’ll quickly see how comprehensive this book is. It includes quick quizzes, learning objectives, team projects to carry out (for students), case studies, discussion question, links to videos and additional resources for trainers. And if that wasn’t enough, it has an accompanying website, healthcarepm.com, with more stuff.

Healthcare is a very specific niche when it comes to project management, so a dedicated book for this industry is a great idea. As the authors write:

“The healthcare industry has initiated and completed projects for a long time, but not necessarily using formal project management techniques. New technologies, health reform, evidence-based medicine, health networks, patient-centered care, medical homes, and improved patient experience are some of the many forces that are radically changing the healthcare environment, and where there is change, there are projects!”

Healthcare projects do have specific challenges such as:

  • The legislative landscape
  • The shift to evidence-based medicine
  • Collaboration across entities and practitioners
  • Fluctuating budget conditions i.e. you never know when you’re going to need to kick off a new project based on new regulation or improvements in care
  • A mobile population which increases the need for technology and electronic medical records
  • A cost-controlled environment
  • Difficulty applying metrics to human health.

Cover imageAll of these equal the need for lots of projects. And, as the authors put it, “The successful execution of some healthcare projects can mean the difference between life and death.” So no pressure then!

The book is US-focused but this sentiment is certainly relevant to the UK healthcare industry too, and probably many other countries. However, some of the contextual healthcare information wouldn’t be relevant to project managers based outside the US.

Skills for healthcare project managers

The book says that project managers and their team must have the appropriate knowledge and skills in these areas:

  • All 10 knowledge areas from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide®) – Fifth Edition
  • The application area e.g. domain, market, industry segment etc
  • The project environment e.g. organisational politics and culture
  • General management e.g. strategic planning, expense management
  • Human resource management e.g. leadership, motivation, negotiation skills etc.

That’s a lot, but having worked in healthcare myself for a fair few years I do agree. I have found in particular that project managers need to know when to defer to clinical colleagues and how to manage the relationships between clinicians and non-clinical staff and Schwalbe and Furlong cover this too: “Skilled project managers working in the healthcare domain know when to hand off control, enlist a champion that a particular group may favour, and negotiate differences among various factions to direct the project towards success.”

A practical guide

“Skilled project managers working in the healthcare domain know when to hand off control”

This book is similar to Project Management for Musicians in that it is a complete manual with domain-specific cases and examples. There is one case study that runs through the book so you can follow the story. There is also lots of relevant detail for certain techniques such as work breakdown structures and plenty of information on financial calculations like NPV and ROI in the context of project selection.

There’s also plenty of general information that will help your project be successful such as stuff on managing teams. One section includes various theories of HR management including Thamhain and Wilemon’s nine influence bases which I had not come across before.

The book is very much, in my opinion, aimed at students (of all ages) as the additional resources point to the book being used in a learning environment. It’s compatible with the PMBOK Guide 5th Edition but also references some software tools and has a substantial appendix on how to use Microsoft Project 2013: these features could date the book quickly as it will be out of date as soon as new versions are issued. However, much of the information in the book will not date and, of course, it is all relevant right now.

I liked the fact it includes cartoons from xkcd.com and I enjoyed the ‘what went wrong/what went right’ case study boxes. There are examples of everything including a business case and it goes through the whole project lifecycle. It is a comprehensive book, so if you are looking to move into project management in the healthcare sector it will certainly speed up your learning curve.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Day of Gratitude 2014

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK but somehow we’ve managed to adopt the Black Friday sales madness and the shops were full of deals and people. Still, I can’t quite bring myself to post this on Thanksgiving, even though this show of appreciation has become a bit of an annual thing on A Girl’s… Continue Reading->

Get Your Projects Fit with The Lazy Project Manager

I am not fit. Since having my two boys I am heavier than I have ever been, except while pregnant. My only exercise is balancing in small spaces while standing on the train to work. I fuel getting up for the night feeds with cereal bars and chocolate croissants. Luckily, my projects are healthier than… Continue Reading->

Managing change on projects: James T. Brown at Synergy 2014

“We have to get them to want what we have to deliver,” said Dr. James T. Brown at the PMI UK Chapter event Synergy earlier this month. “We have to go through this process to prove you are a good person and to make them anticipate the deliverable.” He was talking about wooing. It’s what… Continue Reading->

Project Managing the Freezer [The Parent Project Month 21]

The house is in crisis. The middle pages of Percy And The Kite have fallen out. Without the mid-section, you have no way of knowing how Percy fares in the kite contest although he does look (spoiler alert) very pleased on the final page. The final page is sticky-taped to the back cover. That one… Continue Reading->

Synergy 2014: Conference Highlights

“When what you do is not unique, the way that you do it makes the difference.” That’s how Ricardo Triana, Chair of the 2014 PMI Board of Directors opened Synergy last Thursday. Synergy, organised by PMI’s UK Chapter, was attended by around 600 project managers from around Europe. “Project management,” Ricardo went on to say… Continue Reading->

Why Project Management Is Like Surviving The Hunger Games

**Spoiler alerts** Don’t read this if you haven’t read the first book of The Hunger Games series. It’s the UK general release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 this week. Selecting the team for the District, planning for the Games, sharing a clear objective. Sounds like project management, doesn’t it? Here’s why project management… Continue Reading->