Four Ways to Bring Structure to Your Next Project

We had outgrown our building. The company expanded so quickly that it was hard to find enough room for everybody. Office cubicles that were small, to begin with, were cut in half so that two people could occupy them. Desks were set up in hallways and temporary offices made out of storage rooms. Something had to give.

The company finally moved to a new location with plenty of office space and enough parking for everyone. The parking lot wasn’t anything fancy; it was just a huge wide open span of concrete in the back of the building, a blank canvas without any marked spaces, directional signs or speed bumps. Without the usual traffic guides typical of commercial lots, people parked wherever they wanted. There were cars parked this way and that way. Some people parked their cars up on the curb, while others parked up against the building. It was always terribly disorganized. It also felt like you were taking your life into your own hands every time you went around the corner of the building because you never knew if there was a car coming in the other direction.

I came to work one Monday morning to a drastically changed landscape. Every car was lined up perfectly next to each other. There were no cars on the curb, or up against the building, or blocking each other in. What’s more, it was smooth sailing; employees were entering and exiting the parking lot around the corner without slamming on their brakes to avoid hitting each other.

What happened? Someone had come in over the weekend and painted lines in the parking lot. There were now spaces to fill, arrows to follow, and lanes to stay in. These lines were possibly only an inch thick on the pavement, but they provided enough direction that everyone was still able to operate within the structure they provided and benefit by it.

You’ll see the same behavior at airport security check points. The only thing that prevents a mob of people from becoming disorganized and crashing in on the security desks is a single rope, hanging between stanchions and providing a marked path. This little bit of structure keeps everyone organized and moving forward in an orderly fashion.

What’s clear from these two examples is that people appreciate and will naturally follow structure, no matter how subtle, apparently superficial, or topical it may be. Do you provide this structure for your project team? Do you paint any lines on the pavement or create the pathways for them to follow?

Four Ways to Bring Structure to Your Next Project

Four Ways to Bring Structure to Your Next Project

The following are the marks of structure that your team will appreciate, and that will help you keep your projects running smoothly:

#1. Be Consistent

The first thing you can do to provide structure is to be consistent as a project manager. You need to operate in the same way from one day to the next as it relates to what you require, what you expect, and what you will accept. There’s nothing more frustrating, and chaos-inducing, than constantly flip-flopping on your team.

I used to work closely with a colleague to draw up contracts for clients. When we got together, he would rattle off what needed to be included and what needed to be changed. I’d go away and make those changes, and then we’d get together again to review them. In the beginning, he would promptly reverse everything he had said the last time, and would want everything back the way it was! I lived through this wasteful inconsistency only a couple of times before I changed the way we worked on contracts, by redlining them together in a web meeting to make sure the changes would stick.

Are you doing something similar to your project team? They may not tell you, but they will be grumbling under their breath if you flip-flop on them.

#2. Be Predictable

One of the resources on my team said to me one day, “Oh, you’re so predictable.” It was a kind of back-handed compliment, but I thanked her anyway and responded by saying there were definitely worse things I could be as a project manager than being predictable, one of which was unpredictable.

Are you predictable as a project manager? Predictability is a great way of instilling a structure of expectation. Your team needs to know what they can expect from you, and what you expect from them. Do your meetings start on time every time? Are they secure and confident in knowing what you will be presented each time you get together (well thought-out and accurate status reports, for example), and do you have the same confidence in those on your team?

There should be no surprises on how you manage a project. You don’t want to be like the jack-in-the-box that flips its lid at any time and scares everyone to death!

#3. Follow Up

Another practical way to instill structure is to follow up with your resources on a regular basis. If done properly, following up on the status of their deliverables and work sends the message that you are interested and engaged enough to get involved. If handled improperly, they may perceive your close eye on their doings to be a sign that you don’t trust them.

How do you follow up in a productive way? Inquire about their work in the spirit of curiosity (I’d love to see what you’ve done), assistance (is there anything you need from me to finish?), or standard operating procedure (it’s in the plan to do a walkthrough at a particular point in the project). Your team members will appreciate your involvement and the lines you paint on the pavement.

#4. Impose Consequences as Warranted

What happens if someone clearly parks outside of the lines and right in the middle of a fire lane? They can, and most likely will, get towed or hit with a fine. If rules are clear and consequences are in place, it will not only prevent them from doing the same thing in the future but also serve as a lesson for others. Other people will see what happens when the rules are broken and think twice about doing the same thing.

Now, don’t get all crazy with rules for the sake of rules. You’re not teaching or trying to control a classroom of kindergarteners. But, there are certain structural guidelines that must be followed to keep some sense of order. For example, a person may have had plenty of time and opportunity to finish a deliverable, but poor planning on their part has caused them to run behind and now, there is the potential of missing the date. This is where you as the project manager, for the sake of the team and the project, will need to step in and have the “do whatever it takes” conversation, which may entail some nights and weekends. They parked outside the lines and now have to pay a fine.

You will find that most people appreciate and respect structure to be in place on their projects. It just makes everyone’s job that much easier. Make sure the structure of your projects is subtle yet visible, like the lines on a parking lot or rows at an airport, and you’ll have everyone working together in no time!

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