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PM disappointment – no silver bullets for the hard problems!

Last week I led a workshop aimed at project managers who are ‘beyond the basics’ and looking to take a next step in their skill-set, their ability to handle the projects on their plates and get the desired outcomes in the face of the very messy real world. They had led projects long enough (generally 2 to 5 years) to know the basics of scheduling techniques, running project meetings, tracking progress, etc. But of course they had also determined that those “mechanical” PM techniques were not enough! “I can create schedules all day long, but how do I deal with that team member who won’t provide any schedule detail, much less commit to anything?” “How do I get executives to stop changing the scope every 2 weeks?” “How do I get part time resources supposedly assigned to my project to pay attention and commit to my project, one of at least 10 on their daily list?” Those are the type of questions they brought to class.

Early in the first day, it felt like the participants were eagerly awaiting the dispensation of expert, nicely-packaged, guaranteed-to-work answers: similar to when they attended a basic PM class and were told “Here is how you plan a project: any project.” But of course the challenge with these other more nuanced problems is that there is no one answer for what to do and how to do it for every situation…. I could see their disappointment in my outlook coming…The burning questions of the participants were all about PEOPLE and how to deal with each and every different one of them as needed to have a successful project. I think they hoped there were simple, set ways to do things, that they hadn’t learned previously, that would somehow solve all these problems en masse. Instead I worked with them based on the belief I developed sometime in the hazy past, that the people management aspect of being a PM – getting the best from everyone and dealing with inevitable idiosyncrasies, differing opinions, misunderstandings, wildly varying communication styles, hidden agenda and on and on – could not be solved by anything except diligence and attention to detail and systematic problem-solving – similar to the methodical and often slow work that’s required for getting to a thorough schedule or risk analysis or status report! Somehow this sounds so boring, so un-sexy: . even impersonal?

In fact I think it’s the opposite, especially of the last.. Over time my “engineer brain” has moved from solving technical problems, to working out schedule details, to now being highly systematic in dealing with people. I think it has worked well: and that dealing with all the individuals, systematically as individuals, could be the MOST personal thing we can do for the project and the only way to make the people aspects work. Systematic doesn’t mean cookie cutter or insensitive. For me it simply means making sure everyone in taken care of in each situation, in a way that works for them and for the project.

So we spent the workshop discussing our personal toolkits of techniques for dealing with different situations. A drastic scope change: who needs to know? What related “people issues” normally crop up? Upset stakeholders: disgruntled team member whose pet feature went off the schedule: . Frazzled functional manager who now needs to pony up even more scarce resources: . Systematically go through that project stakeholder analysis until we’re sure we’ve communicated the right info in the right way to every need-to-know person on the list: for however that scope change could impact their work, their stake in the business goals, their perceptions of the project’s success. Or say the situation is several people who don’t seem committed to the schedule: why? Each one: what’s the underlying issue; what do they care about? What kind of communication will they hear, what do you have to say and how for them to listen long enough to work out the problem with you? It’s not magic, or primarily charisma, to lead people in difficult messy circumstances, I think it’s just plain hard systematic work. And I also think it pays off.

So although perhaps the group left disappointed that there was in fact no silver bullet for their people problems, they left with a bunch of new items in their toolkit and a sense of how and when to put them into play. And most importantly, I believe they left with a sense of relief that they were not missing some amorphous, fuzzy, magical PM quality ( “charisma”? “executive presence”?), or missing a big piece of ordained power, that would magically resolve the people issues on their projects. They just needed to think of their team members and stakeholders as individuals and be systematic and sensitive enough to thoroughly work their issues to resolution.

But of course I’m curious to know how others feel about this. Have I missed a silver bullet somewhere along the way? J Do you have a different way of thinking about the challenges of dealing with people issues on projects? Do you think that new project managers are getting the right idea of what their role is in proactively and respectfully managing the very “individual individuals” on their projects?

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About the Author

Cinda Voegtli, Founder, President, and CEO of ProjectConnections, has over 20 years of project management experience in start-ups, rapidly growing companies, and large corporate environments. Her portfolio includes a wide variety of activities: developing products; managing projects; building organizations; and implementing and improving project management, portfolio management, and development processes. Her project experience includes communications and medical systems, IT application and infrastructure, industrial automation, desktop software, facilities construction, biotech drug development, and aerospace/government programs. Cinda has held director and VP-level positions managing budgets of up to $50 million across large portfolios of projects in technology development companies, and has provided senior management consulting to clients such as Hewlett Packard, Lam Research, Pacific Bell, Dow Chemical, NASA, FAA, Nellcor, Aviron/MedImmune, and Mobil Corporation. She is a Past President of the worldwide IEEE Engineering Management Society, an author and speaker on engineering and project management, and co-author of a Fortune 500-targeted book on rapid product development. Her specialties and project loves include projects involving technology development (high tech and IT); applying PM to short iterative web and marketing projects; adjusting PM and development processes to work on everything from simple, small projects up to large messy complex projects. Why she's still in project management : "Because there is nothing more satisfying than getting a bunch of incredibly different people rallied around a business goal to successfully execute a messy uncertain complex project together." Best project advice she has ever received: "Make the process work for the people, not the other way around." cvoegtli@projectconnections.com
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2 Responses to “PM disappointment – no silver bullets for the hard problems!”

  1. Cindi,

    I am also teaching a workshop with “advanced” project maangers and we are addressing the issues of extreme project management which is highly dependent on the soft skills of leadership. We are using Doug DeCarlo’s book on eXtreme Project Management which I think comes closest to prescribing a silver bullet for leadership as I have ever encountered. His is leadership by creating commitment. The simple but powerful formula is to 1. Make change your friend, 2. build on people’s desire to make a difference, 3. create ownership for results and 4. make work easier by removing barriers and focusing on improving the surrounding context of the project. In other words, help people do their work and make them owners.

  2. Very interesting. It does help to express principles for working with people in terms that resonate and are memorable.

    In our workshop, we used the following as key drivers of project success beyond the PM basics (articulated by myself and a colleague at ICS Group):

    – Golden Rule #1 – Cultivate Personal Responsibility, Accountability and Initiative in every team member: Pervasive personal responsibility for team effectiveness and project outcomes and team-wide personal initiative for handling tough issues.

    Golden Rule # 2 – Master Proactive and Productive Communication and Managing Expectations: Team selling, issue-raising, perspective-explaining, and influence skills for working with stakeholders and cross-functional colleagues.

    Golden Rule #3 – Maintain Business and Customer Focus and Continual Team Alignment: Project team understanding of business objectives and the customers the project is serving, and business-savvy project decision making.

    Golden Rule #4 – Master Cross-functional Collaboration throughout the Project: Tight cross-functional relationships and integration of work among cross-functional team members, to meet project goals and eliminate late surprises.

    Golden Rule #5 – Master the art of “Just enough” project management: Effective non-bureaucratic use of management and development processes and “tools” on the project at hand.

    The idea was to get across in strong language that it’s not just about doing a scope statement (the mechanics), does everyone on the team understand the business drivers of the project and how their work feeds the business goals (and can undermine it)….. It’s not just about project communication, it’s about everyone communicating productively and proactively…. etc.

    So beyond the concept of the PM dealing with people issues, as I started off writing about, this goes to the next step of getting all those people on the team ALSO taking personal responsibility for every aspect. Creating a strong team fabric.. With a such a fabric, I think “people issues” are less an “us vs them” or “me the PM vs. them causing trouble” and more about a “Us” as a team. Issues are inevitable, people’s feelings and reactions have validity. If we all come from a place of wnating the best for the project and taking personal responsibility for helping make it happen, we can get through the issues together.

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