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A project manager is a very particular role and someone who has specialized in knowing how to pull off a major project.
But 99% of projects in the business world are pulled off by non-project managers.
And when most projects are managed in a digital world, we all need to learn how to be better and more adaptive digital project managers.
Core skills for digital project management
Jana Axline says the core skill of any project manager is being able to create structure out of the basics of what will happen. But it goes much deeper than that.
Project managers need to be very skilled at leading other humans. They must have a strong EQ and know when it’s time to shift the strategy because of the personnel on the team.
Digital project managers must be able to react quickly and adapt to their new surroundings, which can change from day to day.
Collaborating on a digital project team
Jana is not a fan of hybrid calls. She said, “I’d rather have everybody in the room or everybody on the phone call.”
The deeper the project gets, the more rapid communication is essential, and the less the team relies on asynchronous. For example, Jana said that when they get to a critical point in the project, sometimes they have a WebEx meeting room on all day so that people can have instant access to each other.
When it comes to digital meetings, Jana says to remember that audio is just as important as video. Don’t equip a conference room with great video, and then make it hard for everyone to hear each other.
Jana says that if a team is going to be distributed for a project, the most important time to actually be in person together is the kickoff meeting. It’s important to establish some norms and be able to attribute behaviors to people in person. You can pick up on if someone is naturally soft-spoken, or more assertive, and are less likely to assign negative intent to their digital communication.
Upgrading your digital tools for project management
Jana says most people are using just basic tools for managing projects. Sometimes it’s as simple as quick collaboration platforms like Slack or Teams. However, it’s usually best to move to something with a little more structure like Monday.com, Asana, or Kissflow. However, if you have a very intense project, you may need to bring in someone who can use something more robust like Microsoft Project.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Jana Axline. She is the Chief Project Officer of Project Genetics. Jana, how are you today?
Great. Thanks for having me.
I’m very excited to have you on. We’re going to have a great conversation about projects, project managements in the digital space. But like always, we need to prove that you’re a real life human. Jana, your question today to prove your humanity is if you could get tickets to any event in the world, what would it be?
I’d have to say I want a time machine to go with it. Because I’d like to go see, oh, now I’m drawing a blank of what was called but the Live Aid show because I was alive then, but I wasn’t old enough to understand what it was all about. So I missed it. So I would love to go back and see that. And it would be a hard choice between the US and the shows that were in England. But either one would work.
Yeah, that’s a great point to know that, just looking back in history, there’s some moments that just would have been great to just be there and see what’s going on.
Great, that works for me. That’s a real human answer. So tell us about yourself. Tell us about Project Genetics. What can we learn from you?
I like to introduce myself sometimes as I am project management. So in my MBA, I discovered project management and realized there was this whole career field that just fit my personality. And so because of that, I went on this plunge into project management, was volunteering, got my first project management job at Cigna Healthcare. And then after that, I realized that I still wanted to make a difference and make a big difference. And so with that, I decided to launch Project Genetics, which is a project management consulting company, because so many companies make projects far more difficult than they need to be. So we want to go and help people realize their project ROI, get the benefits that they’re expecting out of it, in a way that doesn’t cause them to bang their head against the wall.
That is a very noble cause. And I’m glad you’re in the middle of it. I mean, I think, in general, I think before I got into the corporate world and things, I didn’t understand there was such a thing as project management. And then now that I’m in it is like, well, it’s all project management to some extent. So what was that journey like for you? Or how do you define that now? What would you say, hey, you got a project here?
Yeah, I mean, a project has anything that has a start and an end date and it’s a defined scope. And there are a lot of challenges we have with the clients who try to bring in their projects and their operational processes. And it doesn’t work great. Because with operational processes that are repeatable, you need to create a repeatable solution, where the heart of project management is that there are nuances to it, and you have to change it. And if you approach them both the same way, you’re not going to get an ideal outcome. So I do think it’s important to understand what is a project or what is operations. But it’s a very common thing throughout all organizations blurring the lines, not that you have to have a project manager necessarily for every project, but it’s just realizing that you don’t want your project that could take three months to end up taking six months because you’re not actually treating it like a project. You get things like scope creep. People are like, oh, well, let’s add this thing and this thing and this thing, and then it never ends. Yeah, it comes like a series of mini enhancements or something rather than a true project.
