Juliana Marulanda ADT podcast cover
Episode: 99

Juliana Marulanda - Tackling common project management challenges

Posted on: 06 Jul 2023
Juliana Marulanda ADT podcast cover

Juliana Marulanda is the founder of the agency growth consultant ScaleTime with over 20 years of experience across Wall Street, the nonprofit sector, technology startups, and family-owned businesses.

In this episode, we discuss the most common challenges in project management and how to address them. We talk about the main changes from the pre-Covid era, the differences with in-house verses outsourced/distributed projects, diagnosing and preventing bottlenecks, the need for managers to adapt their management approaches, and the value of good project management tools.


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“Who’s on deck for what, what is the actual accountability, and then, how are you able to have visibility across different projects, both internal and external, and across external, so that you can make decisions based on the information that you’re given?”

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.

Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. Our guest today is Juliana Marulanda, founder of the agency growth consultant ScaleTime. She has over 20 years of experience across Wall Street, the nonprofit sector, technology startups, and family-owned businesses, during which she has helped scale over 500 digital agencies. Today we’ll be talking about the most common project management challenges and how to tackle them. Juliana, welcome to the show, anything you want to add before we begin.

Juliana Marulanda: I am so happy and honored to be here, so thank you for having me today.

Tim Butara: Thanks for joining us. It’s very great to have you, as I just said. I know that probably a lot of people listening are working in project management, managing projects, managing teams, maybe managing products. And we’re here to bring you a lot of invaluable pieces of info and insight. So, Juliana, let us start with the basics; so, what are the top project management challenges today? And also, what are the main differences in this field, in this context, now as opposed to the pre-Covid era?

Juliana Marulanda: Yes. So, I would say that the top challenges are basically pretty basic. I don’t think they’ve changed a lot over the years. I think infrastructure has changed, right, in Covid. And I’m going to say, mostly it’s things such as adoption. How do you get your team to actually use project management, use your methodology of project management, switch methodologies of project management. So I think adoption is always one of the biggest lists, right. It’s not actually getting into the weeds of doing the project management, it’s getting the team to buy in and do it consistently.

The other one that I would say is actually managing workflow and capacity. So it’s not just about, oh, well, is everyone accountable? Do we have statutes? Are there handoffs? It’s actually about, what is the information giving us so that we can better manage the profitability of our projects, the burnout of our team? I think that is huge, right, so it’s being able to actually look at the information and say, ok, well, what are workflows telling us? What is the information telling us? What is the capacity, the utilization of the team? So I think that’s really important.

And the other thing that I would say is dirty data. So, dirty data is such a thing in project management because a lot of it, if we can think about it, is, like, what is the information giving you? Can you trust the information? Can you trust that the template that you are using is the right template, or are there 20 different templates for the same thing? Can we trust the system? If not, then people are going to, you know, Slack, Teams, bug you, ping you, ring you instead of going into the project management. And I think that’s a huge deal.

And I would say the differences between today versus pre-Covid – and Covid’s still happening in some parts of the world, so I would like to say that with caution – I think we have so much more of a remote culture than we did before. And there’s things such as handoffs. So, instead of going and walking over to someone’s desk and being, like, hey John, it’s your turn to do the X, Y and Z, we have to rely on the system.

The other thing I would say is also spontaneous feedback. So, again, it’s not like, hey, let’s review this thing. Or you meet and you’re grabbing coffee, hey, I have an idea about the report that you just made. We have to now containerize and contextualize our feedback, so that it actually lands in the right place. 

So, is it within the thread of the comment section of the actual project that you’re doing, or is it stuck in email, or in a communications solution like a Slack, right? Are we actually giving the feedback on a timely basis, and are you making time for that review process? So much of it is managers or owners, they don’t have to review. And then they’re like, why am I reviewing the same thing over and over again? Why can’t the work product just be the way that I want it to be? So, I think that’s a major difference, that now we’re relying on that technology.

And, again, the adoption of new technologies in the post-Covid era, right. Because I think more than ever, it’s like, battle of the project management tools. So, all these different tools have now got millions upon millions of investment to make things better. I think the insertion of AI is also making things different now. And so, how are people adopting not only the project management technology, but the add-on technology that is happening with it, as the future of work is now?

