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Complex, creative work can be some of the most challenging and rewarding work to do. Unfortunately, it can also be the most frustrating. When you’re the team lead, it’s your job to protect your team’s creativity and energy by keeping projects from endlessly expanding, consuming all the resources, or turning into endless, recurring tasks instead of defined projects.
There are three different ways that a team can be held hostage to an unending project.
Creative Scope Creep
Creative projects are notorious for inevitable scope creep: you start with a defined scope of work, and base your estimates of needed resources and time on that scope. As you tackle the project, however, the defined edges get fuzzy.
More work is needed, and the scope of the project creeps out, maybe just a little bit here and a little bit there. That extra work, however, can completely skew all plans and timelines, leading to frustration and a project that becomes much more time-consuming and labor-intensive than predicted.
Complex projects, whether they’re defined as “creative” or not, come with plenty of room for expansion. The more complex a project is, the more difficult to accurately predict the needed resources, timelines, and dependencies. Complex projects often become clear as you finish one stage and move to another; the way you’ll complete the last 50% of a complex project may not be clear, for example, until you’ve done the first 50% of the work.
Complex projects can become all-consuming, because your team is not only busy doing the actual work, they’re also continually adjusting expectations and deadlines, communicating new information, and reworking plans to accommodate that information.
Tasks as Projects
Sometimes a project just isn’t a project. This is especially common with teams whose work covers a particular area of a business, rather than working on a project-specific basis. An IT support team, for example, will have big projects like switching to new servers, and they’ll also have regular maintenance tasks like updating software.
When ongoing or recurring tasks are treated as projects instead tasks, frustration results. Projects should have a defined scope, a definite goal, and a timeline for completion. Recurring tasks may have a goal, but the task simply resets itself when the goal is reached.
Fighting Back for Your Team
As the team lead, it’s your job to corral the scope creep and complexity, to define projects and tasks, and to protect your team’s creativity and motivation.
Your first means of defense is prevention. Be sure that each new project has a well-defined scope and goal. For larger projects, set goals within goals. Help your team construct phases for complex projects, so that they can complete a phase, regroup and plan for the next phase, and not try to do all the work and all the planning simultaneously.
Intervention is the next way to protect your team. Notice and deal with scope creep and expanding complexity when it happens. Communication within the team is vital; use regular check-ins, meetings, and easy communication portals like instant messaging to see if your team is drowning in new demands and urgencies.
Find the source of the stress: a client, an internal source, or simply an unforeseen situation. Is it controllable or not? If the solution isn’t obvious, call in your team and work out a plan together. Adjust timelines and resource needs as needed, so no one feels like they have to meet the old goals with a pile of new, unforeseen work added on.
Your final tool is transformation: when you realize that your team is working on a project that is actually a recurring task, name it as such and change the approach. Recurring tasks can be just as creatively demanding and complex as projects. However, they need to be handled with a system, not with a project approach. Ask your team to build a system for the task (system building is a project!) and then implement the system with key measures built into it. Measures let your team know they’re completing the task, doing the work and achieving the goal of the task. A good system lets them do so without all the intense focus and creative energy required by a project.
If these scenarios sound familiar, it might be a good idea to pull your team together and talk about it. They will have their own insights and ideas for handling projects that get out of hand. When everyone is aware of the danger of unending projects, everyone can work together to avoid that slow death and find solutions.
This list is purely subjective, on one hand. On the other hand, I really do think that these are the best free business apps because Iâve looked at other lists and they all come with usual suspects, like Evernote, Dropbox or Skype. How very enlightening. NOT. So here is my version.
1.Â Â Â Bitrix24
I hearby declare Bitrix24 the best free business app that you probably donât know about. In fact, Bitrix24 is 35+ business tools inside a single platform â CRM, project management, employee management, call center, virtual office, cloud call center, document management, invoicing, email marketing and much more. There are three things that Bitrix24 does exceptionally well. First isÂ CRM and client management. Second,Â collaboration, planning and project management. Third,Â human resources information system. One review called Bitrix24 âbusiness management platform and I think thatâs the best description for it. Or you can think of Bitrix24 as Salesforce+Skype+Dropbox+Basecamp in one. Totally free for 12 users. Available for iOS, Android, Web, Unix, Linux, Windows and MacOS.
