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Are you a project chugger?

A bit of bright weather and suddenly the pavements are full of people waving clipboards, trying to get you to stop at the end of a busy day and donate to charity. While the causes are always good, the method of extracting direct debit details from passers by is low-tech, and if you are trying to get somewhere in a hurry, you will have learned that it’s best to give the chuggers a wide berth.

The term chugger comes from ‘charity’ and ‘mugger’ and is a catch-all word to describe people who flag you down in the street and engage in small talk while trying to get something out of you that you may or may not be willing to give.

Change the context of the street to the office corridor, and project managers are just as guilty of being chuggers – and we don’t even collect money for charity. We’re just after information from the project team for status reports, emails and because we feel insecure if we don’t know what is going on all the time. Every time we see a team member walk past we jump on them for the latest news, even if we saw them only a couple of hours ago.

Do you recognise yourself? Lots of project managers are project chuggers, without realising it. Unfortunately for our teams, it’s not easy to work for a chugger. There’s the constant worry that you don’t have all the information to hand and that you’ll be asked for the details when there aren’t any to tell. On top of that, you have to be prepared for any eventuality: who knows what your project manager will ask you about this time?

There’s no structure to chugging for information. And there is always the risk that it’s easier to make something up or try to baffle the project manager with science if there isn’t anything to say, rather than see the disappointed look on their faces when you tell them you have nothing to report.

There is some good news: if you are a project chugger there are steps you can take to curb your addiction to project information and make it easier for your team to give you status updates.

Get updates at regular times

Ask your project team to give you regular updates at specific times such as every Friday afternoon, or first thing every day. Make this once a week at least. This way your team will get into the habit of giving you information on a continual basis. They will know when to supply it and you will know when you will receive it, so it won’t feel like you are working in an information vacuum.

Define what you need

It’s great to know what the latest status is of every last detail, but do you really need to know?  If you trust your team to get on and do their jobs you can implement reporting by exception.  If you don’t feel comfortable going that far at least define with your team what the important elements are and focus on those.

Better that you know about the big issues so that you can do something about them, instead of listening to issues that your team can resolve perfectly well without you.

Who gets the update?

Do you all get together for a regular round-the-table update? Or do you speak to each team member individually? It is useful for everyone to have a view of what the whole team is doing, so if you can all join in and listen to the status updates from each individual then make the time to do it. Finding out what your colleagues are up to can alleviate problems, prevent rework and generate a more cohesive team atmosphere. If you get the updates in writing decide who is on the circulation list. You could get each individual to email you directly and then you can produce a consolidated report.

Set a time limit

If you meet regularly and you bring the whole team together for status updates, bear in mind that some people will ramble on.  You probably already know those characters.  Tell people that they only have two minutes to give the update for that day/week. People often have no idea how long two minutes actually is, and they can still be talking ten minutes later. That’s fine, if what they say is relevant to the entire group, but you can encourage people to stick to the time limit by using an egg timer or a stop watch. Otherwise you risk wasting the rest of the team’s time.

Be flexible

There will be times when you need to get information outside your set status update framework. That’s fine: it happens, and as the project manager you do need to know what’s going on. However, you can approach this in a non-chuggerish way. Don’t pounce on your team member. It’s appropriate to check if they are in the middle of something and be prepared to come back – in half an hour or so, not three weeks. If you need to speak to them straight away, make it clear that it’s necessary. Get all the information you need in one go: don’t go back several times with “just one more question.”

Most people respond well to being allowed autonomy and the benefit of a trusting work relationship. However, there are some people who will never give you status updates, regardless of how many times they promise faithfully to send you a report every Friday afternoon. For those characters on your project team the more direct approach will work better, or else you risk not getting any updates at all. Don’t chase everyone though – save your chugging to those who respond best that way, and keep it to once a day at a maximum. You don’t want your project team to start walking the long way round to the photocopier just to avoid your desk!

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