Visual Project Management - War Rooms

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Developed by Signe Skovmand Jakobsen


There are many kinds of war rooms - they can be analog, digital, virtual or hybrid. This article will focus on analog war rooms and its practical use in workshops or as a stationary gathering place for project teams and clients.

Contents

Overview

A war room is a 3 dimensional information and storytelling framework, where a project team can visually show, share and connect their ideas and knowledge across areas of expertise. The room is sort of a shared think box, in which the project team can develop projects and strategies, organize complex programs and layout expected time schedules. Thoughts, information and data can be visualized, which forms the foundation of finding linkages with interdisciplinary impacts and multidimensional information [1]. The concept is very useful in larger projects, where many people must work together and understand each other's needs and timeframes in order to have a successful cooperation and deliver on time.


The concept of a war room can be applied to almost every project. Depending on the wanted outcome, the war room can be either temporary or continuous, and the layout of the room needs to be changed accordingly. An example of an analog war room layout is shown on Figure 1.

Temporary war room: A war room can be used temporary in the beginning of a project as part of a workshop, where the war room provides the framework for discussion of the tasks to be done. When all thinkable subjects and tasks are literally written on the walls, it is easier to reach a mutual understanding and make clever decisions. The war room as a communication tool can therefore lead to faster achievements when planning, even if the room is only provisional.

Continuous war room: A war room can also provide a continuous framework throughout a project and function as a command center or project cockpit as some companies call it. A project is changed thought-out its lifetime, and the project team must be ready to cope rapid changes. The war room is ideal to make quick and clever decisions, as all the information is visible to everyone and therefore tangible.


Whether the war room is temporary or continuous in a project, it enables a collaborative team to:

  • Break down complex programs and information processes into comprehensible parts
  • Promote structured dialogue and brainstorming
  • Comprehend program intricacies
  • Establish concepts quickly [2]


Types of analog war rooms

Temporary war rooms

Figure 2. Example of Google Ventures use of a temporary war room in San Francisco

Analog war rooms can be beneficial in many different kinds of projects. It can be used as a temporary think tank in initial design phases, where people across disciplines must work together to make clever decisions in order to create the best take off. Whether the initial design phase is for an app design, an architectural tender or something third is subordinary, as all projects will have (or definitely should have) interdisciplinary focus. The video in figure 2, shows how Google Ventures uses a war room temporary for an initial design phase, or as they call it "a design sprint". The design sprint is a creative proces, and not two sprints are similar. Google Ventures' war room is a stationary room, but it can comply with the different needs and situations of each unique project, where it is used as a temporary framework for the project team. The furnishing is flexible, so the war room can be tailored for the present project.

When the design sprint/workshop is completed, the project manager can take the knowledge from the war room and start delegating specific tasks to the project team, as well as creating a thorough time schedule. When the whole project team is involved in the initial planning, it is much more probable that they each will take ownership of their own subtask. By taking ownership, they are also accommodating and loyal to the task, which breeds a positive work environment. As the whole team has engaged in the initial planning, they also start seeing each project team member as a person instead of only an object or obstacle, who answers the occasional clarifying e-mails. The workshop can be repeated throughout the project, when major milestones much be cleared with everyone on the team. This will also create solidarity and unity, when everyone understands the common goal and actually works towards it in unison.


Continuous war rooms

Figure 3. Example of a continous war room (bad handhold camera, no sound and slow walk-through, but the idea is there)

During the execution of larger projects, the internal planning and time schedule is crucial to the outcome. The information that forms the project will have interdisciplinary impacts, and if the time schedule is extended, everything and everyone have to adapt quickly. A war room can be valuable to a project when there are specific tasks, which must be executed in order to follow a greater plan. If a war room has information on the entire project plastered on its four walls, it can be easier to navigate the information. It will be easier and more tangible for all team members to see the larger picture, and discuss critical and interdisciplinary information on the specific tasks. In the video example of a continous war room on Figure 3, they use all four walls of a rectangular room to map the tasks, processes and people of a project. Each wall has a purpose: Orientation, time, people and thinking. This is a classical layout, where there is an overall system of color schedules for different professionals.

