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Episode 51 -From Across the Pond, Elizabeth Harrin on Project Collaboration & Tech Trends

Episode #51
Original Air Date: 02.06.2018

35 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin joins us from the United Kingdom to share her research and recommendations for tools when it comes to collaborating on projects.

What collaboration tools should I use on my projects? We ask that question of Elizabeth Harrin, author of the book Collaboration Tools for Project Managers published by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Joining us from the UK, Elizabeth shares her research and recommendations. Elizabeth is a project manager, author, and award-winning blogger at A Girl's Guide to Project Management. She has nearly two decades of experience managing IT and business change projects.

In this podcast, Elizabeth discusses emerging tech trends and shares advice with the Manage This crew. For instance, even though we have more tools available than ever, the quality of communication is suffering. How can we improve?

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"Whereas now I think, in consumer marketing particularly, customers are expecting a greater level of personalized service.  And I think, if we play that through to what that means to project managers, it means more stakeholder engagement in ways that they are prepared to receive it.  Which I think is more work for us as project managers, having to tailor communication to perhaps different groups of stakeholders, where before we might have been able to get away with one newsletter."

- Elizabeth Harrin

"I think we’ve arrived at a point where it is expected that project management is a collaborative type job, not a command-and-control type job like perhaps it was 20 years ago."

- Elizabeth Harrin

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NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Every other week we meet to discuss the things that matter to professional project managers and those who aspire to the position.  The reason we’re here is not only to encourage and challenge you, but to show what others are doing in the field so you can find some takeaways to apply to your own situation.  We do that by getting inside the heads of some of the people who are making a difference in project management.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the two guys who have been making a difference in the field for some time, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.  And Andy, today we are crossing the pond to get a British perspective on project management.

ANDY CROWE:  But you know what, Nick, it’s a really timely topic, as well, because we’re talking about collaboration, collaboration tools.  And I think in a lot of ways it just illustrates the fact that we’re talking to someone thousands of miles away in real-time.  And it kind of underscores the point, doesn’t it.

NICK WALKER:  It is mindboggling, when you think about it.  We’re Skyping today with Elizabeth Harrin.  She’s the award-winning blogger behind GirlsGuidetoPM.com.  She has over 15 years’ experience in leading IT, business change, and process improvement projects in the U.K. and in France.  Today she works in healthcare and also runs her own company providing copywriting services to project-related businesses.  Elizabeth is the author of four books:  “Communicating Change,” “Shortcuts to Success:  Project Management in the Real World,” “Collaboration Tools for Project Managers,” and “Customer-Centric Project Management.”  Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us on Manage This.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Well, thank you very much for having me on your podcast today.  It does feel like I’m in the room with you, even though we’re miles away.

NICK WALKER:  Well, I wonder if you could help our listeners get to know you just a little bit better.  Can you quickly give us a rundown of your experience as a project manager?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  I’ve done lots of different things in my role as a project manager over the years.  But I think that’s helped because I started out as a project manager.  I know lots of people come to the job later in life, or later in their careers, having found that their expertise lends itself to moving into that kind of role.  Whereas for me, I was lucky enough to identify that project management was a real job quite early on after I’d left university and was able to choose that as a career path.  So I’m one of the few people who perhaps are not accidental project managers who started out on this pathway.  So I suppose my experience has really grown from that and from a love of what it can offer me in my job.

NICK WALKER:  We’re so glad that you recognize that project management is a real job.  That’s great.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Well, who told you that when you were at school?  People told me I could be a vet or an astronaut or, you know, the Prime Minister.  But nobody said, oh, you could be a project manager.  It’s not one of the career options that I even knew existed before I went to work in business and saw that there were teams of people managing projects.  And I thought, yeah, I can do that.

NICK WALKER:  So as a project manager, what industries and subject matters were your projects touching?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Well, I started out in financial services, so I worked mainly on internal communications projects, doing things like Intranets and supporting more experienced project managers on some of the projects that they were running with financial and IT elements, working in IT.  Most of my career has been in IT, but delivering business change.  So I’m a big believer in the fact there’s no real thing as IT projects.  We deliver – we use IT as a way to serve the business.  Business projects within IT elements is mainly what I’ve been doing over the many years.