When you think about the core skills that somebody needs as they’re entering the workforce, I mean, it sounds like one is, can you distinguish between a process and a project and what needs to happen? And then what else would you add there in terms of just basic project management skills that the average team leader needs to have?
Yeah, so there’s two levels in this and the second level is the reason I started the company or another reason I started it. So the first level is just understanding your basic project management tools. So you find people who enjoy saying, here’s where we are, here’s where we have to go, and here’s all the steps to get us there. It’s being able to understand that sequence of events, and who needs to be involved, and being able to bring those people together to build a plan and then execute the plan. In project management, they talk about you’ve got to understand risks and issues. So being able to see what potentially could go wrong, or things that you could capitalize on, you see a market shift, and you’re like, oh, if we could bring this in a month early, we could potentially get to market faster and gain a whole bunch more market share. So it’s being able to see those variables and adjust to that. It’s being able to be a team lead. It’s being able to be a semi structured person. Obviously, project managers go on a whole spectrum of how structured they are. But the value of project management is creating structure around, here’s how we plan, here’s how we manage our budget, here’s how we manage our communications, etc. So having a desire to have some structure is important.
But then there’s the second layer. This is where Project Genetics come in. We talk about operating at the intersection of passion and expertise. The reason is we want our people to treat it like a craft, because what I find is you need people who actually care about leadership to be able to be a true project manager. Anybody can go, not anybody, but quite a few people can go build a checklist and say, here are all the things we have to do to accomplish this. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to rally the team and get everybody there as efficiently as somebody else. So where that comes in, I think people need to have the ability to communicate at all levels of the organization, from the CEO down to a developer or whomever, they need the ability to appropriately react to different variables, and have that agility, and be able to operate in ambiguity, because things pop up on projects all the time. So how do you react to that? They need to have really strong facilitation skills and strong conflict management skills. Because problems arise all the time on projects. How do you facilitate resolution of those problems? And then just overall, I think, I guess you could sum it up in a strong EQ. What’s your emotional quotient? Do you understand what you’re good at? Do you understand what other people are good at? Do you understand how those things come together so that you can get the best outcome?
So that’s a lot. As you kept going through, it’s like, okay, well, these people are out, these people are out, these people are out. We all can cancel ourselves out at some point in that. But it’s always been a challenge to be a great project manager, and no one’s perfect, and we all have things we need to work on. But what I wanted to do is to take this conversation into the digital space, the topic of this show. As you see project managers, especially over the last year and a half, make this big shift between being able to have everybody in the same room, always connected to each other, always kind of status updates are basically in the air. You don’t worry about them. Everything’s seen. Some of these things about communication facilitation, EQ, is definitely much, I would say, much easier when you’re next to each other. When you take these things into the digital space, what are some of those fundamental changes about project management?
I think there’s a few things. One that is very challenging is if you have a team with the in person culture, and then some people are remote. That to me is probably the worst. I’d rather have everybody there or everyone remote. But when you have a culture of 90% of the team is in the room, but then 10% is on the phone, it creates a lot of challenges to be heard, because the people in the room don’t necessarily know how to change their communication style and make sure they’re including people. So I would say if you’re in that environment, you need to create really strong ground rules for how your meetings are going to be run, and making sure that the people on the phone have the opportunity to be heard. But beyond that, because that’s a very specific instance, in digital project management, around meetings and all of that, I think it just goes to about intention. Because when you’re in an office, you have these moments where you can catch up with people at the side of their desk, you’re there, you’re available.