Tim Butara: So, yeah, the biggest changes are definitely basically what we’ve seen across the board, right. One major change, one aspect is the surge of new technologies and how to get used to all this change. And the other is the move to more remote work which opens up a lot of new things.

Like, one thing that’s very much on the rise because of that is, a lot more companies have been much more open to collaborations with digital agencies in this kind of context. And I’m wondering, for the sake of our conversation, are there any specific project management challenges when you’re collaborating across different agencies, across multiple teams, maybe that are positioned globally, versus a completely in-house process; even if that in-house process is distributed globally?

Juliana Marulanda: Yeah, absolutely. I would say one of the biggest things is what technology are you using, what communication tools are you using. Are you using your own– so, are you having the agency’s team use your technology? Are you using their technology? Are you creating redundancy by using both? Do you have automation to build a streamlined way between both those technologies, so that people aren’t putting information in both and so things are getting hairy and doubling up – and we’re coming back to that dirty data scenario.

So I think that’s one of the first challenges. It’s whose tech are you using, and have you even set those expectations from the beginning? Because sometimes those expectations aren’t set. And if you’re working with multiple agencies, then how are you able to visualize all of the information across campaigns, across programs, so that you’re able to actually see things and have visibility from a strategic standpoint, not just a tactical one? So I think that’s a huge one.

The other one, I would say, is who are the stakeholders? And I’ve worked with so many agencies, over 500. And one of the things is, especially for the really great agencies, sometimes they turned into this outsourced CMO without asking for it. Because, it’s like, do you have a point person? Is there a stakeholder inside of the organization that is managing the different and various third-party agencies? Or is there a de facto manager that may or may not even know that they are the de facto manager, and there may or may not even be getting paid for it, right?

So, I think that’s another commonality that happens, is just understanding who’s on deck for what, what is the actual accountability, and then, how are you able to have visibility across different projects, both internal and external, and across external, so that you can make decisions based on the information that you’re given.

Tim Butara: I think all of these are very important. And in the context of modern digital projects, which are even more complex than they used to be – you just spoke about how you might have one person who doesn’t even know that they’re actually responsible or that others view them as the responsible one for a certain part of the project.

And we spoke about the problem of handoffs as one of the challenges in the beginning. All of this just sounds like to me that there’s just so many opportunities to have bottlenecks created in the process of project management. How do you prevent that, diagnose bottlenecks, avoid that as much as possible and streamline this aspect?

Juliana Marulanda: Yeah, they often happen, they’re going to happen. And I think one of the ways to be able to see where the bottlenecks are, right, is by having that visibility that we just talked about, and being able to see what your metrics are. So, for example, if you’re trying to get your team to adopt a new technology, a new methodology, a new anything, are we tracking participation?

Because oftentimes we’re like, aha, people aren’t using it. Or, I know some people are using it, but not everybody. Or people are using it “ish”. If you’re in “ish” land, actually you can track participation. You can track whether or not people are clearing out their notifications. That’s an easy one to just see, like, are you in the system or not? Most systems will tell you how many people have logged in and how often. So that’s an easy one to just see, like, are people even using the thing? Are they using it consistently?

Another way is just to see, backlog. Oftentimes you might have backlog but you don’t know why. So now you become sort of a forensic project manager. And so, is it because people are just not clicking off their statuses? Sometimes you have someone who’s phenomenal, and they crush it, and they are on your team and they are doing everything, but they suck at changing the status reports. And you’re like, oh my good, can you just change it? Can you press the button?

So, sometimes, the backlog isn’t real. Sometimes it’s due to a client that doesn’t review things or whatever, maybe out of retainer, and they’re just there, and we’re like, ok, we know that this is how they are. They’re paying us, they’re a great client, there’s no need to do anything. But now it’s just clogging up our system. And sometimes you have real backlog. And that’s because there’s bottlenecks that are happening. And so now you get to go and investigate what that is.

