How to Add Meaning and Logic to Your Timelines

Project visuals can be a highly potent way to communicate important data, display key achievements, or convince stakeholders, but many fall short of their potential either because they are too complex or too vague. The most effective PM graphics are simple, coherent and attention-grabbing, allowing the audience to quickly understand the information presented without requiring further clarification.

Using Office Timeline’s customization options and a touch of creativity, PMs can build clear and expressive visuals that successfully achieve their purpose. Here are a few tips to make the most out of the PowerPoint add-in and add meaning and logic to project presentations:

          Customizing Tasks

Office Timeline allows users to personalize task designs for more visually-appealing graphics, but this function, used wisely, can have greater potential than just improving aesthetics: it can enhance clarity and help project managers emphasize important data. Here are just a few ways smart task customization can improve project visuals.

          1. Portraying task hierarchy

Most project plans, whether big or small, are usually broken down into multiple tasks and subtasks. To make this hierarchy visible at first glance, PMs can not only customize the tasks’ colors, but also tweak their shape, size, spacing and other details, for an even stronger distinction. The image below can be a good example in this regard:

How to add meaning to your presentations 1

When viewing the graphic, the audience can instantly see that Requirements specification, Request for information and Shortlist software are main tasks, while the rest of the items are subtasks. This was achieved by:

  • Using darker colors for the main categories and lighter shades for subcategories
  • Increasing the main tasks’ bar size
  • Using a left-right arrow for all the main tasks to further differentiate them from subtasks
  • Adding vertical task connectors and matching their colors to the main task bars to emphasize which activities belong to which main task

Finally, it can also be noticed that the titles describing the major tasks are bolded to make them even more prominent, but text customization will be discussed in more detail a little later.

          2. Adding Context

Task customization can also be used to add context, illustrate special circumstances, or differentiate particular tasks. As an example, the timeline below is, first of all, color-coded to show the status of the activities included in the project plan. In addition, it can also be noticed that some task bars are shaped differently from the rest – and there is a logic to this choice.

For instance, the QA check is displayed as a left-right arrow because it is a critical step that can either send the product back into development or move the project forward. Similarly, the Risk management step is shaped as a right arrow pointed towards Implementation 3 as it directly impacts this task, while Marketing points to Secure customer base because the latter depends on the success of the marketing campaign.

How to add meaning to your presentations 2

          3. Highlighting selected groups

To add further meaning and logic to their project presentations, PMs can use colors to highlight selected items or mark them as “active” or “current”. However, in many cases, a project plan or schedule is not as simple as that. For instance, the schedule below is already color-coded, using orange to depict unavailable team members.

How to add meaning to your presentations 3

If the PM or team leader were to change the colors to highlight the group working from 8 am to 12 am, the new marking color would hide the original semantics and Shay would lose his flagging as unavailable:

How to add meaning to your presentations 4

Such issues can easily be avoided using a few simple tricks. First of all, simply darkening or brightening the original colors of the selected items can highlight the group without losing important information:

How to add meaning to your presentations 5

In addition, as noticed in the image above, PMs can:

  • increase the respective task bars’ sizes
  • tweak the spacing between them
  • bold the text
  • slightly thicken task connectors for the specific group

to make the chosen elements stand out even better.

          4. Think outside the box

Although this is their original purpose in Office Timeline, task bars do not necessarily need to illustrate tasks or work hours. They can also be used to add related information or explanations. For example, the schedule below uses a task bar – colored and shaped clearly differently from the rest – to display the peak time on the graph. In addition, thick task connectors were used to help the audience quickly notice which team members will be on duty during the busiest hours.