Large projects contain an enormous amount of information, where the most is often very complex. It is therefore of great importance to ensure the project team members understand this information, in order to secure an as straight-line process as possible during the project. Time wasted on miscommunication benefits no one, and can in worst case lead to great financial loss, delays and even failures. Miscommunications should therefore be minimized. The war room is a communication tool, where everyone should get a clear overview of the project and the current situation, just by turning 360 degrees in the room. The war room may therefore not only be a communication tool for the project team, but also for the stakeholders and in particular the clients. Often, the clients are eager to follow the project closely, even if they do not have an idea of project management. The war room can create this bond, that even if they do not follow the jargon, they can still get a sense of the progress just by seeing it visually.

When information on the overall process and project is not delivered or understood by the team members, they start to work in silos. This can become dangerous to any project, as employee A can work towards a completely different goal than employee B. According to Mark Woeppel [3], the primary problem in project execution is that the teams do not have any situational visibility. They don’t know where they are in the process, and they can’t see clearly what to do. They need a map to guide them. This is where the war room comes in handy.


Why is it effective?

Bring people together

The principle of a war room is quite simple: it is much easier to communicate with someone sitting next to you than someone in the next office, building, or even country.[4]

Project teams do not come together often enough, and when they do, they normally try to cover far too much ground in short periods of time. They have to be efficient and productive. But, the outcome of these meetings are rarely neither efficient nor productive.

Traditionally, project teams would have meeting upon meeting where they try to figure out the status of the project, where they are in the process, and what they need to do in order to move on. But, with all employees working in silos, the left hand, does not know what the right hand does in the project. No one gets the whole idea of the project. Traditional meetings can often end up in fingers pointed, and questions asked in hindsight. When situations like this happen, the task of the debate has already been executed, and the discussion is taken too late. This breeds an environment of blame rather than one of cooperation.[3]

When every decision is captured and put on the wall, the project manager do not have to worry whether the team is on the same page or not. The room is the page. The more information is shown on the walls; the more mutual understanding is built. This will lead to focusing on the future instead of dwelling in the past and revisiting already discussed issues. [5]

A war room does not only bring people together physically, but also emotionally and psychologically. This might seem obvious and trite, but the mutual bond and respect might be difference between success and failure. If the project manager can navigate the expert knowledge of the project team, major delays etc. can be prevented. Vice versa, if the project team can navigate the rest of the team’s information, and can understand the tasks and deadlines of their co-workers, they might work towards a common goal and project.

Studies show that project teams working in a war room environment are twice as productive as their counterparts working in traditional office arrangements. [6] In critical periods of a project, it can be very valuable to have the entire team sitting in the same room for several working days. This is not to monitor their activities, but it is much more effective, when the eyes are on the ball, and not on 50 unread e-mails and a handfull of other projects. When the team is gathered, it brings a speciel atmosphere with it, where everyone is productive focused on the goal. During the long run of the project execution, it can be beneficial to make the project team commit to for example one half-day per week cloistered in a war room together as it will improve both efficiency and productivity. [6]


A visual tool

Visible information is the shortest route from understanding to action [3], as visuals contribute to explore more complex relationships between entities, whether these are tasks, arguments, people or any other variable of interest [7]. Humans receive approximately 90 % of all information through visual perception, and visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text [8].

Projects have an overload of information, and it is of the highest importance, that the project manager as well as the entire team can navigate this information. Traditionally, communication is done by writing reports, delivered to the project manager. From here, the project manager will sum up the findings and share the information with the rest of the project team. This is, traditionally, done in writing, and with the overload of information, this leads to long, tedious, reports.