And so after financial services I found myself in healthcare.  And it’s a real interesting industry to be in.  And I’ve been working on regulatory and compliance projects through to package software deployments and getting to see exactly how hospitals function, which is amazing.

NICK WALKER:  You’ve got this blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.  Tell us a little bit about that.  How did that come about?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Well, if I’m honest, it came out because I wanted to write a book before I was 30.  And I thought, well, what do I know?  I have very little expertise in anything beyond project management, so it better be about that.  And even then, as a young woman, I felt maybe I wouldn’t be taken seriously if it was just my voice throughout the project, throughout the book.  So I based it on case studies.  I gathered case studies from people across various different industries and then wrote up theory.  And that was my first book, The “Shortcuts to Success” one that you talked about.

And when I was looking at how I should support my publisher and how authors market themselves – 11, 12 years ago now – I heard about blogging.  And I thought, oh, maybe this is something that I should be doing, too.  I love writing.  Why not give that a go?  So it started really as a way to express my own voice about project management, with a view to thinking that my book was coming out in a few months’ time.  And I wanted to take a specific angle about women at work in the project management field because I worked in a department where it was mostly female project managers.  And yet whenever I went to conferences, whenever I saw the mastheads in trade magazines, they were always men.

Even today, if you go to a conference, and you see a panel discussion, you might even not see women on the stage at all.  I saw the lineup for a conference recently, and it was just all male speakers.  They were all brilliant people, but the lack of female voices wasn’t there on the Internet and in the sort of project management – the kind of public face of project management.  And I can’t pretend that I am the public face of women in project management.  That would just be ridiculous.  But I did feel that there was space for a more female take on what it’s like to be a woman working in the field.

NICK WALKER:  So it’s interesting that you say that there are plenty of women in the field.  It’s just that maybe they’re underrepresented in sort of the public eye?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Yes, I think that’s true.  I think that’s changing.  Certainly when I started blogging 11 years ago there were very few female voices writing about project management online and in magazines.  And it is changing, so we are seeing more variety.  “Variety” perhaps isn’t the right word, but more diversity in the voices online and at events.  And even now, if you go to events, if you go to conferences, I think the mix of people in the audience is not always represented by the mix of people that you see behind the podiums.

ANDY CROWE:  That’s true.

BILL YATES:  Elizabeth, I love your passion for writing, whether it’s a book or a blog or speaking at a conference and presenting ideas.  And one of the things that you do as a writer and researcher is you look for emerging trends.  And again, my background is a lot of IT projects, as well.  And IT is all about bringing about business change, as you – I like the way you set that up.  Where do you look for these trends, whether they’re IT or just other new ways to do project management and to work smarter?  Where do you look for these emerging trends?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  I really try and look outside of project management, to be honest.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Because they’re so – if I was speaking frankly, a lot of the things that I read about project management trends are just dull, are things that might have been a trend 10 years ago, but don’t feel to me – they may still be a trend now, but they don’t feel cutting edge or exciting to me.  And I remember reading something about post-implementation reviews in a piece of literature that was designed around what project management’s going to look like in 2020.  And it was about when we get to the end of the project we’ll do a post-implementation review, and then this is how we know whether we’ve done a good job or not.  And I thought, yeah, we don’t even do that now.  Without our retrospectives and with the approach I take to try and get customer feedback throughout a lifecycle of a project so you can correct as you go, even PMBOK v6 talks more about lessons learned than that did.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  So I think things are moving on.  So in order to answer your question, where I get it from, I try to look multidisciplinarily.  Is that even – is that a word?  So I try to read really widely about management topics in general.  And what I think is really interesting for technology trends is what’s happening in consumer marketing space.  So what we see happening online for the way consumers interact with websites about how they buy products, for example, we will see that trickle down into how we work.  And we’ve seen it with things like “bring your own device,” where people have better technology at home to do their own phone calls with than they are given in the workplace.  So we’ve got people with iPhones at home.  A few years ago you had an iPhone at home, and then you had a Blackberry at work.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  And the discrepancy there.  We’ve seen it with collaboration tools, as well.  So when I first wrote “Social Media for Project Managers,” it was all about how do you harness the power of technology when your tools are really not good enough to do it yourself.  And then in the intervening five years or so before I updated the book, collaboration tools moved on massively, project management tools moved on massively because they were looking at what Facebook was doing, looking at things like Slack and Yammer and all that kind of stuff, and bringing all of that functionality into project management tools.

