Features March/April 2021

How Project Management Skills Helped Me Build Strong Remote Teams

By Dr. Jackie Damrau | STC Fellow

Technical communication spans into many different job titles and industries, doing many things one would have never thought we’d be doing—at least not when I started in technical communication. The best attributes that a technical communicator possesses are those of attention to detail, knowing how to provide the right information to the right audience in the right media, and the ability to gather information. It’s not hard to see why a project management role would be a natural progression for technical communicators.

The skills that I developed as a project manager helped me to build strong remote teams—a skill that has become business-critical during the pandemic. With companies announcing plans for long-term remote working arrangements, project management and remote team building will be essential skills for the future.

In this article, I’ll share a bit about my career progression (yes, it’s changed many times over the years) and how I adapted to that of project manager, scrum master, and Kanban delivery manager. First, let’s explore the roles themselves, and what sets each one apart.

Types of Project Managers and Certifications Needed

 

Project Manager

A project manager, according to the Project Management Institute (PMI), is a person that is “organized, passionate and goal-oriented, who understand[s] what projects have in common, and their strategic role in how organizations succeed, learn, and change.” They are change agents, people who are comfortable with adaptation and complexity in dynamic environments. To achieve their goals, they cultivate people skills, and have a broad and flexible toolkit of techniques. Project managers often “become program managers (responsible for multiple related projects) or portfolio managers (responsible for selection, prioritization, and alignment of projects and programs with an organization’s strategy) (Project Management Institute, “Who Are Project Managers?”).

Project managers use tools like Microsoft Project, Smartsheet, or Excel to maintain a schedule of the project and its deliverables. This schedule is what keeps the project—whether agile, waterfall, or hybrid “wagile”—on track and is one of the key communication deliverables to senior leadership or the project owner.

Project managers often have a PMI certification in one of the following:

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)
  • Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP)
  • Program Management Professional (PgMP)
  • Disciplined Agile Scrum Master (DASM)
  • Disciplined Agile Senior Scrum Master (DASSM)
  • Disciplined Agile Coach (DAC)
  • PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)

Check out the PMI website at www.pmi.org/certifications for additional information about the similarities and differences among the certifications.

Scrum Master

A scrum master is another type of project management role. I consider it in the same realm because in many ways your responsibilities are like what a project manager does.

According to the Agile Alliance, a scrum master is “responsible for ensuring the team lives agile values and principles and follows the processes and practices that the team agreed they would use. The responsibilities include: clearing obstacles, establishing an environment where the team can be effective, addressing team dynamics, ensuring a good relationship between the team and product owner as well as others outside the team, and protecting the team from outside interruptions and distractions” (Agile Alliance Glossary).

The definition that Scrum.org gives is that a scrum master is a servant leader that has a “holistic approach to work, shared decision-making power, promotes a sense of community, and [provides] service to others” (Scrum Alliance, “What is a Scrum Master?”).

Commonly used tools that a scrum master uses include Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS), Atlassian Jira, Smartsheet, and Excel, though there are a multitude of others tools out there for use.

Scrum masters, like project managers, also have certifications that demonstrate their knowledge of the key agile principles. Certifications are available from two organizations: Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org.

  • Scrum Alliance
    • CSM: Certified ScrumMaster
    • A-CSM: Advanced Certification ScrumMaster
    • CSP-SM: Certified Scrum Professional ScrumMaster
    • CAL: Certified Agile Leadership
  • Scrum.org
    • PSM: Professional Scrum Master
    • PSM II: Professional Scrum Master II
    • PSK I: Professional Scrum with Kanban

 

Kanban Service Delivery Manager

In Essential Kanban Condensed, David Anderson and Andy Carmichael define a service delivery manager as a person “responsible for the flow of work in delivering selected items to customers and for facilitating the Kanban Meeting and Delivery Planning” (p. 33).

The tools used are the same as those for scrum masters, yet the boards are used in different contexts. A Kanban team does not do sprinting as an agile team does. (A “sprint” is a short, time-boxed period that a team sets to complete a certain amount of work. The duration of a sprint is usually two or three weeks.)

Kanban certifications can be obtained through Kanban University (www.kanban.university/#certifiedkanban):

  • KMP: Kanban Management Professional
  • KMP-I: Kanban System Design
My Path from Technical Communication Through Project Management

Now that you know the various roles, I’ll talk about my path from traditional communications to project management.

My Career Progression

My career started as a technical communicator back in the days of word processing, typesetting, etc. I loved typing and no matter what I typed (of other people’s content), I valiantly edited bad grammar, followed style guides, and produced an admirable product to meet regulatory and/or company guidelines.

My career then moved from technical writing into instructional design; my résumé includes technical and soft skills course development as well as a short run as a software trainer. From that avenue, I jumped into the business analyst role where I’ve spent the last 15 years of my career. I sought my project management certifications during this period.

The skills that I learned as a scrum master, Kanban delivery master, and project manager are versatile and transferrable to any role.

