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Learning from and Sharing in other Project Managers’ Misfortunes

I have been in Europe again, for more than a month now, giving agile project management and portfolio management workshops. And again, this year, I was invited to give a couple of conferences about project management issues.

One of my conferences was about project uncertainty and risks, and on why and how agile principles could help manage those issues more effectively. My conference was preceded by short presentations by two IT project managers. Their role was to give an account of some of their project misfortunes, and mine to reflect back on those misfortunes while showing how agile principles could help prevent similar ones. There was a short question and discussion period at the end of each presentation.

One of the project managers talked about a project that was over, but had been a complete mess. He offered factual elements, reflected on what went wrong, and then said what he learned and what fixes he was trying to apply to prevent similar problems from occurring on current projects. He was asking for confirmation that he was doing the right thing.

The other project manager was talking about an ongoing project, for which the scope was very fuzzy and the project client almost unreachable to discuss this issue. It seemed that this client was just waiting, so to speak, for a black box to be delivered that would do magic without putting in the effort to have the right contents in the black box! This project manager was a young fellow, very bright as far as I am concerned. He had tried some agile approaches but did not really know how to make them work, as the client was refusing to be part of it. He seemed somewhat at a lost and was looking for some help and enlightenment from fellow project managers.

The first project manager did not get, from the 70 or so people in the room, much confirmation that he was doing the right thing now. The second project manager did not get help and enlightenment on how to get out of the coming mess. Rather, they both got plenty of criticisms from people that were indirectly alluding they would have done or could do better. So easy it is to criticize while being an outsider; so easy to know better; so easy to know it all…and so easy to contribute nothing in doing so.

It took great courage and humility from these two project managers to share so generously of their misfortunes. I believe that showing that courage, that humility and that desire to reach out for help was in itself a great demonstration of what are the right behaviors to adopt as a project manager. I also believe that criticizing and playing know-it-all, not showing empathy was also a great demonstration of the behaviors to avoid as project manager.

Those two project managers helped me learn a lot, not only by sharing their misfortunes but also by displaying their courage and humility. This was the most important learning element of this event. I believe that, in the face of sharing and discussing others’ misfortunes, empathy is the right behavior to adopt. Each of us will need one day to reach out, humbly and with courage. We then deserve more than criticism and a slap in the face. We deserve a display of the same behavior, to be humbly listened to, with empathy and with the courage to share similar misfortunes and grow from them together. Courage, humility, empathy are the qualities of a true leader and project manager. And this is what has to be displayed, learned and shared in the face of others’ misfortunes.

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