P K Hari Ram Narayanan

Today we have tools that help different members of a team collaborate in real time. And a consequence of this is that the portion of work we plan in advance has come down.

What is the relation between collaboration and planning? Let me illustrate with an example. If you had to meet a friend to go shopping with, how would you do it before the age of cellphones? You had to plan the place and time precisely so that you did not miss each other. However, the way it works now is you loosely get to the same area around the same hour and then call each other and figure out the rest.

We see the same trend happening in projects also. The more tools we have to stay in sync in real time, the less we plan and the more we get into a let’s-start-somewhere-and-figureout- as-we-go mode.

The model of project management that is traditionally followed, was designed for the planning world. Gantt charts, dependencies, and a work breakdown structure are some examples of these. When these were developed, it took a good amount of time to propagate any change across the team. While these tools still have value, managers also need to be familiar with others specifically designed for the unplanned world.

What could these tools be? We may be familiar with some of them, though not necessarily in the context of projects.

A ‘feed’ like the ones you see in social networks could be a great place for a team to keep track of unplanned work. As the work takes form, status updates can be posted to keep everyone in sync. Comments to such posts can come in really handy when opinions on a course of action need to be sought. For someone in the team who was away, a quick browse through the feed can make sure they don't miss anything crucial. Millennials who have grown up with social media as part of their diet, would naturally be able to relate to this way of getting things done.

A discussion forum for a specific project is a great place to have lengthier discussions on various things that affect a project. It is a great place to brief a team on something that all must know. This is also a much less intrusive alternative to holding a team meet.

A chat channel involving the team could be a place where much of the conversations around work takes place. You could also create channels around topics where quick calls need to be made, including all the decision makers. Thanks to developments in AI, our chat rooms are now not just filled with our colleagues, but also chat bots and notifications from integrated apps. These can chat to us, giving important updates like a crucial ticket that has not been resolved within a specified time.

Gone are the days when you finished typing a document or a spreadsheet and mailed it to your team. Today, online documents let us 'cocreate' reports and presentations in real-time. It happens that while a speaker is typing out the contents of the tenth slide, a designer is already adding a doodle to the fourth one.

A team that uses such collaborative approaches will be able to get going with very little planning. The whole team getting into a room to decide the course of action may never be needed. Such a team that is not fixed to a particular course would also be more open to new ideas and nimble in the face of changing requirements.

A tool that helps manage projects today must be designed to support such collaborative requirements. One which follows classical approaches alone will not quite cut it. The ability to have online interactions in the context of the work is a crucial requirement.

Money does not motivate millennials, rather it is the sense of purpose and meaning that they find in the work: a lot of research has indicated this and it tallies with our own experience. Work which involves adherence to a fixed plan may not fit into this category. Those doing the work may feel like cogs in a wheel, whose contribution is in no way special.

On the other hand, work that can turn in any direction at any time, and where everyone's ideas can make a difference, looks exciting. In a team that collaborates well, a good amount of work can be done this way.

In the world of software, a lot of work involves exploring new areas, and this again is not very amenable to planning. "A joke we have going in Zoho is we have never shipped a product on time ever," says Sridhar Vembu, the CEO of Zoho, "and the reason we don't ship on time is we don't set a particular time for the product to be ready. This goes totally against the grain of what we know as traditional project management, so it needs some explaining. Let me give you an analogy. A predictable project may be like keeping the trains running on time over well-laid tracks, whereas software projects are like laying a track over unknown terrain. How can you set a deadline to this? There is too much uncertainty, there are too many unknowns. The only way you can manage these projects is to improvise on the go."

This improvisation is something we Indians are already familiar with, it is very much part of our culture. The word 'jugaad' we use here, captures the spirit of this. It is about building solutions by using existing resources in new ways that were not expected even by the creators of these resources. A farmer who uses an engine from a scrapped motorbike to draw water from a well is a typical example. Such solutions may not be the most elegant,

but they extend the scope of things, create abundance from scarcity, and usher in more innovation. Improvisation is very much part of our arts as well. For example, in Carnatic music, there are sections like the alapana and tanam, where the musician makes up original music live on stage.

A world of unplanned projects may look chaotic. But as the Zen saying goes, 'the arrival of chaos must be regarded as extremely good news.' For, only from chaos can emerge something new and better. Only then can disruption take place. If we Indians draw from our roots, we can rise from this chaos as leaders.

The author is the head of marketing for Zoho Projects, an online project management app by Chennai-based company, Zoho.