How to add meaning to your presentations 6

          Customizing Milestones

Just like tasks, milestones, too, can be personalized to create more viewer-friendly presentations. Here are just a few ways milestone customization can make project visuals more effective:

          1. Differentiating and highlighting events or deliverables

Using the same shape, color and size for all milestones on a timeline may create a harmonious effect, but, in many cases, it might not be a very practical choice. Project plans and schedules oftentimes contain many various types of events or deliverables that may also differ in importance, and the audience should be able to spot all the essential details and understand their meaning at a glance. This can be achieved by coding the milestones using color, size and shape to add logic to the graph. For example, the timeline below differentiates and highlights the various items presented as follows:

  • Milestones related to development are marked with Chevron arrows.
  • The wheels represent important reviews, and their yellow coloring suggests possible obstacles.
  • The Go No-Go Decision is of critical importance to the continuity of the project and is, therefore, highlighted through a red arrow.
  • Star-shaped milestones represent releases.
  • The Public Beta Out marker is larger to denote a higher importance compared to Alpha and Private Beta, while Final Release is even bigger and uses a distinct color, as it is a major milestone in the project’s life cycle.
How to add meaning to your presentations 7
          2. Creating categories

The customization suggestions such as the ones above can be very effective in grouping similar items and creating categories, but they may not be enough in some cases. For instance, if there are many different milestone classes, illustrating them clearly may require more than just tweaking colors, shapes and sizes.

Let’s take the image below as an example. It can be noticed that the milestone markers are already grouped into two categories through colors, while selected deliverables are highlighted using distinct shapes. As a result, there are not many options left for further classifications that might be needed.

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However, there are answers to such scenarios as well. For example, if the presenter wishes to classify the milestones in the previous graphic into solution-related deliverables and PM-related items, grouping the former above the timeband and the latter below it can help the audience to distinguish them quickly:

How to add meaning to your presentations 9

          Customizing Text

Diligent readers have surely noticed that slight text customization has already been used throughout the visuals exemplified here. Now it’s time to go into detail and see how tweaking texts can help projects managers create more meaningful timelines and Gantt charts.

          1. Sending the desired message

Font styles have their own personality. Research conducted by Washington State University has revealed that different fonts can have a different emotional impact on the audience, and project managers can use these findings to set a desired tone or strengthen the message they want to convey.

As an example, all images presented here up until now use the Calibri font, which is the standard font in PowerPoint and is familiar to everyone. According to the study, this typeface belongs to the category that suggests stability, trustworthiness, and comfort. Since Calibri is seen very often in PowerPoint presentations, PMs who don’t want to overuse the font can switch to a less common typeface belonging to the same category. Examples include:

  • Georgia
  • Verdana
  • Janson Text
  • Century (used in the graphic below). How to add meaning to your presentations 10

Presenters who wish to express solidity, masculinity, or strength can choose fonts with strong serifs, weightier lines, or harder corners and edges. Examples include:

  • Middle Ages
  • NewYorkDeco
  • Helvetica Bold
  • Impact
  • AR Julian
  • Adobe Garamond Pro (used in the image below). How to add meaning to your presentations 11

Finally, there may be cases that call for a more delicate or feminine tone, such as the family-oriented event plan below:

How to add meaning to your presentations 12

The font style used here is Segoe Print, a curvier typeface with richer ornaments, evoking warmth, softness and harmony. Other options belonging to the same category include:

  • Mission Script
  • Lavanderia
  • Informal Roman
  • Brush Script
          2. Tweaking date formats to reveal the right details

Date formatting may not seem that important, but it can help project managers keep the timeline clean. For instance, if a project spans less than a year, using a date format that displays years all throughout the visual not only is unnecessary, but can also overcrowd the slide. With graphics that include many milestones or tasks, even a few extra characters can make a significant difference.

Date customization can also help PMs emphasize important details. To give an example, in the project plan below, the Beta Test 2.2 milestone is scheduled outside of work days. To ensure the audience is clear about this aspect right from the start, the milestone’s date was formatted to display the day of the week and its color was changed to red to make it stand out even better.

How to add meaning to your presentations 13

Last but not least, presenters can also tweak date formats to conceal information. For instance, as detailed in our product roadmap presentation guide, showing specific dates may be hazardous in certain circumstances, as is the case with the Project close milestone in the timeline above. Because the exact day when the closing phase will be complete isn’t certain, the graphic displays only the month instead of a specific day.

          Connect them all

After personalizing tasks, milestones and texts to fit their purpose, presenters can further tweak the timeline to make it more cohesive. As seen in the graphic below, milestone markers and titles can be colored to match the tasks they are linked to, while adding vertical connectors where appropriate makes the correspondences between items even more visible.