Written words are a mostly a linear monologue, which is a perfect setting for in depth arguments with a high degree of ambiguity and nuances.[7] Written words give the in-depth picture of a specific situation or solution, but is also what makes texts heavy and static. Texts are literally black and white. Visual information, on the other hand, are non-linear and can provide a rich overview of several arguments and their relationships. Also, visuals as diagrams reduce the need for labelling and descriptions, because the data is organized around two or more dimensions, thus the reader/viewer can establish relationships between variables more easily and quickly. Visuals can consequently manage more complex relationships between entities. [7]

Studies show that visuals are much easier to understand and remember than written words, and that presenters who use visual aids are 43 % more effective in persuading audience members to act [3]. Visuals affect us both cognitively and emotionally:


  1. Cognitively: Graphics expedite and increase our level of communication. They increase comprehension, recollection and retention. This will increase the likelihood that the audience will remember.
  2. Emotionally: Pictures enhance or affect emotions and attitudes. Graphics engage our imagination and heighten our creative thinking as other areas of the brain is being stimulated at the same time [3].


Visuals are a very clear and direct way of approaching an audience, whether these are costumers, meetings, talks, or lectures. Seeing, and seeing patterns, is a basic human skill, which we had long before someone invented words. Even a child sees and recognizes things, long before it can speak. If words are not hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear [9].

Texts can hold nuances of arguments, but the reader can easily lose the overview. It is therefore difficult to keep written words up-to-date, and in large projects, long reports can be time-consuming and overlooked by more – at the moment - significant tasks. If many managerial tasks are described in these large project, it is easy to lose overview and work by outdated reports. Visuals are a better object for real-time communication, as they are an entity that facilitates the storage and exchange of knowledge. [7] Also, words are processed by our short-term memory, where images go directly into the long-term memory, where they are permanently imprinted. [9]

Humans short term memory is not ideal for communication and cooperation in projects, but the long term memory is. When the walls are plastered with notes and deadlines, the brain takes advantage of the spatial memory. [5]


Thoughts become tangible physical elements

With many employees at play in a large project, the most important people might not be heard. Especially in engineering management, as the archetype of an engineer often is introvert and not one to shout out his or her discoveries.

When the information is up on the walls, all team member’s expert knowledge is heard/seen and it is easier to reorganize elements and make sure information is up-to-date. Sticky notes or diagrams are easier to change than to make the same decisions verbally, and making sure everyone was paying attention and contributing. When all team members can follow changes minute by minute, they have a situational visibility, and stop working in silos and start to work in a team.


Application

How to set up a war room in a minute

A war room does not need to be fancy nor expensive to work as a communication tool. It can be kept simple, and can even be done at one’s workplace. Some call it “hacking your workplace”, and it can be quite effective. If the setting is an open plan office, whiteboards can simply be placed to block three sides of a work desk. By doing this, three large idea platforms are always right in sight and the project team can use this as a gathering place. When the walls are up, find whiteboard markers and several sticky notes in different colors and then the planning can begin. Despite it being a homemade and temporary war room, it might be just as effective as a fancy one, as changes in people's physical or social work environment leads to improvement of their concentration and immersion in work tasks. [10] This use of this kind of setting is of course only possible in smaller project teams.

A hypothetical example of project where this can be applied, can be a school group project of maybe 5-7 team members, where the task is to analyze and consult a large company on a specific topic. In projects like this, there are no fancy stationary war room, and the project manager must be creative. The ideal situation is to use the war room concept straight from project take off, as the team will be comfortable with the settings throughout the project and use it actively. The following is a list of items to buy and things consider before launching the war room:

  1. Get sticky notes of different colors in bulk – Use these to illustrate different work teams, objects etc.
  2. Find whiteboard(s) and markers to scribble ideas and solutions – The brain works faster when the hands are in direct connection with thoughts. Just illustrate everything, and connect the dots later. If you don’t know where to find a whiteboard, just get large paper sheets from the printing rooms.
  3. Find a spot where your group can work uninterrupted – Ideally everyone should switch off their phones, so you all can work in the “zone” together.
  4. Maintaining and frequently using the war room is essential. If you have a physical room, where your project and sticky notes are safe – lucky you. If you don’t, put up large printing paper sheets, where you can stick your sticky notes. Mark the sheets with numbers, and take them with you when your meeting is over. You can then go straight back in the war room zone at your next meeting by putting the sheets back up on the walls.
  5. As your project progresses, changes will happen. Your sticky notes should change too, to cope with the new challenges.