So I look at things like Social Media Marketing World and Content Marketing Institute and look at what people are saying about how people are interacting with information because that’s basically what we do as project managers.  We’re looking at getting the right information to the right people, unblocking problems, giving them what they need to get the job done, and kind of keeping the flow of information going all the time.

ANDY CROWE:  You know, Elizabeth, I identify with that multidisciplinary approach.  You go back and you look – there’s a great book, and I cannot recall the author’s name right now, but called “The Medici Effect” [Frans Johansson].  And what it’s about is how the Medici family in pre-Renaissance Rome started bringing in poets and scientists and musicians and artists and people from all kinds of different disciplines together.  And that jumpstarted the Renaissance.  It wasn’t one, it was when they started sharing ideas and getting inspired by each other.

You know, we have had a guy named Joel Neeb, nickname is Thor, on the podcast before, and he came out of the military.  But he’s brought a lot of fascinating things about combat flight and mission-critical activities into how do you do debriefs into a project.  And so there’s a lot of applicability when you look at the way other groups completely different than project managers have solved some of these problems.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  I think we need to do more of that.  I mean, that is a fantastic example of where, if we look across different fields and just pick the best of what works for us in a particular environment, then it works.  I’m a big believer in the idea of tailoring the approach that you use to be fit for purpose.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, yeah.  To that end, I worked on a scheduling problem with a hospital one time.  And we were applying some of the tools of project management to that.  But it took on a completely different flavor in the way that they were scheduling patients in and out.  And then it was interesting to take some of those same things and apply them to a transit problem, a scheduling problem in our transit system here in Atlanta.  And again, it took on a completely different flavor, but a lot of these interesting things apply from different ones that you’d never expect before.  So I like that.

BILL YATES:  So Elizabeth, what are some of the tech trends that you’re seeing right now?  What’s got you excited?  And it may be, again, other industries or other products that you see that are fascinating to you.  So what’s on your brain these days?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Well, for a long time I’ve been thinking about the possibilities for big data with project management tools and the analysis that could give us.  I’m not aware of anyone using it particularly smartly yet.  But it’s got – maybe they are, and I just don’t know.  But it’s got amazing potential because what I like about it is we enter so much data into our project management software tools, and we never really get anything helpful out.  That’s a bit of a sweep.  Maybe that’s just my inability to use my products.

But what I’m thinking of is, if we could capture things like – someone in my team always schedules.  And yet whenever she’s doing her timesheets, and she’s completing the work, she’s always overrunning by two weeks.  That piece, that nugget of information, I might have a sense for the fact that this person is always late with their tasks.  But if I had the data, if I had the evidence, and then if I could course correct the next time she’s scheduling work by making a little flag that comes up to say “The last two times you’ve scheduled this task, you delivered in 62 days, and not 50.  Would you like to change your estimate to 62 days?”  I don’t know.  I’m making it up.

But that kind of guidance would be really helpful to us as project managers.  And I think we must be in a position to collect that data.  If we could get something that would play it back to us in a way that does some of the number crunching and makes us more intelligent with the way that we use our resources, then that would be amazing.  So the potential for big data and all that stuff is quite good.

ANDY CROWE:  Does it scare you just a little bit, Elizabeth, to have an algorithm looking over your shoulder?  And I don’t know if you’re an Apple user or another platform.  But my iPhone got in and predicted where I was going to go Sunday morning to a disturbing degree.  And, you know, there’s that.  There’s a lot of different examples.  Everybody’s had the experience of starting to type something into Google, and one or two letters, and it knows what you’re going to say.  And so now here’s the one thing.  I pride myself on my own judgment.  If an algorithm is looking over my shoulder and saying, “Hey, Andy, maybe you should think about increasing this to 62 days,” makes me just a little uncomfortable.  I do realize this is where we’re headed.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  But I think, Andy, for someone like you who’s got years of experience, and you know the tools, professional judgment is always going to be your top decision-making factor.  But as a 21-year-old project manager straight out of an MA course, perhaps you don’t have that length of experience, and maybe the knowledge of the 30 different project managers in your department that have gone before you might give you a head start because we’re all about improving maturity for the whole industry.

