How to Manage Remote Project Teams - Tip #7

Introduction: In the current times of globalisation and international competition, project work at many international companies is often carried out by virtual project teams which are distributed across multiple locations, countries, and time zones. During the Covid-19 crisis the trend of remote project work was boosted even further, as companies in various industry sectors, such as in the IT industry, had to adapt and enable their project teams to work remotely in order to keep their businesses alive. The following series provides some concrete and practical advice based on experience gained from the daily project management work. 

Recommendation #7 - Involve the project team in planning (or Plan with the team, not for the team): One of the most important activities in project management is certainly planning, as it provides guidance on how to achieve business goals and enables management and controlling on the way to achieving these goals. Depending on the chosen project methodology, there can be different approaches to project planning, from a strictly predictive (waterfall/ traditional) approach to a fully adaptive (agile) approach, or some type of combination of both. Regardless of the precise approach that is chosen for planning, this article discusses the advantages of involving the project team in the planning process as opposed to the project manager trying to do the planning alone behind closed doors. Even though these advantages apply to both remote and co-located project teams, the benefits of involving the project team in planning are even greater in the case of remote (or virtual) project teams due to the special challenges of remote project management, presented in a previous article. The advantages of planning with the project team, instead of planning for the team, are listed below:

  • Use the expertise of the team to create realistic plans: Planning is one of the most complex tasks in project management and has an inherent uncertainty, as it is related to the future. Good planning needs a significant amount of analysis and it is still impossible to create a perfect plan that will never change, when dealing with a certain degree of complexity. The project manager is usually (and also by definition of his/her skills profile itself) a generalist and rarely a better business or technical expert than the various experts and specialists who are part of the project team. Therefore, it is crucial for the project manager to make best use of this available expertise by strongly involving the project team in the planning process. That will result in more realistic plans, based on the knowledge that the team members possess in their respective areas of expertise (e.g. subject matter experts from different business areas, enterprise architects, or lead developers). In case the project team is too big for everybody to be involved in the planning sessions (e.g. more than 10 people), a reasonable team setup with representatives from each key area or subgroup of the project should be put together.

  • Swarm intelligence and better estimations: Because of the complexity of planning and the cognitive limitations single individuals have, planning sessions in the group will create synergies where the combined final results will be bigger than the sum of the individual parts, i.e. of the individual expert contributions. This can be regarded as a swarm intelligence or wisdom of the group effect. A good example of this effect can be seen when estimating efforts for the various project tasks, which is part of planning. When estimating project tasks in the group, the different perspectives and skills of the planning session participants can be combined, thus resulting in a more complete and holistic view of things. Overall, this will lead to better and more reliable estimations. This planning approach is typically, but not exclusively, used in agile projects. A further perspective on estimating project tasks with the team is simply that people who will be doing the work should also be estimating it, instead of the project manager trying to guess and arbitrarily assign effort estimates to tasks and project team members.

  • Better understanding and clearer definition of project work: Common planning sessions will significantly contribute to a better understanding of the work ahead within the project team. During the planning sessions many questions will be raised and addressed in the group, thus helping everybody to improve their understanding of the work to be carried out. Reaching a common understanding can relate to different levels of work, from developing a common project vision and defining the project goals and objectives on a higher level, provided that this is done by the project team, to planning the individual project activities or tasks on a lower level. The team-based planning will thus result in a clearer definition of project tasks, activities, deliverables, products, services, results, or whatever items the planning is referring to.

  • Clearer expectations and stronger commitment: As explained in the previous point, an advantage of involving the project team in planning will be a better understanding and a clearer definition of the project work, such as tasks to be performed by individual team members. Clearly defined project tasks, in turn, will make it easier for the project manager to set clear expectations, ideally in collaboration with the responsible team members and within the natural flow of a planning session, which will also increase the commitment from the project team members who have to carry out the tasks. Overall, the project manager should see the team planning sessions as an opportunity to make decisions and task assignments more binding and to strengthen commitment. Responsibilities can be clearly defined with the whole team present, while multiple additional meetings in smaller groups, potentially even leading to contradictory results, can be avoided. A good example of this is the direct agreement on certain project dates or deadlines when developing a project schedule, e.g. start or completion dates for specific project activities.