How to set up a (fancy) stationary war room

The layout of a war room is much dependent on the specific project. So, even before having a stationary analog war room, there are some things to consider:

  1. What is your audience? Is it be realistic to use an analog war room or are there obstacles such as distance? Maybe an virtual war room is more fitting, or one of the other types, as listed below:
    • Analog: Low tech, paper based; map logic flow and presented on paper or boards.
    • Digital: Displays and decision support software and tools are embedded into facility.
    • Virtual: Web-based portal system; downloadable template of process; digital content and information feeds.
    • Hybrid: Combinations of the prior listed war room types. [1]
  2. What will the project team sizes be? The war room must be large enough to hold the whole team, but at the same time not too large, so people are distanced.
  3. Who will be introduced to the war room? Is the purpose only for planning and internal use, or will it be a place where the stakeholders can follow the progress?


When the lucky project manager gets a physical, stationary war room assigned, the planning of the planning can begin. The layout of the room is essential, much like an agenda to a meeting. People will follow the layout and use it as a map for the project. If one part is visually larger than another, people will expect that part to be relatively larger than the rest in the project too.

The war room will most likely have four walls. The following table shows a classic map of a war room:


Wall layout in a project war room [10]
Wall 1:

Orientation

Wall 2:

Time

Wall 3:

People

Wall 4:

Thinking

Project description & objectives

Team bios - contact info

Client sponsor info

Company collateral

Client collateral, products

Background material – client mission

Research vendor information

Calendar

Project plan

Status updates

Field work schedule

Travel plans

Holidays/vacations

Anything related to customers

Personas

Customer analytics

Field research photos

Research observations

Competitive landscapes

Post-it note city

Frameworks

Synthesis & analysis

Ideas and insights

Sketches

Implications

Examples/analogies


The layout of the content is purely up to the project manager and the team to map. If the whole war room is new and must be designed and furnished, it might be clever to consider things such as wall colors and furnishing.

  1. Walls. Use white walls where attention is needed, for example a whole wall with whiteboard material, and darker colors where screens are fixated. This will draw the attention to turned on-screens, and draw attention elsewhere when off.
  2. Furnishing. Make the war room as flexible as possible. What might be a good idea now, might not be it for the next project or idea pitching. Have tables on wheels, whiteboards on wheels and light – yet comfortable – chairs or couches. If the war room is used for idea pitches, keep an informal atmosphere with couches etc., and for large projects, where time is a key criterion, keep the furnishing to a minimal in order to maximize the space. When people are standing, they are paying more attention, which is ideal if the team is only in the room for information meetings.


Limitations

Figure 4. Construction workers are a good example of people comfortable with routines.

The biggest limitation when dealing with war rooms is definitely human behavior. If the leadership does not encourage the project teams to work differently, the project will be stuck in the usual silos. The video to the right is an example of the human behavior and construction workers resisting in changing routines. Most of the workers in the video have worked in the same field for more than two decades, and no one shall make them draw on colorful sticky notes. The workers had to deal with changing behaviors and letting people of lower hierarchically rank come to word. They believed the war room to be a joke in the beginning, but as the work progressed, the value of the war room was unanimous.


There are so many ways of setting up a war room, and all have different limitations. For example, if a war room is purely analog, it will be limited by having different locations and working out of office. But there is a great advantage in having the space analog, as ideas are formed more natural when presented physically, and the overview is easily made by looking 360 degrees in the room. Virtual war rooms have the opposite advantages and limitations. Virtually, everyone involved in the project can contribute and follow the process, but the team will be limited by having software, which must always be online, and everyone must have rather good computer skills in order to contribute. This might exclude more experienced team members.

There are much more challenges when dealing with a war room, than there are limitations, as a war room is very individual and almost personal to the people in charge.


Challenges

The war room must at all times be kept current, otherwise the whole idea is undermined. The content of the war room must be displayed consistently and logically for the purposes of access and visibility, and it is crucial that the material on the walls is useful to the project team. Therefore, one challenge is to actually use the room - if the room is first outdated, it is difficult to get back on track. The tidiness of the war room is of course very important as well, as the room must be pleasant to reside. Simple things such as always having working equipment and supplies available makes the room easier to use, so the team does not forget to use the walls, which one can image the team skipping, if there is no whiteboard markers in near sight.