But I take the point about privacy.  I mean, I think there is quite a bit of culture shift, isn’t there, between somebody looking at timesheet data and estimates and making that very simple comparison through to saying, well, being able to do natural language searching on your emails and then play back potential issues that you might be facing with your state code of population.  That’s scary.

ANDY CROWE:  Right, right.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Possible, but scary.

ANDY CROWE:  And I’ll just gently challenge you on one point.  You say, well, Andy, you’ve got years of professional experience, and that gives you an edge.  But you know what, in 2017 artificial intelligence beat the top Go player in the world, which is a Chinese strategy game that’s more complicated than chess.  And of course AI has beaten the top chess people in the world.  And so they bring years of experience and judgment and are the best of the best, and yet AI has surpassed them.  So you can see there’s a lot of interesting things here.  And a lot of it’s just heuristical analysis.  It’s looking at trends.  It’s looking, it’s mining through these reams of data, looking for a signal in the noise.  But it can still scare me.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Yes.  And I think that’s where another trend is coming from, where we see personalized communication, where consumers – I suppose this is where, if you go to a website, and it gives you sort of a couple of different options – so you can go to a Rolls Royce website.  Are you looking for a car?  Are you looking for a service?  Would you like to learn more about our corporate plans, whatever.

And the experience that you get as a consumer is more tailored to your situation than perhaps it was 10 years ago when you just had one standard website for everybody, and you’d have to try and navigate ‘round and create your own path.  Whereas now I think, in consumer marketing particularly, customers are expecting a greater level of personalized service.  And I think, if we play that through to what that means to project managers, it means more stakeholder engagement in ways that they are prepared to receive it.  Which I think is more work for us as project managers, having to tailor communication to perhaps different groups of stakeholders, where before we might have been able to get away with one newsletter.

ANDY CROWE:  Do you recall – I don’t know if anybody in the room has seen the movie “Minority Report.”

BILL YATES:  Yes.

ANDY CROWE:  And in that Tom Cruise is walking through a mall, and there’s all these pop-up images marketing directly to him, kind of shouting for his attention as he comes past.  And, you know, back then it made you shudder a little bit, and you thought, ah, well.  And now we’re so close to that.

BILL YATES:  Now it’s reality.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Yeah.  Yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  Another benefit of tailored communications.  So I’m just going to go to my cabin and unplug the Internet and be okay, guys.  You can find me growing my own food.

BILL YATES:  Elizabeth, I wanted to bring out – there’s a quote that just fascinated me in your book.  And you took this quote and then – it’s from another author.  And then you built some points off of that.  And I think it relates well to this idea, this little struggle we’re having with big data.  And as a project manager, how do I know what data is really valuable to my stakeholders?  And at what point am I just flooding them with information just because it happens to be there?

So I’m just going to read off the quote.  This was from Phil Simon in “Message Not Received.”  And you quoted it:  “As a general rule, the quality and clarity of business communication have deteriorated considerably over the past 10 years.”  And he was quoting – this was 2015 he quoted this.  And he said, okay, yeah, we’ve got more and more data, yes.  That’s the book.  “We’ve got more and more data, but the quality and the clarity of business communication is getting worse.”  So as a project manager, how do we deal with that?  We’ve got all this juicy data that we can provide the stakeholders.  How do we make sure we’re giving them something of value?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  It comes down to understanding your audience.  So as a project manager you’ve got lots of different stakeholder groups.  Some of them are important.  Some of them would like to think they’re important, but actually aren’t.  And some of them you just won’t have any time to engage with, so let’s just put them to the bottom of the pile, if you’re realistic about how much time you’ve got in the day to spend on stakeholder engagement.  I could spend all day doing it and still never get through everybody.

So you have to prioritize your audience.  And you just ask them, what would you find valuable?  And I know, I think I find a huge resistance from people to actually go out and have conversations with stakeholders about what they want to see in their reports because they have PMO reports that are standard, and they think this is what I need to provide.

