PM Articles > Geof Lory > The Team Refrigerator

The Team Refrigerator

by Geof Lory

One of the responsibilities of the project manager early in the project is to establish the project structure and environment. This will typically include items such as the methodology to be followed, the Team Operating Agreement and the physical space the team will operate in. Some organizations are very formal in creating these project prerequisites, while others take it for granted as part of their cultural norms. Either way, establishing an effective, commonly understood and accepted physical, intellectual, and emotional space for the team is essential to maximizing their performance.

While there are a lot of good reasons to be deliberate about creating a meaningful project environment, most of the value can be summed up in one word: communication.

There isn't a single aspect of any project involving more than one person that wouldn't be improved by better communication. So, as project managers, anything we can do to improve communication will directly enhance the performance of the team and its productivity. The old adage that 80% of the project manager's job is communication is definitely a good thing to keep top of mind. As more and more organizations engage virtual teams in disparate locations across multiple time zones and languages, the need to focus on communication will only increase.

However, effective communication is easier said than done (no pun intended). If you look at the tangible deliverables of most projects, it is rare to find hard evidence that the team has anything that remotely resembles a Communication Plan or Project Structure Document that would typically capture and establish these team norms. And, even if a team does have such a document, it is usually used less than their employee manual, and is probably equally up-to-date.

I'm not a proponent of excessive documentation, and actually prefer to only create project documents that live and breathe, precisely because they are in a constant state of examination and use, open to being challenged and changed. While most successful projects focus documentation that captures requirements—specifications and the like—few are as deliberate with documenting mutually agreed upon team norms. I've written about this in previous articles on both Accountability and Purpose over Process, and have made reference to how we use the Team Operating Agreement in our family to create family norms.

However, the creation of documented norms is not the goal. Sharing commonly understood, accepted, and practiced behaviors is the goal. Documenting is a good first step, but institutionalizing the practices is where the value comes. A lot of project time is wasted in team churn when common practices are not commonly practiced. This is why I am a big believer in publicly exposing key parts of the Team Operating Agreement in a simple form, in a place where everyone will see them and be reminded of the commitments they made to their teammates.

On project teams, especially where team members do not co-reside, technology has come to our rescue in this area in the form of project web sites and other team collaboration software. But before we had the web and tools like Google Docs or Groove, there was the refrigerator. And in our house, the refrigerator still serves as our family project site.

I was recently helping a client establish a standard project website template that would facilitate some basic aspects of team communication. I asked him if his refrigerator was pasted with papers, magnets, pictures, lists and the like. As a father, husband, grandfather, and "household manager" he said, "Of course." We agreed to review our respective fridges that evening to see what we might find.

The next day we sat down and compared notes about how our families use the refrigerator as a communication tool. We each had a list of what we put on our refrigerators that was meaningful and useful to our families. Additionally, we discussed the inherent family communication norms and how they might apply at work. Here's what we came up with.

  • A large 18" X 24" monthly calendar that tracks everyone's plans and appointments. Family norm: if it's not on the calendar, don't expect anyone else to know it, remember it, or act on it. Before making plans, check the calendar.
  • The grocery list. Family norm: if you need something from the grocery store or use or consume the last of something, add it to the grocery list. The better the description, the more likely you will get exactly what you want. Shopping is done every Sunday morning, so if it is on the list by Saturday night, it will magically show up Sunday by noon.
  • A frequently called numbers phone list. Family norm: Keep the list of home and cell numbers of family and friends current so that if you cannot be reached by cell, we can try to reach you through your friends.
  • School and event announcements or newspaper articles of note, randomly stuck on the door with magnets. Family norm: Put a date on the information. If it is past, ask the owner before removing it.
  • Pictures of family and friends (and pets). Family norm: Date pictures (especially school photos) and only keep the current year's picture per person.
  • Commonly used utilities (a magnetic pen and magnetic bottle opener). Family norm: Always return them to the refrigerator in the exact same spot so everyone knows where to find them. Never leave them on the counter, even for a minute. Use them and return them.
  • Quotes and cartoons. Family norm: keep them clean and preferably thought provoking or humorous.
  • And most important, a list of Family Shared Values. This is a brief summary of the underlying tenets of our family Team Operating Agreement or expected norms. It's laminated and signed by everyone. It's been there for almost ten years now. We hold ourselves and each other to it.

The refrigerator door is the most used door in the house. Centrally located and blatantly obvious, it serves as our family team communication hub. Used properly and according to the mutually agreed upon family norms, it has been a reliable tool for coordinating a busy and often remote family.

You can equate these refrigerator items to those you might want to have on your project websites: calendars, action item/risk/issue lists, team and stakeholder phone numbers, Dilbert cartoons, your Team Operating Agreement, project logo, etc.

Try to keep in mind that the project websites should serve the team, just like the refrigerator does our family. They should not be another administrative burden. To that end, the refrigerator door has limited space and therefore needs to be used wisely if it is going to be useful to the team. Think about that the next time you have to scroll down two pages on your project website to find the Action Items list or to look up a phone number.

As an interesting side note, we recently bought a new refrigerator for our vacation home: a place where we go to get away from the schedules and to-dos of life and just relax. The exterior finish is stainless steel, so magnets won't stick to it. It wasn't intentional, but it is working out just fine. I guess even project managers need to take a break once in a while.

Related Templates
Communication Plan
A brief plan created by the project team, documenting how they will communicate important information, including meetings, status reports, etc. The plan covers internal team communications and external stakeholder communications.

PM Support Website Requirements Checklist
A requirements list and prioritization template created by a company planning an internal website to support its project managers and teams.

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