2.Â Â Â Qwirl
Qwirl is a bit difficult to explain, if you never tried it. Essentially, it turns any business document into an interactive webpage.Â Think of Qwirl as free quotes and proposal software. Or a way to create beautiful presentations for your clients. Or reports for investors. Thatâs Qwirl. Founded by ex-Googlers, this service has all the chances to become the next Prezi.
3.Â Â Â Wave Accounting
I wish every service would have pricing page like WaveApps. Â The service is absolutely and totally free (and itâs a very powerful accounting platform). Itâs especially great at scanning receipts, which is done by simply using your mobile phone camera once you install the app called Receipts by Wave. Unlike Expensify which handles only expenses, as the name implies, Wave Accounting can be used as a payroll and invoicing solution.
4.Â Â Â Bizagi
Bizagi is a free business process modeler solution used by more than 500,000 users worldwide. It is 100% based on BPMN notations, which is a de facto standard for business process automation nowadays. Granted not very many smaller businesses think about processes, standards and procedures, but if you are ready to grow, definitely give Bizagi a try.
5.Â Â Â Schedulehead
Schedulehead is an employee scheduling service. As long as used by 10 employees and 1 administrator, itâs absolutely free of charge. The free service includes knowledge base and email notifications. If you operate your business with tablets and smartphones, ShiftCalendar may be a better choice, but for non-mobile workforce I think Schedulehead works better. Â You may also want to consider upgrading to paid plans if you want your employees to receive text messages with their schedule updates.
Oh, and donât forget about my serviceÂ PickyDomains.com
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To build an effective team, you need more than industry knowledge or technical proficiency. You need a group of people who can work together in a positive, productive way, getting through disagreements to come up with real solutions.Â
That kind of team depends on soft skills, and these are the essential soft skills your team needs.Â
Key Communication Skills
Teams depend on communication. Itâs the ground-level requirement for any group of people working together; otherwise thereâs no way for these people to share ideas, give and receive feedback, reach common solutions, set goals, and assign tasks.Â
Good communication skills include listening, speaking, understanding, and clarifying.Â
Listening: listening with your whole attention in order to really hear and understand what the other person is trying to convey.Â
Speaking: sharing in spoken (or written) language, with a courteous tone and clear words, what you are trying to convey.Â
Understanding: thinking about whatâs been said to be sure you understand the meaning before you respond to it.Â
Clarifying: speaking back what you think you understand in order to confirm that you have an accurate understanding.Â
Key Problem Solving SkillsÂ
A team exists to solve problems in one way or another; a creative team may be creating new solutions or concepts, while an operations team may be refining the daily systems that keep the business running. The better each team member is at problem-solving, the stronger and more creative your team can be in coming up with solutions.Â
To solve problems, help your team members develop the key problem-solving skills.Â
Identifying the problem: getting to the root cause of the problem to be solved before trying to solve it.Â
Researching and analyzing: gathering pertinent information that will affect possible solutions.Â
Creative thinking: sorting through ideas for potential solutions and developing new and creative ways to solve problems.Â
Refining: discussing various ideas and ways to implement, anticipating obstacles, and developing workable solutions.Â
Implementing: making a decision, organizing resources and assigning tasks, and executing a plan to put the new solution into place.Â
Key Interpersonal SkillsÂ
Beyond the basic communication skills, your team can benefit greatly by developing strong interpersonal skills. The most effective teams are the ones that have developed a shared identity and sense of unity.Â
Thatâs easy to do when your team members have good interpersonal skills, which helps them create connections and build trust.Â
Nonverbal communication: maintaining good body language and friendly eye contact appropriate to each situation.Â
Basic manners: expressing basic courtesy in order to treat each person with respect. Social cues: identifying and interpreting social cues, such as when itâs time to end a conversation.Â
Self-awareness: knowing and managing your own preferences and tendencies in order to avoid undue stress on yourself and others.Â
Responsibility: being willing to take responsibility for your choices and actions. Honesty: being assertive when needed, stating your opinion courteously, and contributing to the ongoing discussions in a team.Â
The list may seem long, but fortunately many of these soft skills are developed in the formative years, through family, social, and educational interactions. For the ones that are a bit lacking or rusty, simply being aware of the need to improve can help.Â
Focused workshops, training, seminars, or guided discussions can also help your team to develop these soft skills. Theyâre worth the time and effort; the better your team is at communicating, problem-solving, and relating to each other, the stronger and more creative they will be in their work.Â
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A lot of teams nowadays are distributed. People are telecommuting, working fr om home and relying on other forms of non-traditional employment ranging fr om (freelancing, temp work, short term contacts). How do you build a strong team when people donât see each other every day in an office environment?Â
JL: Three things come to mind:Â
Clarity of work and outcomes. When people are working in non-traditional environments, itâs easy to get so focused on your own work and forget how it connects to what others are doing. As a manager of leader of virtual teams, itâs critical to keep everyone focused on the âbig pictureâ and what each member is doing to contribute to the outcomes.