Another one is just on-time deliverables. Are we delivering on time? Is it because of our team? Is our team either having a capabilities gap? Are they not efficient or productive enough? Is there something up with our system or process? Are we making promises we can’t keep? Or is it the clients? Are they just out of a million reviews? Do we need to tighten up our client onboarding systems? Do we need to set better expectations? Does our client management need to be tweaked? So on-time deliverables will give us information around what to do.

Time keeping is massive, because that way we can actually be able to make some of these decisions around the efficiency and productivity of our people, their capabilities gaps. Also their burnout; are we just giving them too much? Are we saying everything is a priority, so that nothing is a priority? So, their time is all over the place. So what does that look like?

And then the other one that I would say is meetings. Taking a look at meetings on the calendar and seeing, are they effective or are they not? Cause sometimes people will have meetings in lieu of good project management systems. How many times are people like, wow, this just could’ve been an email. Why did we have a meeting about this?

So, if there isn’t a decision to be made, a brainstorm to be had, or a training to be done, something that needs to be course corrected, chances are you probably don’t need a meeting for it. You just need to tighten up your systems, and have people go into the systems, have the visibility and trust them.

So, I would say that’s one way to diagnose specific bottlenecks in the project management. But then if we’re looking at process across the board– so I have something called and we diagnose like 50 ops gaps in five minutes. Because operations, when we’re thinking about just project management, there’s the process that goes into it, the technology that we have, our workflows that are there, the documents that are sustaining it. 

And so, what I mean by the documents is, if you have a content calendar template, that is a document that is supporting a process and a workflow. Are people reinventing the wheel the entire time, or do you have something that works and works consistently and repeatedly?

So, we have those documents; do we have the training for it? Because sometimes we’re like, urgh, what’s going on with these on-time deliverables or the time keeping? And it’s because there could be a lack of capabilities for one or some of the team. Even if you have a great team, sometimes the gap is of quality control; like, you have managers just doing way too much quality control because there isn’t training around quality. So, how do we step up our game in training? And then lastly, obviously, metrics.

Tim Butara: I really loved especially the point about meetings. Because a lot of the people creating digital experiences today are after all programmers. And if there’s one profession, one role that really can get their work disrupted by back to back meetings, especially, it’s programmers.

I read a lot of articles and content directed at programmers. Just yesterday I think I read an article about… Somebody was programming something and they had a meeting that lasted an hour, and then they had an hour of free time, and then they had another meeting. And it was, like, four one-hour meetings in an eight-hour day with, like, one hour in between.

And their manager asked, why didn’t you get any work done in the other four hours? And it was like, I mean, you need to prepare for the meetings. You need focus to solve programming issues. And it just seems to me, it just underscores what you said: a meeting can be an email, or if it doesn’t need to include every single person who’s related to the thing that’s being discussed, it might as well be an email.

Juliana Marulanda: Absolutely. And then there’s this other thing around… We talk a lot about deep work, and what does it mean to be able to get into flow state, especially if you’re an engineer. Or if you’re anybody; but if you’re doing work that requires deep thinking and deep execution, oftentimes you need to hit a state of flow. And it takes about 15 minutes to really hit it.

And so, if you’re in back to back meetings– and this happens to me all the time, I’m like, argh, and I switch up my calendar all the time. So I’m constantly eating my own dog food, and then I’m just like, and now I got hijacked by something else. But it takes about 15 minutes to get into flow. 

And then if you’re prepping, let’s say, even for five minutes, if you’re out of a call – and let’s say you’re giving yourself a bio break or something, because you’re a human, right, we’re still human. So you figure it’s about 20 minutes. Then you’ve got more or less like 35 minutes so that you can have five minutes to prep. So you really only have like 35 minutes of pure productivity.

I’m not talking about getting stuff done. Yes, there’s times where you can just section off your things and be like, alright, I’m going to do some things that are super mundane and don’t take any thinking, like administrative or email or whatnot. But if we’re not looking at people’s actual schedules, especially for those individuals who need the time to produce things that are lengthy. We need to actually give them the time to do that. It’s really hard for them to get stuff done.

