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Individuality Matters on Diverse Teams – Why Project Managers may need to leave their pre-conceived ideas at the door

Imagine that you are a project manager holding the kick-off meeting for a new software deployment that is being rolled out to multiple distribution facilities.

You look around, scanning the groups on the conferencing monitors and in the room, taking note of the generations and functional areas represented. You nod your head in approval that you have built a solidly diverse team, one that will lift the project from a plan to a fully functioning new system in a matter of months.

Managing the team will be more complex than project teams you have led in the past. It has been a few years since you last led such a large implementation project involving not only your company but also a handful of consultants and the vendor’s integration team. Over the past years, your company has created new jobs, new positions, and hired people fresh out of college and some from different industries who have many years of experience in operations and supply chain fields. The core teams you have worked with in the past have evolved. You are working with a larger multi-generational group with a much deeper breadth of experience than you ever have.

As a strong project manager, you know that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to project management. Each project, each project team, each individual is different. Balancing how you communicate and manage each team member, each stakeholder, will be critical to project success.

I will admit that as a project manager I experienced a learning curve when it came to diversifying communications to suit team members. When I first started leading teams to get something done, it was not called project management (at least not in my company thirty-plus years ago) and there was no insight into dealing with individuals as individuals. You were given something to do by your supervisor, found someone who could help you get it done if it wasn’t something you could do alone, and then reported back to your supervisor that the task was complete. Workers were workers and everyone was pretty much treated the same (everything had to be fair and equitable). It was not until years later that formal project management was introduced to us, and I found the structure and details fascinating. Yes, I am a detail-oriented person who loves structure around meetings and tasks and goals and everything in-between.

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I learned over the years that my concept of structure and methods of communication were not necessarily the same everyone else’s. For example, not growing up with a cell phone in my pocket, I had to adjust to people not only bringing their phones into meetings but having no hesitation to look at the screen when a text message or other communication sounded or vibrated its way into the agenda. At first I was considering a “no cell phone” rule for our meetings but had to rule it out because some of the interruptions were legitimate, especially when representatives from technology teams attended meetings (production issues ALWAYS win over project meetings). How to tell if it is a true emergency communication or if it is a coworker or significant other on the other end of the message wanting to know what’s for lunch/dinner or how much longer is that meeting going to last? You can’t. But you also cannot let yourself get distracted from the reason you pulled the team together. Carry on with your meeting.

Remember that HOW you communicate is as important as WHAT you communicate. Most, if not all, of us have been through some form of personality testing and/or training (think Myers-Brigg). One of my favorites, one which focuses on conscious and unconscious motivators, provides outstanding (my opinion) insight in how to approach people. For example, if you know someone who wants balance and harmony, someone who is always trying to keep peace between all team members and stakeholders, bluntly telling them that they fell short on meeting a milestone could devastate that person. Instead, you need to let her/him know that s/he has been working hard, doing a good job, but needs to focus on whatever it is that is needed to complete the task. Ask what you can do to help. If the person is a matter-of-fact, detailed and perfectionist type, ask what is causing the delay and work with them to get back on track because chances are s/he is already beating her/himself up over missing the deadline. Ask what you can do to help.

Always, always ask what you can do to help. The sooner, the better.

Remember that each person you work with is an individual with specific needs, motivators, experience, and has background life noise that can change from day to day. Every day is a new day that can bring a slightly different version of a person into the workplace. As a project manager, you need to be cognizant of the “temperature” of the team and who may need what from you. Those running at a fever pitch could experience burnout, so work with them to make sure their focus is balanced with other non-project related tasks and that they are not taking on more than is necessary. Those that are falling behind may need a one-on-one meeting to help identify the issues and (hopefully) meet the milestone.

Your experiences, methods, and motivators are probably vastly different from your teams’. Realize it, get to know your team members, and treat them as the individuals they are in order to find success in your projects.

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