Maintain âface time.â Part of what makes a strong team is positive emotional energy. Interacting with others through some type of video conferencing on a consistent basis is important. If at all possible, physically meet from time to time as well.Â
Keep everyone informed. As the leader or manager of the virtual team, keep other team members abreast of what others are doing. It prevents team members from thinking, âI wonder what _______ is doing?â which can lessen the trust they have that the other person is fully contributing to the desired outcomes.Â
A lot of times team building activities provide a short term motivational boost that quickly fizzles out. What can managers do in order to make sure that there really is a long term transformational effect after that weekend retreat?Â
JL: I think it starts BEFORE the weekend retreat starts. Getting input from the team members about their expectations and needs from the retreat is essential. It helps them take more ownership in the event and more fully participate. When someone contacts me about conducting such a retreat and says the goal is âteambuilding,â I know I have a lot of work to do to get to the real needs of the team before the event.Â
The other key is completing something akin to a 30/60/90 day plan before leaving the retreat. Connect the actions to goals and outcomes. Make it as âgranularâ as possible.Â
What are the most common team building mistakes that companies make in your experience?Â
JL: Thinking that team members know each other. You may know wh ere they have worked and some âsurfaceâ stuff, but do you know the types of projects and assignments they have completed? Team members so often have experience and insights that are never leveraged because we donât take the time to learn from them. We donât know what drives their behaviors or gives them a sense of meaning about their work.Â
Not everyone is an outgoing extravert type. How do you deal with âlonersâ and âlone wolfâ employees?Â
JL: Communication, Communication, Communication. In my opinion this is wh ere the manager or leader can have a huge impact on the success of the team. Take the time to better understand how each member of your team prefers to get work done. Consistently communicate to that âlone wolfâ about staying in contact with other team members. Regularly scheduled brief meetings via video chat or phone can help keep them connected to the team.Â
You wrote three books. What was your motivation behind âJuggling Elephantsâ, ‘Getting to It’ and ‘Getting the Blue Ribbon’?Â
JL: ForÂ Juggling Elephants, the primary motivation was forÂ Todd MusigÂ (other co-author) and I to find a better way to manage the struggle of âtoo much to do.âÂ
Getting to ItÂ was a natural follow up to Juggling Elephants. We wanted to create a sort of âfield guideâ to personal productivity. The idea of âItâ is fun because people always say, âI just canât seem to get to it.â We wrote the book to help people identify what âitâ really is, how to get it done.Â
Getting the Blue RibbonÂ grew out of my own struggle for professional and personal improvement. I was looking for a model that was easy to understand and apply. Itâs been fun to see organizations take the gardening analogy and move their people and their teams forward.Â
What resources, books, blogs, podcasts do you recommend to our readers who want to build a productive team and need to learn how?Â
JL: There are just so many resources available today, and itâs hard to begin listing them. My advice for those who want a âquick startâ on building a more productive team is to look to social media. For example, spend a few minutes on Twitter seeking out subject matter experts on teams and leadership. Create a list of 10-12 of them. Set aside 10 minutes each day to review the posts from the list and explore content that connects with your needs. Itâs amazing how many nuggets you can gain in a short time that you can immediately apply to your situation. Look to Linked In in a similar way, following those who focus on developing your team.Â
Iâm a huge fan ofÂ Patrick Lencioniâs work in the development of teams. I think his book,Â 5 Dysfunctions Of A Team, is still one of the most eye-opening books about building a stronger team. You wonât go wrong with any of his content.Â
Thank you for the interview.