How to add meaning to your presentations 14

The tips presented here provide a good start for beginning PMs who wish to create more effective project visuals. With imagination and attention to detail, presenters can find their own tricks to add meaning, logic and clarity to their PowerPoint slides and ensure the audience quickly grasps the message they want to convey.



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How to Use Colors to Create More Powerful Gantt Charts


Project managers often work hours on end to build accurate, thorough Gantt charts, only to notice that stakeholders have difficulties digesting this level of detail or that the team members are unclear about their roles and responsibilities. The problem in such situations may not necessarily be the message, but the way it is presented.

Gantt charts are useful tools for project planning, tracking and reporting, but they can often be overly complex, making them difficult for audiences to understand. This is why, when putting together Gantt chart presentations, paying attention to design and aesthetics is equally important as ensuring data accuracy. A simple, well-designed layout can help project managers successfully communicate essential information to teams, clients and execs.

Red and black colors

          1. Add meaning to project visuals using color semantics

Marketing and graphic design professionals rely massively on aesthetics to influence brand perception and consumer behavior. Similarly, project managers can use color semantics to add further meaning to Gantt chart data, inspire desired reactions, and transmit important messages instantly, without overcrowding the visual.

Although color perception largely depends on personal experience, there are certain hues that have a universal significance. For instance:

  • Red is an attention-grabbing color that usually indicates excitement, action, or danger and can be used to flag urgent, high-priority or problematic tasks.
  • Green inspires optimism and typically suggests the idea of “Safe”, “OK” or “Go ahead”. As an example, tasks that have been completed successfully or planned activities approved by upper management could be marked with this color.
  • Yellow stands for caution or warning and can be used to illustrate potential challenges.
  • Black suggests mystery and makes a good choice for tasks that require further clarification.
  • Blue is a calming color and can be used for tasks that are close to completion.

The following image illustrates just one of the ways the above color semantics can be used to make Gantt charts more meaningful:

Mix of colors

While this example is a good starting point, project managers can create their own systems of color meanings, as long as they are applied consistently throughout project visuals and are easily recognizable by all stakeholders.

          2. Use colors to depict hierarchies and correspondences

An effective Gantt chart should enable audiences to understand any data dependencies or correspondences at a glance. One of the best ways to achieve this is using colors to group objects. For instance, color-coding team members who have similar responsibilities will allow viewers to instantly see the connection between them.

Hierarchy and correspondence colors

Similarly, PMs can use colors to group together related tasks, for a faster comprehension of project processes and dependencies:

Color Dependencies

Aesthetics also play an important role in highlighting data priority. A color ranking that doesn’t represent the information hierarchy may steer the audience’s attention to less important project details. To avoid this, PMs can accentuate priority data - such as main project tasks - using bold hues, while secondary details, such as subtasks, can be marked with lighter, more subtle shades of the same color.

Color Ranking Aestethics

          3. Add contrast to enhance visibility

Of course, we are all trying to create elegant Gantt charts, but these efforts may prove pointless if data is not presented clearly, in an easy-to-understand way. Good color contrast will help audiences to discern important texts or visual elements. For instance, adding a standard black text over a dark blue task bar will most likely make the writing barely legible. Changing the text to white, on the other hand, will make the data easily stand out - as seen in the image below.

Low High Contrast

Last but not least, context and communication channels are also important aspects PMs should keep in mind when creating Gantt charts and other project visuals. For instance, while certain color combinations may seem just right on a certain computer screen, they may not look the same on others, on projectors or in print. Also, some viewers may suffer from vision impairments, and bad lighting and glare can make a chart’s details even more difficult to read. A high color contrast within project visuals will prevent these issues and ensure important data can be easily seen by the audience, regardless of circumstances.

Seemingly minor details can play a major role in ensuring effective project communication. Using colors to define semantics, highlight information hierarchy or dependencies, and improve visibility can help PMs build more powerful Gantt charts and present important data in a convincing, straightforward manner.


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How to Identify and Manage Project Dependencies


English poet John Donne said “no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main" – these words capture the realities of project management. No project, task or activity exists in isolation. One way or another, every activity relies on the output of others and contributes to the outcome of a project. The relationships between individual tasks or processes are called “dependencies”.

Keeping a record of all these linked activities and managing them effectively is essential for project planning, scheduling, tracking and execution. In the following article, we will take a brief look at project dependencies to help new PMs identify and tackle them more easily.