So we’ve put in different, depending on different parts of the project, different techniques. For example, when we’re in a critical point of the project, we leave a WebEx open all day long. And the project manager sits on there. And so people can jump in and have a conversation whenever they need to have a conversation with the project manager or we can send out a note and bring everybody in. That’s one thing we’ve had to do on the project. ButI think project managers should have a communications plan and a meeting plan and they should just be really clear objectives for each of those meetings and really clear methods of how do we bring people together to get the point across, and then create opportunities to have those side of desk conversations, whether it’s making a list of your team members, and calling them once a week, something, but having a way to just have this free time to catch up, like ad hoc type conversation rather than an agenda.
I take it that you’re not a fan of hybrid work and a very undefined thing, when you have certain people coming into the office somedays or you can stay home as much as you want. Is that a really bad mix for project management?
It can be fine. Where the problem tends to rise is more about if you’ve got 10 people in a meeting room, and then you’ve got five people on the phone. So if you’re in the office, what I found is that it’s sometimes better if everybody just stays at their desk to join that type of meeting. If you’re meeting with a lot of people who are virtual, maybe everybody should just dial in, so that you get the same experience, or the company needs to invest in creating a really good digital space to meet so that the audio is good. I mean, we’ve had a client where they spent all this money putting in the multimedia to have conference calls. And so they’ve got cameras, which is fantastic. I love that setup. But then we can’t ever hear the people in the room because the mics are in the ceiling, and they come down and you can’t hear. So then you’re not having an effective meeting. So I think the mixed can work as long as the room is retrofitted in a way that actually can still facilitate conversation and you’re not feeling like you’re not being heard when you’re on the phone.
Tell us about the speed at which things happen. In general, when we talk about digital workplace is that in general tend to be slower. If you’re fully distributed, you take longer to make decisions. And sometimes that’s a great advantage because you get to ruminate on things longer, you get to process things longer, you’re not making snap decisions and judgments. And they tend to maybe make better decisions, but they are slower. In project management, sometimes you don’t have that gap to say, hey, we’re just going to extend this out by another week. So how have you found the ability to go back and forth between speed and accuracy and processing in digital platforms?
So it’s interesting that you say that because we do project estimation. We have a software that we leverage for this. One of the variables is there is how distributed is your team, and how many teams and how many locations, because when you change that factor, it actually increases, like you just said, the time, but it also increases the cost. Because time does equal money when we’re talking about paying people. So it’s very true that projects can take longer. Again, I think if a project manager sets intention in their meeting planning, they can help with some of that, like making sure that there’s recurring spots for decision making, discussion decisions, have leadership attend a meeting, maybe it’s fortnightly, maybe it’s monthly, but something where you can get things in front of them. But having a really good plan around that.
The second thing that helps speed is how much dedication you can have people on a project. So if you’re giving people 10% allocation to a project, you’re probably going to run out of runway to be able to let decisions slide or you can’t just throw a meeting on a calendar if somebody is only 10% allocated. Because that means they’re 90% allocated to other things. So it’s really important to make sure that you’ve got your resource planning right.
And then the final thing is I think you just need to be honest about what can be virtual and what cannot. When Scaled Agile came out, one of the things was that the PI planning, everybody had to be in the room, and they said the value of you sending people on the plane to be in the room to have this once a quarter meeting outweighed any costs that it took to people to get there. Now obviously, when we’re talking about health, and we’re talking about COVID, and things like that, we have to take a different stance and so that’s where a lot of people started doing these things digitally, and I think it can be done. But I think you lose some of that synergy. There is value in being in a room and overhearing other conversations that are happening because it can help influence the information that’s going into your current plan.
So PI planning is an example. But we’ve had clients who just went through system testing, and it was remote, and it took an extra two months to get through it. Because there couldn’t be the implementation partner sitting next to the business user, helping them through the system saying, all right, let’s do this. It was all over WebEx, and there was just something lost in that. So with that client, we made the decision that people would get vaccinated, and we would do it, when we did UAT, we did it in person, and it went so much better. So I think it’s important to understand who all the parties are, and what topic you’re going through, on whether or not it truly can be remote or should you make the investment and have some things in person?