Keeping Remote Teams Engaged and On Track

Since 2004, I have worked mostly with virtual teams on various projects from business process modeling or requirements gathering; to a reporting structure (leadership positioned in company’s headquarters in one state, with me positioned at a corporate regional office in another state); to a scrum master where all my teams were geographically distributed across multiple time zones and continents. Traversing the time zone challenge alone is interesting, yet possible!

Project management now encompasses both on- and off-shore team members. Business is done much differently, yet the concepts for working with distributed teams does not change. Here are a few of the tips and tricks that I have learned through the years in these varying roles.

  • Determine what type of team you have (Messer)
    • Co-located: A team where all members are in the same office and in the same time zone
    • Similar time-zone: A team where members are in different offices and in more than one time zone, such as U.S.-only teams spread across four time zones
    • Fully distributed: A team where all members are geographically dispersed and in multiple time zones, often with a difference of eight hours or more

 

  • Determine how you will handle the common distributed team challenges (ezTalks, Stepanov)
    • Time Zone Differences: This requires embracing a “we” rather than an “us versus them” mindset when working, for example, with team members who may be in London, England and near the end of their day when those of us in the Central Time Zone (CT) of the United States are just starting our day. We have a limited number of hours (7–11 a.m. CT) in which to conduct business. Asking this group to stay after hours may pose problems as they may experience transportation issues reaching their home.
      Here you might want to consider rotating meeting times, if possible, or meeting fewer times a week to accommodate geographic regions. With my scrum teams, I would need to call upon the individuals during our daily standup meeting; I found that this helped to build engagement and give voice to people who couldn’t be seen through the phone. One day I’d go A–Z, then the next day I’d do Z–A to ensure that those at the end of the alphabet were given equal attention.
  • Team Rapport Building: Building team rapport with virtual team members that you might see occasionally through a webcam session or through professional photographs shared on the company’s intranet directory requires skill. The skill is in being familiar with the different cultures on your team: some cultures will talk openly about themselves; others prefer not to. However, if you can break the ice with everyone, you’ll have a more cohesive team to work with.
    My tips for team rapport building include:

    • New Team/New Members: Reserve the first 5-10 mins for team member introductions to share about themselves (one personal/fun fact about themselves).
    • During scrum events: Open each meeting with time for everyone to share something about their weekend plans, what they did on the weekend, or an interesting trip they may have completed.
    • Engage, engage, engage!
  • Cultural Collaboration Differences: As mentioned in Team Rapport Building, one should research and understand the different cultures of your team members, even down to country holidays. Another tip is to ask team members to share about their cultures whenever they mention they’ll be out of office for a specific holiday. It can be an ice breaker to have a less-talkative team member talk about something they know. Finally, building rapport comes with making sure that everyone feels valued and respected with a safe environment to share what they choose to share.
  • Determine the communication tools to use (Ambler; ezTalks)
    • Agile Lifecycle Management: Jira, TFS
    • Group Chat: Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Slack, Skype for Business
    • Documentation: Microsoft Teams, Confluence wikis, SharePoint wikis, GitHub, TFS
    • Video Chat: Zoom, WebEx, Skype for Business
Conclusion

Whatever your career goals, project management certifications can help you to build a foundation of much-needed skills that help with maximizing the effectiveness of remote teams. I encourage you to do your own research, consider getting a certification (if applicable), and always looking to expand your knowledge in this or another profession.

JACKIE DAMRAU (jdamrau3@gmail.com) is a Fellow of STC and the Book Review Editor of the Technical Communication journal. She is a senior business analyst with Carrollton Enterprise Services in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her former role was as a senior risk analyst/project manager for CBRE, Inc.

 Reference

Agile Alliance. n.d. “Glossary – Scrum Master Definition.” Accessed 3 March 2021. https://www.agilealliance.org/glossary/scrum-master.

Ambler, Scott W. n.d. “Communication on Agile Software Teams.” Agile Modeling. Accessed 3 March 2021. http://agilemodeling.com/essays/communication.html.

Anderson, David J. and Carmichael, Andy. 2016. “Essential Kanban Condensed.” Accessed 3 March 2021. https://resources.kanban.university/essential-kanban-condensed-english/.

ezTalks. n.d. “7 Challenges of Distributed Teams and How to Solve.” Accessed 3 March 2021. https://www.eztalks.com/telecommuting/challenges-of-distributed-teams-and-how-to-solve.html.

Kanban University. Accessed 3 March 2021. https://www.kanban.university.

Messer, Hugo. 2016. “The Top 5 Problems with Distributed Teams and How to Solve Them.” InfoQ. Accessed 3 March 2021. https://www.infoq.com/articles/top5-problems-distributed/.

Project Management Institute. n.d. “Who are Project Managers?” Accessed 3 March 2021. https://www.pmi.org/about/learn-about-pmi/who-are-project-managers.

Scrum.org. n.d. “What is a Scrum Master?” Accessed 3 March 2021. https://www.scrum.org/resources/what-is-a-scrum-master.

Stepanov, Andrew. 2108. “Distributed Teams: What Challenges Occur and What Tools to Use.” Ganttpro. Accessed 3 March 2021.
https://blog.ganttpro.com/en/managing-distributed-teams-challenges-and-tools-for-work/.

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