In order to avoid many of these challenges it can be useful to delegate tasks such as maintenance and supplies; Data and information on the walls must be kept current if people are expected to use the room as a communication center and work room. Out of date material can result in obviating the entire purpose of the room; essentially, it becomes nothing more than another conference room. [11]


Key references

Visuals Matter! Designing and using effective visual representations to support project and portfolio decisions by Joana Gerald and Mario Arlt

This book focuses on the indirect and subconscious effects of visuals in project portfolio decisions. It covers important aspects for project managers in general, and how they could use more graphs, images and visuals in general to generate clearer statements, as visuals are not straight line of information, contrary to text, just like a project is not a monologue. The book shows examples of how to present heavy information, and how simple things like colors and graph sizes, which most engineers do not think twice about when plotting graphs in Excel, have great influence on the way it is perceived. Important questions such as whether visuals are simplifying or "dumbifying" are asked, and it is an interesting read.


Visual Project Management: Simplifying Project Execution to Deliver On Time and On Budget by Mark Woeppel

This book has a practical approach on how to do project management, and the reader is guided through different phases in project management and how the author would perform and manage in these situations. The book seems more like a sales trick for the author's own system than a guidance manual, but if the reader can condone this part, it is an interesting and fun read with some good ideas. The author writes in first-person, which makes it almost personal with some hilarious management anecdotes. The book combines elements from the PMBOK®, Agile, Lean and the Theory of Constraints and it is super well written with the author's own experiences as a savvy project manager.


Why your team needs a war room — and how to set one up by Jake Knapp

Even if this is reference is only a blog post, I think it is great. The blog post gives a contemporary image of how war rooms are used in real life, and it seems more lifelike and realistic than all the heavy literature available. The post is straight to the point, on why war rooms are valuable for Google Ventures in their design sprints, and how regular people can set up a war room. Very practical approach and no beating around the bush.


Annotated Bibliography

  1. 1.0 1.1 Lessons Learned from War Room Designs and Implementations, Steven M. Shaker (2002), Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium (http://www.dtic.mil/docs/citations/ADA467523)
  2. Enterprise Project Governance: A Guide to the Successful Management of projects across the organization, Paul C. DInsmose and Luiz Rocha (2012)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Visual Project Management: Simplifying Project Execution to Deliver On Time and On Budget, Mark Woeppel (2015)
  4. The Value of a Project "War Room", Mark Gerow (1st April 2012) (Blog post: http://flow-state.blogspot.dk/2012/03/value-of-project-war-room.html)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Why your team needs a war room — and how to set one up, Jake Knapp (Jun 10, 2014) (Blog post: https://library.gv.com/why-your-team-needs-a-war-room-and-how-to-set-one-up-498e940e3487#.65sue24gm)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Why you need a war room, Mike Myatt (1st April 2012) (Blog post: http://hub.n2growth.com/why-you-need-a-war-room/)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Visuals Matter! Designing and using effective visual representations to support project and portfolio decisions, Geraldi, Joana; Arlt, Mario (2015)
  8. The power of visual storytelling, Jessica Gioglio; Chad O'Connor (March 8, 2014 01:30 AM) (Blog post: http://archive.boston.com/business/blogs/global-business-hub/2014/03/the_power_of_vi.html)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Studies Confirm the Power of Visuals in eLearning, Karla Gutierrez (July 8th, 2014) (Blog post: http://info.shiftelearning.com/blog/bid/350326/Studies-Confirm-the-Power-of-Visuals-in-eLearning, quote by Dr. Lynell Burmark)
  10. 10.0 10.1 The Art of WarRoom, the user called "SapientNitro" (Oct 22, 2014) (Slideshow: http://www.slideshare.net/rmurray/the-art-of-warroom)
  11. Effective Communications for Project Management, Ralph L. Kliem, PMP (2007)


Besides the references above, an interview has been conducted to get an overall picture of the concept of war rooms. The interviewed person is Ellen Holbek, who is project manager at Sweco DK, and who uses war rooms in initial phases of larger projects and at essential milestones. She works in the project management department in Sweco Glostrup.

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