The Main Types of Project Dependencies

Dependencies can be classified in a number of ways based on criteria such as the causes behind them, predecessor-successor relationships, and whether the dependency exists between activities within the project or outside of it.

          1. Logical, resource-driven and preferential dependencies
Logical resource-driven and preferential dependencies


Based on what is causing them, dependencies can fall in one of the following three groups:

  • Logical or causal dependencies are those driven by the nature of the project or of the tasks themselves. For instance, a construction team cannot possibly build the first floor of a building without finishing the foundation first. Identifying these dependencies is essential for creating accurate project plans and schedules.

  • Resource-based dependencies occur between tasks that would be accomplished faster or simultaneously if there were more resources available. Where resource constraints are present, there usually are no logical dependencies to dictate the order of activities within a project. As an example, with enough manpower, it is logically possible to paint multiple rooms in a building simultaneously. If there’s only one painter available, however, the rooms will need to be completed one at a time.

  • Preferential or discretionary dependencies refer to tasks that could be completed differently, but their implementation is decided by the team or PM based on convenience or guided by best practices. In our construction example, a room’s ceiling and walls can be painted in any order, but the painter prefers to finish the ceiling first because it's more difficult to work on and he wants to get it out of the way.

While discretionary decisions may not seem that significant, it will make sense to document them, so that the logic behind them is known in future reports and reviews. Otherwise, this logic might be forgotten over time or questioned by clients, executives or any other stakeholders who weren’t initially involved in the task-scheduling process.

          2. Predecessor-successor dependencies
 
Predecesor-successor dependencies

Based on the relationship between the initiation and completion of individual tasks, dependencies can be classified into four major types:

  • FS (Finish to Start) – The predecessor task must be completed before the successor can start.
  • FF (Finish to Finish) – The successor cannot finish before the predecessor task is completed.
  • SS (Start to Start) – The first task must start before the second task can be initiated.
  • SF (Start to Finish) – One task cannot be completed before another one has started.

The most common and logical predecessor-successor relationship is the Finish-to-Start dependency, while Start-to-Finish is the most rarely encountered and may be puzzling to envision. To get a better grasp of SF relationships, it may be useful to think of how shift work is sequenced. If, for instance, a construction site requires 24/7 security services and there are a few guards working in shifts, the current shift cannot end before the relief security officers arrive, as the site would be left unattended.

          3. Internal vs. external dependencies

Internal vs external dependencies

Dependencies can also be classified based on the tasks’ relationship to the project, as follows:

Internal dependencies describe the relationship between two tasks or activities within the same project. The PM and the project team usually have complete control over these activities, and there is no involvement of any external parties. To manage these tasks effectively, discussing them with the project team is essential in order for each member to know exactly how their activities may impact other people’s work. This way, they will be more likely to notify the PM about potential problems, so that the necessary measures can be taken to manage the consequences.

External dependencies define those tasks that are dependent on outside influences, such as vendors, regulatory agencies, or even other projects. PMs and project teams don’t usually have much control (if any) over these dependencies. For instance, before construction workers can start building, renovating or demolishing, it is first necessary to obtain approvals from local authorities. The construction company cannot influence how long it will take the authorities to grant said approvals.

Although external dependencies are outside of a PM’s control, it is important to keep a thorough record of them, as they present risk to the project schedule. Also, it would be a good idea to notify any relevant third parties that the project team depends on them to be able to complete their own work. Explaining to non-project people how any late deliveries on their end can impact the project and encouraging them to provide timely progress updates can help PMs prevent possible issues and make any necessary schedule adjustments.

Tips for More Effective Dependency Management

Managing task dependencies can seem overwhelming for a novice PM, especially considering that any slip may endanger the project. While it is impossible to prevent all potential issues, with good organization, planning and communication, even the most complex projects can be kept under control. Here are a few tips to help beginning project managers handle task dependencies more effectively:

          1. Proper identification

The first step for effective dependency management is brainstorming all possible project dependencies and classifying them accordingly based on the criteria presented earlier. This can be done through a workshop or scheduled team meeting, where all team members - and, if possible, any other relevant parties involved - are brought together to discuss how their activities relate to one another, as well as how they may be affected by outside influences.