If you have a situation where you have a team that’s going on, let’s say it’s a two-quarter project, and you’re going to be meeting once in the middle, and you only get one time to be all together, what would you put in that bucket in saying, these are non negotiables? If you get time together, do this, what would you say are those most important things to focus on as a project manager?
Well, unfortunately, that’s not going to be extremely clear cut, because it also depends on what the project is. And if it’s smack in the middle, what are we doing smack in the middle that’s moving the project forward. But I would say this. The one thing that regardless of when you’re meeting, if you’re only getting moments together, it’s team building is the most important thing. Because if you build those relationships, and you enhance those relationships, then when you get to keep going, people have a better understanding, and communication gets better. And I’ll give you a great example. So you were talking about everybody has their flaws. So I’m a straight to it. Sometimes I come across as harsh. Sometimes people think I’m harsh because I’m just tell it like it is. No, I’m not rude. But I also don’t sugarcoat things, either. What I found, though, was that if I went and met team members in person, then it just became, oh, that’s just Jana, and they didn’t take it personally anymore. So until they met me in person, and we had a more relaxed conversation that wasn’t around the project, they didn’t understand that. Now we’ve got the benefits now that that was happening about 10 years ago, when people weren’t using video so much. You’re picking up the phone to do a conference call. Now you can do the same thing with video, but it’s about the facial expressions. And it’s about having conversations, though, that aren’t focused on what task is at hand. So that would be the number one thing that I would make sure that there’s time for is just to have fun together and get to know each other regardless what you’re meeting about.
Yeah, it almost sounds like you would advocate for a kickoff meeting, much more important than maybe a closure meeting, because you get that context. Like you said, I can have a sense of how you talk, I can have a sense of your mannerisms. That way, when we’re interacting almost exclusively digitally later on, I know how to filter those through.
Absolutely, I would say if you’re going to prioritize any in person meeting, it would be a kickoff meeting where you can spend time to get to know each other, you can put rules of engagement for the project. And then you can just align. You can align on where we’re headed, what the vision is, and how we’re going to get there. So that would be the most important one to have.
There’s a couple of terms you’ve thrown out there that I really loved, and we talk about a lot on our show and in our articles. One is intention that you’ve mentioned a few times, just especially in digital environments. We say that’s one of the core characteristics of successful digital workplaces is they have a lot of intention. They see things, they do it on purpose, because you do need to do that more often in a digital workplace. But the other one you brought up was overhearing things. And that’s also something that tends to be lost in digital environments is that you don’t get that sense of what that other team is talking about, or you tend to only be invited to meetings where it’s appropriate you’re there. You don’t get a chance to overhear what somebody else is talking about, or get that little osmosis going on of what other people are going on with that. Can you tell us more about what you think about from overhearing things?
Yeah, so I’ll talk about it in two levels. One, we have a client who’s about to go live with an implementation and we’re talking about the command center. We want the technology people and the business, the functional people to be in the room together. Because even if the functional, like a business person is training somebody else, like somebody comes in with a question of I just don’t know how to do this. It may lead the technology person to realize maybe there’s an actual problem. We’ve had five people come in with that question. Maybe I need to go look at how this is laid out. So things that maybe never would get passed over to technology, because they hear it, they can make it better. So I think that’s one example.
And then the other one is really around just development. There’s a lot of studies that show that by surrounding people with high performers where they can overhear conversations, that person’s performance level will rise, just from what they learn from overhearing it. So it might be I might be sitting in my cubicle back in those days, and overhearing a more Senior Project Manager dealing with a tough call. And I’m learning techniques on how to deal with a similar call, even though I’m not on the call, just hearing the mannerisms of how that person is speaking and the language that they’re using is going to make me a better project manager. So I think we lose that. And it’s hard to say how you could even recreate that digitally other than being like, okay, well, I’m now going to go train myself on this and make it more formal, but you don’t get it by osmosis anymore. I’m actually a big fan of split workforces. Like does everybody come in for a day and hang? Like having some sort of something where you can bring people together.