  • Identification of dependencies, risks, and issues: Related with the swarm intelligence effect discussed above, but more specific with respect to the outcome, is the benefit that involving the project team in planning will result in a better identification of project dependencies, risks, and issues. The collaboration of the project team during a planning session will make it easier to discover and consider internal or external project dependencies such as dependencies to other projects, or interfaces that have to be developed or used. Often, the identification of dependencies is a direct result of analysing what inputs are needed to perform a specific project task or who is using the outputs of a project task, which is typically discussed between the people involved in a planning session. The identification of risks (opportunities or threats) and issues works in a similar way to the identification of dependencies. Risks and issues are usually easier detected when using the wisdom and the dynamics of the planning group and can be earmarked for further analysis and handling afterwards. Even if individual risks or issues are not specifically raised by the group during a planning session, the project manager may still be able to see or anticipate potential risks and issues and keep a close eye on them.

  • Planning of quality: The team involvement in the planning process will make it easier to identify quality requirements, if not explicitly or fully provided by the project stakeholders, and to define quality measures and quality criteria for the work to be performed. When defining the project scope or refining related tasks and activities, the team can think of suitable quality measures and criteria for the individual deliverables or tasks, such as effective test methods for certain deliverables, meaningful acceptance criteria that have to be met for certain tasks to be considered complete, and so forth. It can also be elaborated, who should be approving or signing off certain project deliverables, with all the results being incorporated into the project plan for further action. The project manager should see the team involvement as an opportunity to jointly define accepted quality measures and criteria which will also make the defined criteria more binding and increase the commitment in the team to fulfil them.

  • Benefits related with the project team and interpersonal factors: There is a number of benefits resulting from the team involvement in the planning process which are related with the project team and with the interpersonal factors (or soft factors) connected with the team members. These benefits play an even more important role in case of remote or virtual teams, where the team members face greater challenges with regard to team building, identification with the team, building trust, isolation, and so forth. The common planning sessions with the project team will have a positive effect on team-building, as more personal interaction within the team is created and the team spirit can be strengthened. The involvement of the team members in the planning process will likely make them feel part of the project and the plan being developed. In other words, their identification with the project vision, the goals, the activities, and with the team itself will increase. This, in turn, is a motivating factor and will likely also increase the buy-in of team members. After all, it is only logical that people feel more valued and respected if they are involved in matters that concern their own work, instead of being told to complete some piece of work by a specific date and without themselves having a say. All the advantages mentioned above will contribute towards building trust between the project manager and the rest of the team as well as between the other team members, which effectively also means that the influence and the position of the project manager will be strengthened. Finally, the combination of the above benefits should also lead to a more open and honest communication within the team for the further course of the project.

Despite the many aforementioned advantages of planning with the project team, instead of planning for the team, there are some caveats that also have to be mentioned in this final paragraph. Involving the team in planning does not mean that the project manager should try to satisfy everybody’s individual interests, thereby running the risk of creating an inefficient or unworkable overall plan. The project manager remains ultimately responsible for the overall plan and for keeping an eye on the whole picture in order to finally achieve the project goals. He or she has to integrate all components of the plan and to make sure that the final plan is feasible. Apart from that, the project manager should be wary of being exploited or fooled because of his/her collaborative behaviour in the planning process, for instance by being given deliberately inflated effort estimations by some team members who may want to gain a personal advantage. Unfortunately, such counterproductive behaviours can never be excluded, but at least the project manager should know how to recognize them most of the time, based on experience, gut feeling, and a sound knowledge of human nature.

Author: Paraschos Pentas, Date: 11 October 2021