But actually, in a dialogue with the people who are reading the reports, if you’re not giving them what they want, all you’re proving is that you’re producing a report every month.  And really, if we’re reporting, it needs to be because we’re giving people the information they need to make decisions, which may well be to do nothing because the project team has got it all under control, or it may be that we need them to step in and step up to deal with something.  So I think it’s about understanding what you think they need to know, what they think they want to know, and finding out a way to match those two together so that you’re giving people the information they need to do their jobs and not any of the other stuff.

ANDY CROWE:  I want to contrast that, two things associated with that.  One is a lot of communication these days is being driven by compliance.  So it’s now what you just mentioned, the PMO has a set of standard things that they require.  So if I’m going to be compliant, I have to issue these kind – well, nobody may care about that information.  But the PMO has mandated that it has to come out that way.

Think about the flyers, if you get a prescription drug, there’s going to be a package of information folded up inside the box, and you pull it out.  Nobody reads that.  Nobody reads that.  But yet I have a friend who’s a lawyer, who’s an attorney, who’s litigating a very complicated case based on what was in that package of information.  So you’ve got that.  And think about the tailored aspect on the other side.

So back to Apple, and I guess I have Apple on the brain this morning.  But, you know, when I pulled out my iPhone, it asked me a few things about what I’m interested in and what news sources I like.  And I can tailor that as I go.  And, now, that’s dangerous, too, because it’s only feeding me news stories that I like or that it believes I want to see, which isn’t necessarily good for us, to be on that kind of a starvation diet.  But it’s interesting that you want to connect with stakeholders and give them relevant information that’s meaningful to them as opposed to just spewing out a one-size-fits-all communiqué, kind of like the insert in the prescription box.

BILL YATES:  Elizabeth, I think this is a great opportunity, too, to kind of pivot to your book, “Collaboration Tools for Project Managers,” because I feel like there’s so much practical advice in that book for PMs who are wrestling with these kinds of questions.  What tools should I use?  How do I pick the right ones?  How do I tailor it to the audience?  Tell us a bit about what inspired you to write that book.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Well, I was doing a presentation at the PMI Global Congress with some friends, some colleagues who were also online people, bloggers and podcasters.  We were doing a bit of a panel presentation about the kind of things that social media had to offer us as a project management community.  And we prepared our presentation virtually on conversations like this and on email and just met up when we were there at the event because we were all based all over the world.  When we got into the room, we were all a little bit nervous about how this was going to go because it seemed a little bit trendy for the environment.  But it was standing room only.  There were people squeezed in at the back.

And after seeing the reaction to that room, it made me think there is an interest here.  There are people who really want to learn about how best to collaborate in teams, how best to communicate with technology, because you can’t just take a collaboration tool and switch it on one day and think that that is enough to magically improve everything in your workplace.  So it was – I suppose it was inspired by that, looking at the reaction and talking to people who were interested in the topic and wanting to learn more, who wanted more than just a 45-minute, one-hour conversation in a conference room.  And so that started me thinking about what would it look like if it was a book.

BILL YATES:  That’s excellent.  And it’s such a – I encourage our listeners to check it out, look for this online.  We’ll obviously look at the transcript and get the exact reference.  But the book is a great resource because I like the approach you take in both describing the purpose for, okay, why are we talking about this topic, and how can it be helpful to me as a project manager, and now let’s get specific.  Let’s talk about specific tools and their strengths and weaknesses and how we may overplay a tool or not know some of the features that could be really beneficial.  So, well done.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Thank you very much.

BILL YATES:  You bet.

NICK WALKER:  How do you determine which tools work best in a given situation?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  I used to think that was a really easy question, but now I don’t.  What tools best work – there are certain things that lend themselves well to certain use cases.  So as lessons learned repositories for knowledge sharing, a wiki is always going to be my first choice.  But if you’re looking at a tool that will help you collaborate with your team members, then I think the most – there’s hundreds of them, hundreds, thousands probably.  The most important thing is to look at what functionality you need in your tool and then do a bit of analysis of the marketplace to find out what things, what tools have that functionality.

Because what I often see, and I’ve seen in companies where I’ve worked, is where we’ve gone, oh, that’s been featured in The New York Times.  That must be good.  We’ll try that for another.  Then you try it, and you think, actually, this doesn’t do what we need.  But you then get into a situation where you’ll just try a bit for a little while, or you end up with sort of tool overload, trying too many different things.  Whereas if you have a list of, as with any project, it’s just a project, isn’t it, implementing a piece of software.