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Online reviews have become a major factor in how consumers make purchase decisions. If you’ve been ignoring them, now is the time to start getting proactive. Gathering and promoting online reviews can help you gain customers, build brand awareness, and increase sales.
How Much Do Online Reviews Matter?
In 2010,Â Forrester ResearchÂ found that approximately half of consumers use online reviews to research local entertainment options and big purchases (such as cars and household appliances).
Just three years later,Â a BrightLocal surveyÂ found that 85% of consumers check online reviews to research local businesses. According to the BrightLocal Survey summary, “Consulting reviews is now a logical step in the purchasing cycle for all types of products and services.” The good news is that “the path from reading online reviews to purchasing from a business is short.”
If you have customers researching and reading reviews of your business, they’re not idly meandering through the Internet, checking out peer critiques for fun; they’re very close to purchasing, and they’re narrowing down their options before they make a final decision.
More Reviews Are BetterÂ
How many reviews your business has online, and how frequently they are added, affects how customers view your business. The BrightLocal survey found that most customers don’t bother reading more than seven reviews, so “the most recent reviews are the ones that impact purchasing decisions.”
You may have some fabulous reviews from long-time customers, but if they’re buried under a few so-so reviews, they’re not having much of an impact. Keep fresh reviews coming in so that customers can see an ongoing, always improving view of your business from the customer perspective.
How to Get ReviewsÂ
The first step is to be sure that your profile on all major review sites is updated, and that you’ve claimed it so you can respond to reviews as needed. Major review sites include Yelp, CitySearch, Google Local, Yahoo! Local, Amazon, and Angie’s List. Apps like FourSquare and UrbanSpoon extend it to mobile use.
You can also search for review sites specific to your industry or expertise.; for example, TripAdvisor for travel services, destinations, and attractions; GoodReads for books; Zagat for dining; and Judy’s Book for locally based businesses.
The next step is to publicize your presence on a few review sites. Pick the ones that seem most active for your business, or your type of business. Promote these online by linking to them on the sidebar of your website; some of the review sites have widgets you can include on your site, as well, if you so desire.
You can also put these links into your social media profiles and periodically ask your followers to check out your review page. Some review sites, such as Yelp, frown on actually asking customers to leave reviews; instead, they recommend that you simply ask customers to connect with phrases like “Check us out on Yelp” or “Take a look at our review page.”
If you send out customer emails, include links to a review site (you can rotate thru the three most active review sites you’re focusing on) and the same request: “Check us out on Yelp (or Yahoo! or Google+ or Amazon).”
You can also promote your presence on review sites offline. Your in-store signage, documents (including receipts), and business cards can all contain a review link with the same suggestion to connect.
What To Do with Reviews
When you get a bad review, which will happen from time to time, don’t panic. And don’t ignore it. Instead, respond publicly to the bad review with an apology. Acknowledge the mistakes made by your business, even if they’re minor. And state that you will make it right.
Then follow up with the customer to make it right, or ask them to get in touch with you for a refund, a return, or some other method of appeasing their dissatisfaction. Consumers don’t expect businesses to be perfect, but they do want to know that when a business makes a mistake, they will work to make it right.
Share the Good ReviewsÂ
When you get great reviews, share them. You can share a few lines from a great review with a link to the whole thing on your social media profiles. You can do the same on your blog or website; collect several and you’ve got a great testimonials page for your website. (Check copyright stipulations from the various review sites to be sure of how much content you can share from each review on your own website, blog, or social media page; usually a brief excerpt is fine.)
Be sure to thank the customers who leave you good reviews. You can respond publicly: “Thanks for the great review, we’re so happy to have wonderful customers like you!” And you can highlight positive reviews in your email newsletter with a big thank you to the customers who left them.
Building a collection of great reviews online is a really effective way to build rapport with your customers and to attract new customers. Put some time into it, and be consistent with sharing links and making those connection requests. Respond promptly to reviews, and you’ll slowly build a collection of peer-based information that will continually bring new business to your door.