How do I track what's really happening without bothering everyone for status?

People don't like to be micromanaged. How do I keep on top of what's really happening, without people thinking I'm meddling in their work or bothering them for status?
This problem can be addressed a few ways. First, avoid it altogether by setting expectations with the team early on and watching how you interact with them later on. To get off on the right foot with the team, work as a group to complete a Team Roles and Responsibilities List and a Responsibility Allocation Matrix (RAM). These tools will help each member understand what they are responsible for in terms of work and results, including work they owe each other (which the RAM spells out). If we're all focused on our responsibilities for meeting the project goals, then of course it's important to know how that work is going and whether the results are being achieved along the way. The key is to get everyone's understanding that it is their responsibility to deliver their parts of the project, and your responsibility as project manager to monitor progress for the overall good of the project. Somehow you have to get the information to do so!

However, how you get that information DOES have to make sense for the team. Even if there are standard ways to "do status" in your company, you can demonstrate that you're willing to do it on your project in a way that works well for your team. Talk to the team about what progress needs to be monitored, why, and how. Particular milestones? Certain risky areas? Certain handoff areas? Task status in critical time-bound areas? Think in terms of moving from just asking for percent complete status on every task every week to monitoring, together, the areas that really matter for getting done and avoiding problems. And what's the best way to get the information? Written, verbal, email, whiteboard; one-on-one or team? Just the act of asking and trying to work out something unique for the team will go a long way in reducing any nascent fear of micro-management.

Then it becomes time for you to walk the talk. Work with your team members in a collaborative way to get the information you need during the project, using the approaches you've agreed to above. One great approach is to NOT depend on written reports for everything (or even anything). Practice "management by walking around." Get out and talk one-to-one with the team members about what they are doing, progress they are making, issues or challenges and asking what help you can provide. (Don't interrupt them a bunch in the middle of all their critical work, though; that can be as bad as making them write status reports!)

One thing you have that others may be lacking is an overall perspective of the project, including where some team member efforts could benefit others. That could be worth getting everyone together for and it's actually the best reason to have team meetings. It's another form of "tracking," or understanding and communicating what's going on. Use your judgment about when and how frequently to have the team meet, so that you don't slow down progress, but also don't let too much time pass without getting a team-wide understanding of progress.

Micromanagement can be defined as someone who is meddling in details and telling others what to do, without adding any value through all that management activity. Are you adding value to the project, and to their ability to get their work done, with whatever progress tracking you're doing? Do they perceive that you're adding value?

See our mini case study "Conquering Micro-Management" for an example of how a highly status-resistant team developed a unexpected, non-traditional approach that worked well for everyone.

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