Managing Your Technical Team

Last week on our company blog, Zane Scott provided advice on how to be a better systems engineering leader. He outlined six traits that make good leaders. His article is great for reflection on our leadership personality and reminds us of things we need to incorporate in our interactions and reactions with people in our lives (both at the work place and in our personal life). By way of adding to Zane’s thoughts, I think there are some additional things we need to consider in our day-to-day management of projects.

I have been reading the book Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering, edited by Eric Rebentisch, which is the result of a joint project sponsored by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE). As I read the book, I am reminded of the challenges I have had in prior projects. You know, the “been there, done that, got that tee-shirt” kind of experience. We all have them. As senior systems engineers, we have an obligation to help manage projects. In fact, the INCOSE handbook lists eight specific technical management processes that we, as systems engineers, have an obligation to support. Can you name the eight areas?

Well, this article is not meant to regurgitate them for you. You can look them up in the handbook. Rather, I would like to focus on a basic management skill you can use to help manage projects.

Ask yourself, “How do most things get done on a project?” I would argue that without collaboration among team members, nothing will get done on a project. (Or at least, nothing will get done very well). And, how do most projects force collaboration on the team? Through meetings. On some projects I have participated in, it seemed like all we did was meeting after meeting. So much so that I thought the reason we had so many meetings was because none of them were very effective, and to compensate, we added more meetings.

I think there are two critical characteristics that make any meeting meaningful and add value. First, a definitive purpose—the principle for holding a particular meeting. And, second, the efficiency and effectiveness of the meeting.

If you are a manager or leader in your organization, I think you need to look at the meetings that your teams hold and determine which meetings are worthwhile and which are not. In quality terms, we think about value. Which meetings provide value and help to advance the project?

I think you owe an obligation to your team, at least annually, to question why you are holding a particular meeting on a routine basis. Ask yourself the following questions about each meeting:

  • What is the purpose for the meeting? Has this purpose been formally documented?
  • Is there a leader defined for holding the meetings on a scheduled basis?
  • Is there a defined product or goal for the meeting?
  • How does the product or goal for the meeting support the overall project plan?
  • When was the last time the meeting performance was audited?
  • Do the team members feel the meeting adds value to the project?

I also think you need to look at how any meeting is being conducted. Just because you get satisfactory answers to all of the above questions does not mean that your team is as effective as it can be. Each meeting needs to be efficiently conducted.

There are several qualities that go into an effective meeting. A meeting should have:

  • a pre-published agenda
  • a list of things that are accomplished in the meeting
  • a list of things which were planned but not accomplished with action items assigned
  • a summary and projection for the next meeting

There is a great quality tool that can help us stay organized for meetings – the “kanban” board. Kanban is a Japanese word that refers to the pulling of a product through a process. Think of the overall project accomplishment as your process. What things need to get done to accomplish the process? A very basic and simple kanban board can have three categories: Not Started, In Progress, and Complete, as shown below:

The reason the three categories are listed is so that at a glance, you can see what has been accomplished, what you need to work on, and the next things to accomplish. The board helps you stay focused on the “In Progress” items and gives you a sense of accomplishment. Any meeting should cover the “In Progress” items and plan for accomplishment of the “Not Started” items; in this way, it helps keep the meeting time focused.

You can derive the items from the kanban board from the project work breakdown structure (WBS). As a manager, pick items from the WBS that are next in the schedule and add them to the “Not Started” column. As you make progress through the project, the “Complete” column will continue to grow. And, you can use this to help motivate your team and keep them on target to complete the project.

The kanban way will help make things kantan—Japanese for “easy.” And the combination of good meeting management skills with good leadership traits will make you that much stronger of a systems engineer.

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