A common mistake that should be avoided at this stage is creating dependencies even when there aren’t any. Questioning and challenging the sequence of every step can produce forced or artificial dependencies, which may lead to unnecessary complications and delays.

          2. Recording dependencies

Once all dependent tasks are identified, experienced project managers usually create a comprehensive dependency log for the project, which should include:

  • an ID for each dependency
  • description
  • date
  • the activities or people impacted by the dependency.

Also, it may be a good idea to calculate the probability of something going wrong with the linked tasks and to include an assessment of what would happen if the dependency is not delivered as planned. Alternatively, this data can be added to the risk log.

In addition, it is also worth nominating “owners” for each dependency by naming the person or people who will be responsible for how the linked tasks progress. When it comes to internal project activities, the task owner will usually be the natural dependency owner as well. In the case of external dependencies, such as a reliance on suppliers, someone within the project should be assigned to monitor the relationship with the supplier and ensure everything is on track.

Having a log of all the details mentioned above will prove to be helpful during the project planning and scheduling process, allowing PMs to effectively sequence tasks and develop strategies to minimize and mitigate risks.

          3. Continuous monitoring and control

While identifying and documenting dependencies is important, it is their constant monitoring and control that will ensure the successful delivery of a project. Having a single session at the start of the project to examine dependencies is usually not enough. Therefore, experienced PMs schedule regular meetings to discuss how the linked tasks are progressing, if there are any changes in schedules or requirements, and whether those changes impact the connection between project tasks.

          4. Efficient communication

There is no substitute for good communication when it comes to effective dependency management, and there are two key elements experienced PMs pay attention to:

  • The project team. Ensuring all team members understand their responsibilities and are aligned when it comes to dependencies will help prevent many issues throughout the course of the project. In addition, day-to-day interactions and unity between team members can help resolve dependencies more easily and enable the project to move forward without constant manager intervention.

  • Stakeholders. Engaging with clients and executives regularly and ensuring they understand how all dependencies can influence the project’s progress is important in order to set realistic expectations and avoid unfeasible requests. However, such stakeholders may not be familiar with PM jargon and may feel intimidated by complex Gantt charts or other intricate project management tools. This is why communicating the data using simple, familiar visuals such as PowerPoint slides and color-coding the related tasks can be a more effective way to present project dependencies to non-project audiences.

Project dependencies are inevitable, but managers shouldn’t feel threatened by them. With good communication and organizational skills, PMs can leverage them to their advantage and find effective ways to keep the project on track or even accelerate its execution.


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How to Avoid Project Communication Breakdowns

showing appreciation

Avoiding the Communication Breakdown Project Nightmare

Have you ever been there – when a breakdown in communication happens, causing painful timeline, delivery and budget issues in your otherwise fairly successful project? And worse, it may not be apparent that it is a communication issue that is crippling the project... No, that realization can take days or weeks, while more and more issues arise.

What do you do? Well, fixing it is fodder for another article - maybe next time. Avoiding it altogether is what I would like to cover here. That is always going to be your cheapest route and the route that will cause you and the client the least amount of pain and suffering over the remainder of the project.

Develop a communication plan

I am of the opinion that every project should have some sort of communication plan in place from the beginning. It doesn't have to be a formal, paid-for deliverable. If you're running a small project, it can just be an ongoing, revisable chart that identifies what meetings happen, when, and who the primary contacts are, including all their key contact information. If it's a bigger project and you want to make it a planning document deliverable (paid for or not), then you can put together a more formal document.

Conduct good meetings and follow-up

Meetings are a key information sharing point. Information sharing and getting decisions made quickly are really the only reason to have meetings. So, conducting good, effective, and efficient meetings is critical to project and communication success. But, beyond that, the information must be accurate and understood by all. So always follow up each meeting with notes to those who attended and to those who should have attended – asking for revisions within 24 hours. Once you have feedback, make any necessary revisions of the meeting notes and resend. The end goal is to ensure that all parties ended the meeting with the same understandings and everyone is on the same page until next time.

Involve the team at every angle

Your team plays a major role in the successful delivery of a project, so a strong focus on communication among the project team is vital. Keeping them informed and ensuring they understand any tasks they are assigned are critical techniques to drive a successful project. Do this through weekly team meetings, daily project status communication emails or quick standup meetings, and close each discussion by summarizing to ensure there is common understanding of expectations for the next brief window of time.

