Don’t Let the New Normal Ruin Your Projects

By: Alec Talan

There’s a phrase that’s been floating around for quite a while now during this COVID pandemic: “getting back to the new normal.”

But what is the new normal? Year two, round three is beginning to leave a mark. Right now, everyone is having a hard time looking more than a week ahead. Will we see more mandates again, new restrictions, new uncertainties, another variant? Will we keep working out of our closets, in the shadow of our Peloton?

The future is still unpredictable, and that translates over to how we handle work and projects. Misunderstandings abound, everyone’s getting burnt out, and it’s harder than ever to actually accomplish anything.

Missing The Collective Wisdom?

Our brains have reached the oversaturation point. We have more data than we’ve ever had in human history available to us, and our brains are in the red zone trying to process and retain it all. In short, we can’t, so we externalize what we can. 

Consider this analogy: a high-functioning person with Alzheimer’s might have sticky notes around the house to remind him what to do. 

“Turn off the coffee pot.”

“Brush your teeth.”

Without those notes, what happens? He might not be able to function at as high a level. These notes (as well as the phone numbers your phone stores so you don’t have to recall them) are part of the extended mind. We’ve learned to let go of needing to retain information—and sometimes even think for ourselves—because we know we have a fallback plan with the technology and tools around us.

Large organizations work in a similar fashion: no one person can possibly know how everything works, and everyone at best only has a small piece of the collective puzzle. Institutional knowledge is a real thing and it’s what’s required to be leveraged when doing any major collective endeavor. 

We see this in conference rooms (remember those?). Everyone’s smarter sitting around a whiteboard brainstorming in person. For whatever reason, that physical synergy of being in the same space together helps teams connect the dots better. The team’s extended mind is in full force. 

Maybe in a meeting in that conference room, someone raises a question that no one can answer, so you step out and cross the hall to the office of Ted in Accounting to get the answer. Done. The meeting resumes effectively.

But most of us aren’t in the same room these days. We’re flipping from one virtual meeting to the next on our tiny screens…and we walk away feeling like zombies, unsure of what has been accomplished and who is doing what next. There is a tangible gap in personal rapport that no camera can overcome.

If you have a question, you can Slack a team member, email if you’re desperate, or try a direct unscheduled call if you’re feeling lucky, but you may have to wait for an answer and you can’t close things. If you make a decision based on the information you have, you risk it being the wrong decision. So you fire off all of your questions to all of your people and wait for the asynchronous responses, and when they start coming in, not in the order you wanted, you have to piecemeal your train of thought. 

Everything’s taking longer and work is getting sloppier.

So What’s the Solution?

I’m not trying to bring doom and gloom to an already doomed world—heat death is coming, after all—but I do think it’s important to recognize that, if this is the new normal, it’s gonna be a challenge. But being aware of it is the first step to fixing the issues.

So, throwing aside existential dread and getting down to tactical thinking, how can we make the situation better?

Build in a Buffer

From a capacity planning standpoint, you have to build in more buffer time. Delays are going to happen and it will take longer to get to decisions (the right ones, anyway). Plan for there to be confusion and escalations that will do their best to derail a project timeline. Pad that timeline with extra time. And hey, if you complete early, you look like a rock star!

Communicate Effectively (and Teach Your Team How to Do So)

You’ve also got to double down on having precise communication because there’s a lot of misunderstanding going on right now. Without a keen focus on the right communication, you end up putting out more fires and adding even more time to completion.

I recently had an explosion on a finance project completely based on misunderstandings that could have been easily avoided had the leaders collectively discussed a few future possible outcomes—the dreaded contingency planning—and what each of the teams would consider as acceptable or not. So now, after the fireworks, the leaders from both teams have end-of-day daily touchpoints to get on the same page, share concerns, and get in front of any upcoming uncertainty to avoid more confusion and future blowups. 

While, yes, these daily check-ins take more time, they also help team members develop muscle memory for handoffs and approvals. Here’s an example of how this protocol has avoided serious issues.

There were six directors involved in this project. Deadlines were tight, and multiple near-delays had already destroyed the happy path timeline. Before the build could finally begin, an analyst needed one final director’s approval. This director had, in a phone conversation, said she would give her approval as soon as she could meet with her counterpart around 11:30am the next day. Once those two conferred, she would formally sign the design document, and a whole army of people would be at last released to start working feverishly to get the thing built.

So here comes the teaching moment: our hapless analyst didn’t clarify who would schedule the meeting and simply left a status update that at 11:30 tomorrow everything would be done, whereas the director assumed the analyst would schedule the required meeting. Of course, nothing was going to happen and no approvals would follow. 

One imprecise conversation and one poorly-worded note could have resulted in a massive impact on hundreds of people around the world and caused major escalations up and down the organization. Fortunately, we caught the issue in our daily touchpoint. Unfortunately, it took six highly paid people an hour to fix what should have been done in 30 seconds.

Teach every person on your team how to be conscientious of clarity of thought. You might have in your head that something needs to follow a certain process, but unless you pull out that thought and share it with others, you can’t expect them to follow that process. Err on the side of overcommunication. When in doubt, preach the gospel of “who what when”: at the conclusion of meetings, always restate the common understanding of the outcome and next steps, and always send the group clear documentation of who will do what thing by which time. 

Teach people to focus. Not multitask. If they’re half-watching a Teams call but also checking email and scolding their toddler for drawing on the walls, they’re not listening. They’re distracted. Sure, you can’t control that from the other side of the screen, but instill in your team the idea that they need to focus so they are tuned in to their responsibilities. One way to help is to ensure everyone on the call has a speaking role, even if it is as simple as letting others know whether they agree and understand any given decision or topic. 

Accept that the Decision-Making Process Has Changed and Adapt

Because things are spread out remotely, people are less likely to want to make a decision without making sure everyone is on the same page. Decision-making funnels have become bigger. One person doesn’t feel empowered to make a decision these days and will want to check with four or five other people to get a consensus.

This is different, yes. Accept that your consensus groups are larger and that you’ll probably go over the same information again and again. And this expanded game of telephone may change the content subtly each time, which can create a vortex of analysis paralysis, as well as distrust and anxiety. Having formal decision ceremonies may help, both because it forces a date for consensus building to bottom out, and also because it establishes a forum for clear restatements of each outcome.

Lastly, leverage virtual collaboration tools so you have an audit trail of how a given outcome was attained. If someone wasn’t paying attention in a meeting, you’ve got the whole deliberation journey documented to refresh their memory. Now, these tools are only as useful as how you use them and, as working with any tool, it takes practice and repetition to internalize and make using them a habit. So, if you do embark on bringing a tool into your working environment, go all-in lest you backslide after the initial honeymoon period and everyone ends up back in email and conference calls. 

This is where the unglamorous but highly valuable collaboration management roles come in to play. They’ll need to run daily reports and queries to find poorly worded hand-offs, incomplete entries, inconsistent dates or task owners, and generally remind people to be clear and complete in their communication with each other. 

Throw Perfection Out of the Window

Now more than ever, perfection is the enemy of good. This is why it’s better to start doing things so you can start failing and then know what needs fixing. Things will break. There will be escalations. But if you start with “good enough” before reaching perfection (spoiler: you never will), you will have tangible things to fix instead of spinning on what could and should be done. And fixing things, isn’t that what the new normal is all about?

We find ourselves navigating a period of crisis. We can keep bailing out the boat we’re in, or we can work on finding solutions to patch the leaks. Prioritize communication. Tighten up decision-making. Pay attention. Adapt as necessary. And be ready to change it all again next year!