Throughout my career, I have worked with, for, and hired a great number of project managers. Along the way, I have noticed that many of the challenges PMs face are common across industry, vertical, professional services and in-house PMO organizations. Yet, much of the advice out there meant to help project managers in the face of adversity actually ends up perpetuating the challenges.
A project manager is supposed to be a leader, a facilitator, an advisor and an advocate, not only for the project, but also for the team, the business and the cause. However, clients and stakeholders tend to see project managers as utility people and not as leaders, and this lead me to wonder about how we got into this situation in the first place.
1. Taking Notes
I once had a project manager on my team complain to me about how business stakeholders only saw him as a note taker, and treated him as an administrator. My advice to him was to stop taking notes. His eyes widened, and he looked at me in shock. I imagine this reaction was because he’d been taught throughout his career that one of the major responsibilities of a project manager is to take notes, capture decisions and document, document, document. I don’t disagree that creating alignment and visibility to decisions is critical, but in today’s world there are better mechanisms for capturing this information than to waste the time of a highly paid project manager taking notes.
Rather, I always give my project managers this simple advice: do things that empower you; do not do the things that relegate you. When you are taking notes in a meeting, you are not actively engaged in discussion nor are you actively listening. You are not seen as a leader, you are not offering insights and opinions, and you are not being strategic. You are being tactical and administrative. Project managers need to elevate their game and start driving value for their customers, whether internal or external. Think about your clients, stakeholders and users, and make them the center of your story. Do they get value from your notes, or are your notes only valuable to you as a way to CYA when things go wrong? Your value stems from your voice, your experience, your ideas, your planning, and your ability to lead a team. That is what drives value, not taking notes.
2. Saying No
No one likes to be told no. Project managers have a very hard job, and sometimes a “no” answer is the most expedient response. After all, they are stewards of budget, time, scope, quality and experiences for both their clients (or internal stakeholders) and for their teams. They constantly tow the line, managing expectations and trying to make everyone happy. So when life happens – there are hiccups on a project, changes are made, new stakeholders become involved, etc. – the “no” answer that was once expedient becomes a kill word in a world that is always in flux. Dialogue ends, collaboration falters, and innovation is stifled. Instead of managing expectations through saying “no,” think about using the “yes, and…” principle.
At my company, we recently hired an improv comedian to come in and work with my team under the that there many parallels could be drawn from improv that could also apply to business. Besides learning to work through fear in order to be more authentic, she focused on the “yes, and…” principle, which means listening to what someone else says and building upon it. For example, when a stakeholder says, “I’ve done some research, and I would like to add a new module to the system.” The answer should be, “Yes, I understand how that can help you achieve your business outcomes sooner… and we may be able to de-scope some additional functionality that may not have as much impact to your goals. As a result, we would need to increase budget by only 100K;” versus, the normal freak out: “What? You want to add scope? No, we can’t do that. It will make us go over budget, impact our timelines and introduce additional scope.” The idea is to get people to collaborate and understand that any idea that’s brought to the table can be accepted, added upon and made better. “No” shuts people down; “Yes, and…” gets people to collaborate and build upon an idea, suggestion or request to make it better.
3. Being On Time, On Budget, and On Scope
I interview a lot of people for project management positions, and one question I always ask is: “How do you define project success?” Eight times out of ten I get “on time, on budget, and on scope.” This is a canned answer that has been engrained in the heads of most project managers who have gone through PMI certification. I would argue that it is not about on time, on budget and on scope. It is about managing expectations, delivering on business outcomes, and ensuring both client and team satisfaction. The reality is that things change. Very rarely is anything delivered on time, on budget and on scope. The business climate changes, the details are revealed, complexity increases, priorities shift and new stakeholders are introduced (to name a few). A great project manager understands the business objectives and drives the project to deliver on those objectives, all the while proactively anticipating needs, managing expectations, facilitating engagement, and fostering satisfaction. It is about driving results and making people feel good about the results that you are driving.
4. Being a Journalist
I recently read a book that portrayed project managers as Journalists. Journalists are people who detach the goal of accurate reporting from the goal of project success. We all know these project managers. They are so focused on accurately reporting the news (the detail in the report, the cadence of the report, the color of the report), that they completely lose sight of the WHY; why are we doing this project, and how is success defined.