Keep the customer engaged.

One way to keep decision-making happening and information flowing efficiently between delivery team and customer is to keep that customer well-engaged throughout the project. When you lose that client for extended periods of time to his other work, that's when you can get stuck interpreting requirements without having all information at your disposal. This can lead to making under-informed decisions on the project; decisions that the customer could otherwise have assisted you and the team through. Keep the customer engaged with assigned tasks and pre-defined expectations set. And always be pinging them for participation in weekly project status and review meetings. Be strong and stubborn with the customer... you won't regret it.

Review, revise, re-distribute

Finally, the three R's. Review, revise and re-distribute. This mainly refers to the project schedule and status reporting. Keeping everyone informed through the project schedule and status updates is a key responsibility that will just automatically increase the likelihood of avoiding those communication missteps and breakdowns that can lead to misinterpreted requirements, re-work, and missed deadlines.

Summary

A communication breakdown can result in all sorts of problems: unclear project requirements, re-work, gold-plating of project work, poorly reviewed deliverables being handed off to the client, budget overruns, and missed timeframes, among others. Avoiding these breakdowns needs to be a high priority, and following these steps will help you get there.

Readers – what are your thoughts? What do you do to avoid communication shortcomings on the projects you manage?


Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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Showing Appreciation for Project Team Effort

showing appreciation

I just read an email from a highly regarded project management software vendor about showing Valentine's Day appreciation to project team members with Valentine's Day cards. You've got to be kidding. This is not the 2nd grade, where we all make our Valentine's Day mailboxes for our desks out of shoe boxes decorated in red, pink and white. I couldn't believe what I was reading. It probably came from the same person who dreamed up giving participation ribbons or trophies to everyone.

Rewards are good, however, I've been a manager or project manager leading teams for 23 years and prizing has never been my strong point - nor has it ever been a big deal to me. But I do feel strongly about letting the word get out about a job, deliverable or milestone well-done by an individual or team effort on one of my projects. If you do like to give out special prizes or gift cards or Valentine's Day cards to your team... more power to you. It's just not for me. This is why I'd like to discuss alternative types of recognition options as they seem to be lacking in the project management community.

I'm not big on making any reward too personal in nature. People today are too litigious. I'm not saying your team or anyone on it is going to sue you, but people can do unexpected odd things to remain completely above reproach. Therefore, it is more cautious to never get personal. Consider these four staff recognition ideas to show your appreciation for individual or team efforts:

Send out a company wide email

If your team put forth a great effort and met a critical deadline or milestone or just completed a very successful project, don't wait for or expect reward or notice to come from the top of the organization. Send out your own congratulatory email to the entire company or at least to key individuals and call out everyone by name. If possible, give a brief mention of everyone's role in the project and how they contributed to its success.

Take the team out to dinner

It never hurts to take the team out for pizza or a nice dinner once you hit that critical milestone or final project roll-out. You can all breathe a sigh of relief and get together when it isn't about another project meeting or some sort of crisis to deal with in a war room setting. Today's projects, with geographically dispersed teams, make something like this difficult or even impossible, so you likely won't get to use this option often. If you all gather at the client's site for a major deliverable handoff, lessons learned meeting, quarterly review meeting or project roll-out, use that time to get away one evening to do this. I've done that many times and it works great.

Gift cards for extraordinary individual efforts

When it was more of an individual effort, like powering through a project issue crisis or key deliverable, you can still do the company-wide email distribution. But this may also be a situation where a nice gift card would be in order.

Days off

Finally, you can always fall back on the option to give a couple of days off to a project team member for extraordinary effort – if you have the authority or you can work it out with the team member's direct manager... and if you can spare the time off in the project schedule for the individual. No one will mind a day or two off of work, so this option almost always will be well received.

Summary / call for input

I think most project team pros would appreciate recognition similar to what I've listed here more than a Valentine's Day card. At any rate, these have worked well for me on my teams and direct reports. But I do realize everyone is different. Readers – what is your take on my list? What have you tried that has worked well... or hasn't gone over so well? Please share and discuss.


Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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