Yeah, that’s great. And there’s really, you can’t take a LinkedIn class or some thing like that, about how to handle a really difficult stakeholder. You can synthesize those lessons and talk about it. But there’s nothing like being in the middle of it and watching somebody try to talk somebody off a ledge that’s about ready to throw something. Being able to witness that, feel that energy, feel that emotion in the room and being able to see what that’s like, I mean, there’s nothing like that.
Great. Jana, let’s end our time talking about some technology stuff. I’m assuming, as a very low level project manager myself, that there’s a spectrum of tools you would use. On the very left side, very basically just be, hey, I’ve got a spreadsheet that I’m trying to organize some things in. And then someone like you is probably you’ve used some very highly sophisticated tools that are here on the right side. For someone who hasn’t been trained so much, when do you know that it’s time to level up, I guess? When do you know that it’s like, hey, this tool is too basic, you need something a little bit more advanced to help you out?
That’s an interesting question because I do think it has a lot to do with more about the complexity of your project and how much interaction people are going to have with your plan. So I love the Teams tasks or monday.com or all of those when I want team members to be able to see their tasks and be able to go in, and it has due dates, it has email reminders, it has all of that, and it’s really easy to go and check off. Now, if I have a really complex project schedule, though, I need to use MS Project or something of a similar caliber, because now I have dependencies, I have these complicated, this task can’t start for 14 days until after this task ends. Another great one is Focus HQ and stuff. It’s just so much easier to type that in and it auto calculates and everything moves out. For instance, my biggest frustration with Planner right now by Microsoft is you can’t get a Gantt chart. So you can’t see how all of this comes together. And to me, a Gantt chart is very important to me.
So what I would say is if it’s really simple, and it’s more around just a bunch of tasks that have to go together that dependencies on other tasks aren’t as critical, or it’s very obvious, because it’s a step by step, use something like Teams. If you need to go one step up, move to something like monday.com because monday.com does introduce dependencies. They have a project management tool in there. It’s great because you can email from it. There’s other collaboration. It becomes a collaboration tool. But it’s not until you get into highly complex projects where it’s something like 300 to 500 tasks with critical dependencies that then do you move into a true project management software.
That’s good. I think that that’s really helpful to know the complexity of the project, and when you need to bump up and down to different ones. It’s great. Jana, this has been really fun to learn about this topic. It’s something that I think we all have some experience in but it’s great to learn from somebody who lives it and is in there every day for that. So that’s great. Tell us where we can go to learn more about you and what you do.
Yeah, sure. You can find on LinkedIn, I’m prolific out there, so Jana Axline. Or you can learn more about Project Genetics at projectgenetics.com and you can check out our video blog on YouTube under Project Genetics.
Great. We are excited to meet you and to be exposed to what you’re talking about. We look forward to connecting with you again soon in the future.
Jana is a focused leader who achieves ambitious results. She drives ideas from initiation to implementation, achieving successful outcomes for clients. Adept at moving between big picture and small details, she is able to help clients execute the right initiatives to implementation, maximizing value to the organization. Jana’s strong project management skills, coupled with years of leadership experience allow her to help all the pieces of a project align in order to achieve results more quickly and cost effectively.
Her expertise stems from more than 20 years of experience in leadership and ten years in project and portfolio management, and a variety of high-profile projects including: managing the delivery of multiple IT applications to enable new product launches for a fortune 100 international health care company; aligning disparate systems to enable a $100M strategic partnership; and multiple IT integrations for acquisitions.
Jana Axline is an accomplished international speaker, who has been invited by distinguished organizations, like the Project Management Institute, to speak in locations such as Singapore, Australia, and Brazil. She is author of “Becoming You”, a guide to your personal strategy.