Project managers do this all the time.  Why can’t we do it to ourselves?  I don’t know.  Just start with your requirements and then do your piece of market research to go out to market and find out what could be in there.  Try a few, pilot some, get some experienced and less experienced people on your teams to test it out, and then make a decision, but based on what functionality you need to do your work, rather than how flashy the website is or what you’ve heard from other companies about how it works for them.

ANDY CROWE:  We’re using Skype here today, and electrons are being beamed, or I guess traveling along a cable at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean right now and getting there and returning back.  But it’s kind of fascinating because here in the studio we’re looking at Elizabeth’s smiling face as we’re going through this.  And so it’s an interesting technology.  You know, it’s funny, Elizabeth, some collaboration tools, even in projects where we’re actively trying to collaborate, you would think of things like Dropbox.

I use Dropbox.  I love Dropbox just as a technology.  I realize there are a lot of different ones that do the same or similar things as Dropbox.  But I’m just a big fan.  I’ve found that Dropbox is too complicated for some people, believe it or not.  I’m on a project right now, and the person with whom I’m collaborating just struggles with Dropbox.  So we’re emailing around gigantic attachments, which is causing its own fun.  You can imagine, Bill, that’s bringing out the best in me.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.

ANDY CROWE:  It’s interesting, though.  I like what you’re saying, that you have to tailor for what works for a given team.  And that’s very true.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  You really do.  You really do.  And I think the bit of the book that I get asked to talk about the most is exactly that, is the readiness assessment, is how do you know if your team is even ready to do this?  Because, like I say, you can’t just pick it all.  The PMO just can’t make the decision and say, off you go, now use it.  Because if your team is not a communicative team, doesn’t have a culture of trust and openness, isn’t interested in knowledge sharing, is very siloed, putting a tool on top of it just makes it all worse.  And if, equally, if your team doesn’t have the computer literacy skills to be able to use Dropbox, then perhaps a collaboration tool is a little bit of a step too far for them.  Or they just need more support, training, induction program, buddy up with someone, that kind of thing.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  To help them over the learning curve.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, and you know I’m not – we’re trying right now to implement and experiment with Slack over here.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Okay.

ANDY CROWE:  Interesting process.  But one of the things I find is that I don’t like a lot of constant interruption.  So I’m not good with the sort of back-and-forth background chatter.  I think a lot of younger people, they live in that environment with instant message, and they task switch quite readily.  And I like to think I do, too, but I find it to be a distraction.  So I’m still trying to figure out how to use Slack for my work styles in addition to our corporate work style.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  I can relate to that, too, Elizabeth.  I was thinking, I just jotted down before our call – so just been at work a few hours before our call.  It’s pre-lunch.  And I’ve already used Skype, Trello, Slack, of course all the Microsoft Outlook, et cetera, Google Drive, Google Docs, and Dropbox.  And some of these are different tabs on a browser; right?  I could have Slack and Trello running at the same time; Dropbox, as well.  And just trying to figure out what is the right balance for me.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

BILL YATES:  So much of it depends on the type of work I’m doing.  There are times when, as a project manager, I’m a bottleneck for several key decisions, so I need to really stay actively engaged in these environments to make sure I’m moving the ball forward, making decisions or allocating, delegating things properly.  There are other times I need to disappear, go to the cabin so to speak, and get off technology so that I can focus and get something done that I’m the key deliverer of.  So it takes – that’s a lot of decision-making; right?  It takes some experience to figure out what’s the right tool and what’s the right rhythm with it.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  I think a lot of project managers suffer from information overload and stress as a result of that constant interruption, constant bombardment.  And when people email me because they’ve read an article about it on the blog, I often hear how do I cope with managing multiple projects?  How do I stay on top of everything?  I’m falling apart.  This is the biggest concern I get from project management readers is exactly that.

And I wish I had a magic wand to make it go away, but it is all personal, personal discipline or knowing what works best for you; or having that time where you’re focused, and you’ve switched off your other things; or being open to the fact that you are going to get interrupted for the next five hours, but that’s what your team needs from you for that time.  It’s a very difficult balance.  And I think, if you don’t get it right, it can affect your well-being at work.

