Project Management

How to Boost Your Project Management Skills Using Science

Daniel Threlfall
July 3, 2017
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It boggles my mind how complex of a machine the human body is.

We have unbelievably intricate systems that require regular maintenance to do their best. If we don’t have enough to eat or if we don’t sleep enough, we function poorly.

That’s something we’ve all felt before. I’ve been in seasons of life where I simply couldn’t get the right amount of rest and exercise. With work demands, young kids (I have four), and other circumstances, it can be super challenging!

Maybe you’ve headed to work on three hours of sleep with a piping hot cup of coffee in hand. Or maybe you’ve had to skip a meal (or several) to finish a project on time.

As humans, we also react to certain stimuli. Or, in other words, we perform in certain ways — optimal or suboptimal —  depending on the specific conditions. If we can identify and recreate those conditions, we can build an optimized atmosphere for ourselves.

As a project manager, you know why having optimized conditions is so important. Your performance––and your team’s performance––can suffer if you’re not careful.

That’s where science comes to the rescue.

Science gives us an objective set of rules about humanity and how we act and interact. But it goes beyond biological science. Psychology can tell us how to work best and maximize our own potential, and sociology informs how we deal with others.

If your project hasn’t been the best, try using these scientific concepts to reinvigorate your team and refresh the atmosphere.

Biology: Use meditation to enhance focus and productivity

It probably comes as no surprise that we’re bad at slowing down.

Project managers are often the go-getters, the hustlers, the overachievers, and the get-up-early-and-get-it-done personalities.

The advent of the Internet has made this even more difficult. Every day we multitask, checking email while on the phone and keeping countless browser tabs open. (I may or may not have sent text and/or Facebook messages while writing this article.)

There are more demands on our attention than ever before, and it’s severely hampered our ability to focus.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about, well, deep work.

Newport defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”

If that sounds difficult, you’re not alone. Millions of workers all over the globe feel the same way you do.

It’s because we’ve been rewired to excel at what Newport calls shallow work. Sometimes, we spend all day “working,” but when it’s time to go home, we find we haven’t actually done much.

One of the ways to solve that is with the age-old practice of meditation.

I know meditation in a workplace setting might seem odd, but it has real and immediate benefits.

Leaders like Steve Jobs, Jeff Weiner, and Evan Williams have all used meditation to boost their performance.

Meditation’s effects are surprising. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that meditation may help with stress levels, anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other medical conditions.

Even small amounts of regularly scheduled meditation can have astounding benefits. At the University of Wisconsin-Stout, researchers found that even two 30-minute sessions per week helped participants feel better.

According to the Harvard Business Review, CEOs around the world use meditation as a powerful tool to focus, feel better, and improve relationships in the workplace.

If you’re new to meditation, try a simple breathing exercise like this one. It only takes a few minutes before you start your day. Waking up 10-15 minutes earlier is a small price to pay for improved concentration and productivity.

You can also lead your team through meditative exercise. Group meditation can be even more effective than meditating on your own.

Many religious systems have their own forms of meditation, but meditation is not an innately religious practice. Perhaps you are not religious or come from a religious tradition that rejects other religion’s forms of meditation. As science has shown, meditation is a psychological practice — the process of taking ownership of one’s mind and cognition to bring clarity and order to one’s thinking.

Psychology: Organize your team strategically

Friction within groups is one of the worst things that can happen during a project.

One day, everything’s going fine, but the next, your team members are bickering over the smallest thing.

Team creation is a tricky beast to manage.

That’s partly because chemistry is a crucial characteristic of a successful team. The best teams can work together seamlessly, handle disputes well, and keep everyone in check.

But too often, power struggles erupt and personality conflicts arise. It’s almost inevitable…or so it seems.

The secret to organizing a great group has a helpful analogy in the game of tug of war.

Your team needs to be balanced, and it needs to have a structure in place that levels the playing field.

Don’t let the “war” moniker throw you off. The idea is to find balance between competing forces. Let me explain with two points.

First, you need to consider each member’s personality and ability.

Think of your team as a machine. Machines don’t work with just one type of part. Rather, they work using various types of parts, parts of all shapes and sizes.

The same concept applies to the people within your group. You don’t want anyone to be psychologically intruding on other members.

For example, grouping three “all-stars” together is practically begging for conflict. Likewise, creating an all-introvert group may not yield the best results.

One of my first PM experiences furnished me with a group 15 extroverts to manage. (I inherited the group; I did not hire them.)

Great, right? A bunch of super outgoing, super personable people!

Actually, it was awful.

Taken in isolation, each team member was an outstanding high performer. In a group context, they were a disaster.

Over time, I made personnel changes. Some team members went elsewhere, while I brought on new people whose temperament and personality balanced out the group’s dynamic.

The result? Better than I could have imagined.

You need a good balance of introvert and extrovert, high achievers and obedient workers, experts and rookies.

Second, you need to foster the right kind of community.

High levels of competition can lead to resentment, stress, and bitterness, destroying group morale and focus. On the flip side, setting zero standards and taking a hands off approach can result in nothing getting done.

A good work culture is nurturing yet honest, ambitious yet cooperative. I know those sound like antonyms, but they work in harmony.

To begin with, you need to encourage communication within your group. Team members should feel comfortable with expressing their feelings to each other and to you.

You also need to account for different personality types and work styles. Make sure the extroverts don’t dominate conversations, and allow slower workers to have focused time set aside for the tasks at hand.

It’s no walk in the park, but it’s well worth it to keep your team members mentally and emotionally at their best.

Sociology: Give your team a little breathing room

The old ideas of the workplace are changing more and more each day.

There’s a reason the phrase “9 to 5” is synonymous with “workday.” Even today, we (however subconsciously) expect a job to have a fixed time frame.

But what if that’s not the best idea for your team?

It sounds crazy, but the answer may lie in giving your team some space. (Literally.)

A study from the American Sociological Association discovered that employees who participated in a work flexibility “voiced higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced levels of burnout and psychological stress than employees within the same company who did not participate.”

The idea that teams can benefit from taking breaks and working at their own pace is definitely counterintuitive, but there are several compelling case studies that suggest it works like a charm.

Take 3M, for example. They allow workers to spend up to 15 percent of their time on personal projects with the goal of achieving innovation. As a result, their workers consistently perform well and produce incredible results.

Other companies have used similar programs to great success. Google gave employees 20 percent of their time off, and several innovations, like Gmail, Google Earth, and Gmail Labs, emerged from that policy.

That doesn’t mean you have to copy 3M or Google. Instead, try implementing focused free time throughout the workday.

Decide on a time limit, say 1 hour, and allow your team members to step away from the project. It’s important that they’re doing something related to the project (even if it’s just thinking).

While it is an act of trust, giving your team a bit of free time can help them declutter their minds and approach the project with a fresh perspective.

Project management is an art and a science.

While this article has been all about science, project management is part science and part art.

You have to know the scientific rules, but you have to know when to apply them and when to not apply them. That takes some good old fashioned intuition and experience.

Will you ever get it perfect? Probably not. But over time, your instincts will grow sharper, and you’ll be able to gauge situations you may have been unable to before.

I’m still learning when and where to apply the right science. I’ll never stop learning, and neither will you.

But you and I can both do our best to make sure our teams are the best they can be, thanks to these scientific facts.

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