Getting to grips with virtual project management


If you're a project manager with a team scattered all over the place, you already know that your task is made even harder than it already was (like you needed that). Yes, you can track your milestones and deliverables, but how do you know what's going on between those major markers? Even if you're not a formal "project manager", don't you need to know who your people communicate with to get things done and how's that going?

According to Daniel Epstein and Rich Maltzman, co-authors of new book PM Workflow, what goes on between the formal markers and milestones is what can make or break your project (not to mention what's left of your sanity). You need to know not only who is involved in making something happen that will move your project along, but what has to happen along the way to ensure that work is mapped (so you know who and when) and measured (so you know how well it's been done).

They took the time to answer some questions we non-PM types might have for this blog.

What's the difference between "project management" and "managing the workflow"?

Project management is the broader aspect of overseeing project delivery in an overarching way. Think of PM Workflow as the methodology of the project (how things get done) and managing the workflow as working that methodology.

Managing workflow means following and implementing a sequence of detailed processes, which, by definition, are step-by-step descriptions of the physical operations in order to achieve specific goals. Managing project workflow is really the project manager following a sequence of processes in a workflow, while executing the constant qualitative assessments of outcomes and acknowledging suggested steps for resolution.

PM Workflow enforces compliance with all project management processes and safeguards the project manager from most errors, thus increasing project quality and reducing project costs. Today project quality corresponds with project manager's experience. Using PM Workflow eliminates this dependency because you can map it all out explicitly rather than in your head.

When working remotely, what challenges face the PM?

The obvious challenges at the high level are simple physics. Things like time zones, needed travel, language and dialect difference. But it starts to get much more difficult as you look at the next layer – the human layer. Challenges like differences in cultural norms (i.e. power distance, individualism, etc., well-highlighted by Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede), trust, lack of important visual/tonal cues in communications… the list goes on and on.

Managing the PM Workflow increases the level of control over the project, reducing some of those challenges. For example, when implementing the scope change request, a PM will be immediately made aware when the scope change request is submitted, then when it's approved for investigation, then when the budget is approved etc.

This is true of every project management process. You know what the various stages are, and you're not sitting in the dark wondering what's happening or where the work is hung up.

PM Workflow, combined with good technical tools to share the wisdom it generates, will make a huge difference in overcoming those challenges because you've got transparency to the whole process.

So what are some of those technical tools?

In order to really manage the PM Workflow, you need to be able to access information and share it both synchronously and asynchronously.

Synchronous tools allow you to access information and communicate in real time, and in as rich a way as possible. These tools include the obvious (phone, email) but also rich tools that allow you to share complicated information visually (web conferencing platform, video, webcams). You also need to share the project plan with your team, so if you're using a tool like Basecamp or Microsoft Project, those should be easily accessible.

Asynchronous tools are also important, and much less well used. Does your team have a Sharepoint site (and are they using it properly)? A good database? A way to ask questions and ask for help?

Regardless of the technology you have, it's WHAT you're communicating that matters most. Some of the key information you need to know are:

  1. Multiple checklists to ensure that ALL processes are followed, such as requirement gathering and analysis, risk management, estimating, quality management and everything else, along with the detailed methods for process implementation.
  2. Project status report templates and outline of status meetings, possible remote, on all levels.
  3. Tools and a way to perform risk assessment and to produce a basic risk plan.
  4. Tools to control multithreaded process execution and tracking, which provides project visibility on a more detailed level that the existing project scheduling and tracking tools, such as MS Project and others.

The full list is pretty long, detailed and geeky, but it's worth checking out if projects are an important part of your job. Currently, standard PM tools don't support this methodology, but it's such a good idea I'm sure someone's working on it somewhere.

So it's not just enough to have a project plan. A good virtual project leader needs to understand how work will truly be done, what the barriers and resources might be and how to work within that system to ensure smooth communication and good outcomes. Then you have to help everyone on your team share and access that information.

There's a detailed outline of what PM Workflow looks like on the PM-Workflow site.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.