ANDY CROWE:  Elizabeth, you just touched on something that I think might be very – a little bit controversial today, especially with some of the younger generation because they’ve had collaboration pounded into them, that collaboration’s important, collaboration’s the only way to do anything, et cetera.  I think there are times when we’re suffering from collaboration overload.  It’s not just information overload, but I think there’s something to be said for putting on your noise-canceling headphones, putting your blinders on, and going heads down and doing work.  And, no, I won’t be on Slack.  No, I won’t be on instant message or email or anything else for a while.  I’m going to be pounding something out, a work product.  And I know this is heresy in today’s culture, but I might not be collaborating for just a little while here.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  I think that’s totally fine.  And I think if you don’t find that space, it just means that all your actual, your real work just piles up.  When are you going to get time to update your plans and things?  So I tend to book meetings with  myself.  So I will block out some time in my diary to do a particular task.  And then I know at least other people are going to be a bit more respectful of the fact that I’ve already got an appointment.  It’s with myself, but at least I don’t get booked up doing anything else at that moment.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  Elizabeth, I wanted to ask a follow-up just regarding this specific book, the “Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.”  It is, it’s a timely book.  And I imagine as you were writing it you were probably struggling with just the nature of the book.  You have to update it from time to time.  So what’s changed?  What are you most excited about or looking forward to updating related to the book?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  I think tools are maturing all the time.  So we’ve touched on some things.  Technical literacy is improving across the board as younger people join the workforce.  So some of the challenges of helping generations who are less familiar with technology will fall away with time.  I think there’s more AI, artificial intelligence, and help, artificial help built into tools now.  But I think if I wrote it now I wouldn’t have to include so much about why working practices are changing, why we need to be aware of collaboration, because there’s quite a big chunk in there at the beginning that sort of sets the scene for why people even need to be considering technology and collaboration tools at work.  And I think hopefully, especially here in the U.K., we definitely have.  We’ve got past that now.

I think we’ve arrived at a point where it is expected that project management is a collaborative type job, not a command-and-control type job like perhaps it was 20 years ago.  Having said that, I still get questions in my Facebook group from people who believe that to be the case, who are coming in, saying project managers only deliver outputs.  Projects only deliver outputs.  They don’t deliver anything of value.  We shouldn’t be interested in benefits.  And I know I’ve just thrown loads and loads of topics out there, but some of the things that I would consider to be very old-style thinking.

BILL YATES:  Right.

NICK WALKER:  Elizabeth, thank you so much for using this collaboration tool, this Skype, to join us all the way from the U.K.  We have a gift for you, before you go.  And we use this as a collaboration tool.  It’s a very low-tech collaboration tool.  I’ll hold it up to the camera so you can see it.  It’s your very own Manage This coffee mug.  And we’re going to send that to you.

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Oh, thank you very much.

NICK WALKER:  Before you go, how can people connect with you?

ELIZABETH HARRIN:  Well, I have a Facebook group, so you can come and join me inside Project Management Café on Facebook, where we hang out, and we do live video once a week just to ask the group community questions.  So that’s quite a nice place to be.  I’m also on Twitter at @girlsguidetopm.  Or of course you can find me through my blog, which is GirlsGuidetoPM.com.

NICK WALKER:  Well, thank you again, Elizabeth.  And Andy and Bill, as always, thanks for your expertise, as well.

ANDY CROWE:  Thank you, Nick.

NICK WALKER:  And for our listeners, because of the expertise we provide you here on Manage This, you’re the beneficiary of free PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward your recertifications.  And it’s easy to claim them.  Just go to Velociteach.com and select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and just click through the steps.

That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on February 20th for our next podcast.  In the meantime you can always visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us.  And tweet us at @manage_this if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications.  We are here to help you.

That’s all for this episode.  Thanks for joining us.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

2 responses to “Episode 51 -From Across the Pond, Elizabeth Harrin on Project Collaboration & Tech Trends”

  1. Ola says:

    Thanks for publishing this interview!
    I love the way Elizabeth talks about project management; feels like it’s her biggest passion! It was a big pleasure to had her in one of our Stay On Top of Work podcast episodes where she discusses male and female perspective in PM: https://www.timecamp.com/blog/index.php/2018/03/elizabeth-harrin-podcast/. Hope you and your listeners enjoy it!

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