Project Managers know that they have to understand the true state of their projects and to report accurately on them. Sometimes, however, they lose sight of the reason for all this attention to detail: making sure the project achieves its objectives. They adopt, as their goal, the accurate portrayal of the state of the project at all times. They become, in effect, journalists. Like film critics, project journalists believe – if only subconsciously – that they can succeed even if their project fails.
Great project managers don’t just report on the news, they drive the news. They drive the direction of the project toward a successful outcome. They are active participants in the process and not innocent bystanders. Next time you write a status report, make sure you are not just reporting the news but that you have taken an active role in making the news. Be a leader who helps solve the problems of tomorrow, versus just reporting on the problems of yesterday, and take accountability for outcomes.
5. Leaning Out
At the company I work at, we have a conference room called Fishbowl and it truly is a fishbowl. It has three walls that are ceiling to floor glass and it sits along the main corridor as you walk into our building – a very popular place for our fellow team members to collaborate with clients and one another. Every time I walk by and a meeting is in progress, I always analyze body language, observing where people are sitting/standing, how the whiteboards are being used, and the expressions on people’s faces. One thing that drives me crazy is when I see people sitting along the wall and not at the table. I understand if the seats at the table are full, but if not – and people are still “leaning out” (sitting against the wall), this tells me they don’t feel as important as the others in the room. In my early days there, I noticed some of my project managers sitting on the sidelines. I understand the need to be courteous, but I have told them they need to get in there. When you sit on the sidelines, it sends a message that you are not as important, you are not critical, your opinion doesn’t really matter and you are optional. My project managers are not optional; they are critical. They are active participants helping facilitate and drive important conversations, problem solving, and decision-making. My advice is always to be aware of your non-verbal communication via body language, gestures and other non-verbal cues. Your body posture, expressions, and position in a room all send messages. Think of how you want to be portrayed and perceived by your clients and align your positioning and body language accordingly. This takes confidence, courage, and a belief that you are important; your ideas matter and you are critical to the success of your project.
6. Getting Stuck in Orbit
Effective project managers cannot get stuck in orbit, hovering over the project like an observer and a reporter. When they do, they never truly understand the drivers behind a project and never truly understanding the intricacies. I always say the devil is in the details, and project managers who don’t dive in and get their hands dirty shouldn’t be surprised when things go haywire. An effective project manager has to be able to go micro and then elevate to macro. You have to understand the ins and outs of the project, however, you can’t get stuck there. You also have to be able to elevate yourself above the project, staying ahead of your team, anticipating your client’s or stakeholder’s needs and addressing them proactively, versus reactively. You have to keep the team connected to business outcomes and drive decision-making to align and support those outcomes. When you “fly high” and are not really connected to outcomes and don’t understand the details, your team doesn’t need you and your client doesn’t need you either. You become an administrative artifact, just reporting the news (as mentioned above). Get connected. Get engaged. Submerse yourself. Elevate yourself. Don’t get tangled in the web of details, but don’t skip out of orbit either. It is a careful balance and one that is mastered through artistry and experience, not science.
7. Enamoring the Problem
Your team is miserable. You are up against tight timelines. Your client or stakeholders have unrealistic expectations. Everyone is complaining, including you. You are not doing anyone any favors, but rather you are contributing to the misery. As a project manager, you are seen as a leader (whether you are one or not), and you are held to those expectations. Leaders do not enamor problems; they are problem solvers. They help contribute to the solution. You may listen, you may sympathize, and you want to develop empathy for your team, but at some point you have shift your team away from enamoring problems and toward a solution. You are empowered and should have the skills of influence and persuasion to help shift your team’s thinking and mindset. Next time your team is sitting around and complaining, elevate yourself and drive them to take accountability of the situation. Ask your team, “What is one small step we can take to change the current situation?”
When all is said and done, perhaps the problem lies in the title. Perhaps “manager” is the wrong word. After all, “manager” has had centuries of connotative and pejorative meaning attached to it. Could it be that simply changing the title could change the way others perceive the position? Advisor maybe? Facilitator? These things might be a start, but I think the most effective and immediate answer is for project managers to change the way they think of themselves and start to change their behaviors. They should cultivate the habits, attitudes, mannerisms and leadership qualities that will make them valuable assets to the team and not mere artifacts.
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