4 Essential Tips for Supporting the Team

Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

How can a program director or program manager effectively support the team the team's time management, information flow and priorities? Here are four experience-based tips to encourage ideas and communication while at the same time bringing a sense of order to the abundance of information that the team will undoubtedly need to reference. This article outlines approaches a program manager can start implementing today!

How can a program director or program manager effectively support the team the team's time management, information flow and priorities?

Is this situation similar to anything you've experienced in leading programs:  I listened as our division president mandated a not-insignificant scope increase for an active program.  With a completion date set by external factors (a regulatory deadline) and with changing business conditions demanding a scope increase, I was in every program leader’s nightmare situation: how to deliver the additional value needed by the business on a fixed schedule set by regulators.

Almost immediately it dawned on me that this was a familiar plight.  And probably familiar to most program executives, program directors and program managers.

As a program leader, I’ve supported project managers (who use traditional predictive methods), as well as scrum masters and kanban coaches (who apply agile frameworks).  In leading countless programs, inevitably an event or change occurred and we needed to adjust.  Yes, traditional planning, change management, and issue & risk management methods would come into play, or an agile mindset of responding to change would be at work.  But what would enable success when using those techniques?

The four experience-based tips I’m sharing here are approaches and practices that have consistently resulted in superior program and team performance - these are actions a program leader can take in supporting the performance of the team.  These are part of my professional toolkit and could be a helpful addition to your personal program leadership handbook:

  • Promote psychological safety and open communications. Having confidence in being able to openly share thoughts, perspectives and ideas is one of the most powerful enablers a program leader can foster in the team.  This is how new, perhaps novel, ideas become possibilities. Feeling free to disclose difficulties creates an opportunity for aiding others or implementing improvements.  In the absence of psychological safety, the odds are that innovative thoughts will remain unspoken, a roadblock's resolution may be delayed, and overall team effectiveness will lag far behind its potential.  I've seen jaw-dropping impacts on the business, eclipsing by far those accomplishments of prior years, when team members each know they can speak up and contribute.
  • Express earnest appreciation frequently and meaningfully. My experience is that team members can accomplish the seemingly impossible if they are in an environment where their efforts and results are known, acknowledged, and appreciated.  Minimize superficial 5-second public praising ("Great job Dana on that project last week").  Minimize generic praise ("You're doing a great job").  Feedback is much more meaningful and impactful if it includes tidbits about the work performed, the impact, why it is important - you can say a lot in a minute or two that conveys an understanding of the effort and a sincere appreciation for the impact.  And remember that appreciation is always welcome from the organization's leaders (you may need to prompt them) and other team members.
  • Establish an effective method of handling information. You'll need a mechanism for you, the team and stakeholders to receive and manage a continuous, never-ending flood of information. I find that an email inbox or an IM channel (e.g., slack) is difficult to organize, doesn't serve as a persistent reference for me or for others on the team, and is relegated to being a "junk drawer" in which I search for information that I hope is there.  It is an inherently inefficient means of finding needed information.  A collaborative program repository (e.g., an MS-Teams channel, Google Workspace) exposes information to others on the team, provides a rich info source for those who join the program, and enables an efficient transfer of information when someone on the team leaves and is replaced.  Strive for a team norm that won't accept having each person's email inbox as a legitimate information repository.
  • Clarify the use of communication channels within the program. Today's office tools provide an abundance of options for communicating with one another.  Ironically, this can be a source of communication breakdowns.  It's just too confusing if methods for communicating with one another are a free for all: you send text messages, the business contacts prefer Teams chat, the product manager is constantly sending email, and others insist that scheduled video calls are the only way to convey information.  Wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard "I missed your message because I don't regularly check my email."  Partner with the team to select the (few) channels everyone will be using, craft guidance on effective use of each channel and provide training materials; adapt if the initial choices aren't working well enough.

So how did we handle the last-minute program changes introduced by our division president?

Quite well.  To begin with, our communications methods served us well.  The scope change and rationale were rapidly and accurately conveyed.  Clarity and the speed in this messaging avoided rumors and distractions.  It also helped in getting alignment on the need for urgent planning and timely execution.

We were well positioned to accept this expanded scope.  The program team's skills were rock solid, and the technical project manager was exceptionally capable.  More importantly, people were engaged: suggestions on how to adapt and proceed were abundant, and all were discussed and considered.  Motivation was high, in part because prior accomplishments had been recognized and appreciated.

With minimal heroics we implemented the needed capabilities, met the submission deadline, and ultimately received regulatory approval.  Product and technology leadership were thrilled with this achievement, and the team was ecstatic with this over-and-above performance.

What approaches do you implement as a program leader in supporting a program team?