And then, if you’re throwing more stuff on top of their plate, which we’re all guilty of, right. We’re like, aaah, this new thing, or this opportunity, or a fire, right – cause it happens – then we’re constantly reprioritizing what those schedules look like. And I’m going to go back to the workflows, managing people’s workflows and capacity. If we’re not managing workflows and capacity as you’re throwing more stuff on top of people’s plates, or as you’re getting more stuff on top of your plate, if you’re not reprioritizing, rejiggering it, it’s really hard to actually meet the deliverables that you need to meet.

And so, we have to really stay on top of it and say, is this the right resource for this? Can I use somebody else? Can it be done by either a technology or a person or someone who’s more junior, or someone who is different, someone who has capacity; as opposed to just saying, I’m going to throw everything at this one individual.

Tim Butara: So basically it’s pretty much just as difficult for the people that are managing people as it is for the people that these managers are managing, right? Initially when we were discussing topics for the call we talked about why a lot of managers hate managing people. And this is the perfect place to ask, how should managers adapt their roles, adapt their approaches to have an easier, more enjoyable time, and more maybe efficient, productive time managing others?

Juliana Marulanda: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think it really starts with expectations. And I think when it comes to managing people, there’s a lot of literature around what type of manager are you, or what type of leader are you, in terms of, are you a direct leader, are you a servant leader, are you this type of leader?

I think it doesn’t matter what type of leader you are. You need to have your expectations really clear with your team. And if the expectations are changing from up above, if your middle management, if your upper management, right– if things are changing, then the expectation is things are changing, right. Cause sometimes that’s really real, especially in small businesses.

And getting buy-in from your team is extremely important. It doesn’t matter that it’s a shiny new system or process or idea. Having the team care about what it is is super important. Asking them questions about what they think would make this better, whatever the this is, I think is extremely important.

And even though it may feel sometimes fruitless, like, argh, I just didn’t want to do the damn thing, as opposed to, like, what do you guys think about this? Or, like, how would you make it better? It’s that, when people have buy-in, they are so much more likely to actually care, because their voice matters, they’re making an impact, and now they’re starting to have some skin in the game. Now there’s a sense of ownership over this. It’s not something that has been imposed upon them, it is something that they are a part of.

And right now there’s about five generations in the workplace, it’s one of the first times that this is happening. And especially the younger generations really care about the impact that they are creating. And so, there’s a sense of – and that’s a topic for a whole other thing, right – but there is a sense in the market sometimes where it’s like, ok, well, there’s a lack of loyalty among younger employees, gen Z and millennials alike. There is a lack of sometimes interest, it’s like this general ennui, like no one really cares – or at least that sometimes is the sentiment.

So to get buy-in is to have people care. And that is so important so that you’re just not another notification that is ruining someone’s day because now you’ve asked them to do another thing. Asking people what’s in it for them, like, really talking to them about what’s in it for them.

And I’ve said this before; what’s in it for someone doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the organization. Cause if we look at the stats, it used to be people switched jobs every like two and a half years, I think that’s less now. It may not necessarily be, like, there’s longevity in the workplace like it used to be back, right. You’re going to work here for 20 years and you’re going to get promoted for bla bla bla – that’s not realistic anymore. But what is realistic is someone becoming the top of their game. 

Like, really being able to have a fantastic resume that no matter where they go, because they’re in a place of flux, that they’re able to take on multiple things and do it well. So, like, what’s in it for them can be inside of the organization if there’s a promotion, or if there’s, like, a carrot, or if there’s flexibility or time off or whatever. But it can also be for their own existentialist needs for their career. And I don’t think people tap into that enough. And then, I think the other thing that we need to do is measure performance. Have scorecards for people. So that the feedback loop isn’t once a year or twice a year of actually, how are you doing at your job? So that people can self reflect and self report.

Tim Butara: Do you have any great examples of tools that you’ve used or discovered recently that you’ve found particularly good at helping you, helping others, helping your team solve all of these challenges that we talked about? Both the stuff that we talked about in the beginning, and the things that we talked about just now in the context of managers improving how they manage the people around them.

