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Control Projects, Not People

Controlling projects is a good thing. Controlling people is not. What does it mean to control projects, not people, and when have you crossed the threshold from controlling the project to micromanaging the people?

When you start telling people how to do their jobs instead of focusing on the results they create is usually an indication that you have stepped beyond the bounds of project control and into the realm of people control.

Some team members are quite adept at complicating this tidy distinction. What about, for example, the team member who tells you they will get the work done on time but sees no need to share details regarding the steps involved or how they’re going to get it done?

Even if it’s someone you have previously worked with and have every confidence that they’ll meet their deadline, it’s conceivable that you need more information about what’s involved in accomplishing the work. Perhaps for reporting or tracking purposes, for example, you may need to know about the steps involved or milestones in getting to their end result.

How can you ask for details that may not, in fact, be necessary to the person doing the work without being perceived as trying to micromanage? The most important thing is make sure the team member understands why you need the lower-level information. In the absence of an example or clear explanation of reporting or tracking requirements, many people are going to infer a lack of trust in a request for more detail than what they’re initially interested in providing.

The following three ideas can also help a project manager engage a resistant team member in providing more detail about their project work:

  1. Suggest breaking down the work into smaller chunks to make it easier to share the work load or include others in accomplishing the result. If they decompose the work into smaller level activities or tasks, perhaps there are things that could be done by others.
  2. Present it as an opportunity to teach others. If the team member can break down what it is they do to get their work done, it is easier to show and train others how to do it. Even if it’s not entirely repeatable, knowledge transfer requires some level of decomposition, and teaching others is usually an appealing personal development opportunity as well as valuable to the team and organization overall.
  3. Consider the information in the context of risk. Breaking down the work presents opportunities for identifying risks that might otherwise be missed. Engaging the team member in that discussion may yield ideas that even they hadn’t considered in terms of possible threats.

When project managers have a need for more details than team members are initially willing to provide regarding the work they do, these perspectives can help soften resistance by showing team members how they can contribute to something rather than making them feel like they are being needlessly imposed upon or, worse, not trusted.

So go ahead ask: “Tell me more about what’s involved in getting that done.”

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Andrea Brockmeier is the Client Solutions Director for Project Management at Watermark Learning.  Andrea is a PMP® as well as Certified ScrumMaster.  She has 20+ years of experience in project management practice and training. She writes and teaches courses in project management, including PMP® certification, as well as influencing skills. She has long been involved with the PMI® chapter in Minnesota where she was a member of the certification team for over eight years. She has a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and is particularly interested in the impact of social media and new technologies on organizations and projects.