Juliana Marulanda: Yes. So, for project management, most good project management tools will have a level of reporting and/or dashboards. I am more prone to dashboards, personally, because I like on the spot visibility, as opposed to certain tools where you have to fill out a report and then people do it maybe once a month, right, then you’re having a lag in data. I like on time data. I like my data now.

And I don’t know if I’m the only one, it’s that, when it comes to data, I really do want to be able to see what’s going on at a moment’s notice. So I like dashboards particularly; most project managers will have a dashboard tool. I don’t necessarily think you need anything else. I think you just need to use what you have and do it as effectively as you can.

Now, the thing with dashboards is – the outputs are only as good as the inputs. So we’re going to go back to this dirty data, right. We need people to click the buttons and fill in the comments section and clear out their notifications, right. We want to be able to have whatever your business goals are. 

And I’ve seen dashboards go from – especially for project management, right – they can be, ok, if you are measuring, let’s say, specific OKRs or KPIs or rocks, or whatever your system of metrics is for the business, and whatever those are operationally, let’s put them in the project management tool so we can see them. And you can see them across the board and you can share them with everybody; I think that’s really important.

Then you can have team dependent dashboards if you have managers that are managing a team. Have a dashboard for your team so that you can see what’s really happening. Especially if your bonus is tied to it, right, you want to be able to have that data, you’re incentivized.

And so I think that’s really crucial. Also you can have people-specific dashboards, or dashboards that are seen across projects so we can see milestones across projects if you’re managing across. So we want to be able to see, ok, what information is necessary for the business, for the team and for the KPIs that you’re trying to hit individually? And so I think dashboards are extremely important, and you can use what you have.

Now, we were talking about these feedback loops with individuals and how to manage them. One of the tools that I have actually found to be really awesome with a lot of the companies that we work with, especially in the seven to eight-figure range, is called 15Five. And what that does is it really allows us to create feedback for managing, and it keeps us on task.

Because, to give feedback, especially if you’re doing one-on-ones with your teams, or if you’re having quarterly sessions of progress, it’s so easy for that to get deprioritized. It’s like, argh, we have this big client, or we’re doing this, or we’re doing that, and so it’s like, argh, I have to meet with this individual, but do I really? They’re doing a good job, they don’t need me, we don’t need to meet.

And actually, that person that’s doing a really good job really needs to hear it, and really needs to hear it from the person that they’re reporting to so that they keep doing a good job. So I have found 15Five to be a great tool to just keep us on top of prioritizing, keeping up the feedback, because the feedback is creating your culture. And so I also find it a really good culture tool.

Tim Butara: I love how we retraced our steps back to some of the key challenges that we spoke about throughout the episode. So, the problem of dirty data, of keeping a backlog, and dashboards for individual team members can also help with stuff like gauging performance and stuff like that.

And then on the other hand, feedback, the ways for giving, receiving feedback goes hand in hand with managers needing to adopt more human, more people, more employee focused approaches. Great way to finish off a great conversation, Juliana, thank you for joining us today. Just before we wrap things up, if listeners want to find you online and they want to connect with you, learn more about ScaleTime, where can they do that?

Juliana Marulanda: Yeah, absolutely, and thank you for having me. I know that growing a business can be very grueling, sometimes scary, sometimes annoying and frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be that hard. So I have tons of resources. One of the easiest is joining our newsletter. Once you join, I’m really big on giving quick, actionable, big, operational impact takeaways.

So, if you got scaletime.co/podcast/agiledrop, you can sign up there. And I’ve also got the five-minute diagnostic, where you uncover 50 operational gaps. We send you, like, fancy results with a great heatmap of your operations to know what you’re doing well, what you’re doing ok in, and what’s not going so well. So, definitely if you have time, go do that. And if anything resonated and you’d love to jump on a call, then you can also do that at scaletime.co/podcast/agiledrop.

Tim Butara: Awesome. We’ll also make sure to include all the relevant stuff in the show notes. And, yeah, for everybody listening right now, you can get a lot more awesome insights from Juliana, and I hope you take her up on the offer. Juliana, thanks again for joining us, this has been great.

Juliana Marulanda: Oh, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.

Tim Butara: And to our listeners, that’s all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.

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