The Trouble with Projects

trouble.jpgIn my many years of running projects I have often looked back and asked why it was always so difficult to get things done. Every time the answer came back, “It’s the stupid people from the top to the bottom.” Of course, I also made mistakes, but it was mostly their fault”. This reminds me of the mother who observed that her son was the only one not out of step in the parade.

Over the years I have come to realize the correct answer to the question really was “The people, stupid!!”. I now know that no matter how good a project manager you are or how many times you read the PMBOK or how many clever tools or processes you have under your belt, you are unlikely to succeed without the RIGHT team. We could argue till we are blue in the face about what RIGHT team means. Successful leaders must know how to pick the RIGHT people, but who gets to pick? Most project managers usually inherit their teams or get them from whomever is available. But, with an unknown or inadequate team, you are standing at the plate with one strike.

So you march off to find your executive sponsor to implore him/her to help you get who and what you need for your new project. No one seems to know who your executive sponsor is but they will get back with you as soon as they decide on one. Meanwhile, you are advised to get the project started because you don’t have much time. You now realize your new project comes with two of the most deadly project killers; the wrong team and little or no sponsor support. The count is now two strikes and no balls. Are you nervous? You should be!

So being a loyal team player, even with two strikes and “no balls”, you decide to do the best you can with what you got. Besides, you need this job to make those monthly beamer payments. Should we use traditional project management, agile, spiral, extreme, rolling wave or even incremental development a la Dillard. By the way, what are the highest priority requirements for this project? Who knows. Doesn’t matter dude, without the RIGHT people and sponsor support, you are on a solo suicide mission to hell. As I see it, you have three choices: ride it into the depths and become toast (most unwittingly select this choice), bail out (most don’t have a parachute) or use every ounce of gray matter and people skills to get the RIGHT team and sponsor together and to pull out of this nose drive (hardest but best choice to execute). Saving the project and your reputation won’t be easy but that’s why you’re paid the big bucks. Use all your influence to make it happen. You may make enemies in high and low places, but you will be better for doing it. You may be dumped for a “yes” person but that is why you should never fly without a parachute. The big boys usually have golden ones, but almost any color will do for a project manager.

What are the lessons here? First, the above scenario is probably an unavoidable situation for most project managers. Second, you must have the RIGHT team and sponsor to have any reasonable chance of success. Third, as project manager you better damn well have the vital soft skills of communicating, teambuilding, negotiating, decision making, etc. and know how and when to use them. Lastly, don’t jump into the cockpit, unless you have a parachute which means you have the ability to say “no way” and still land in a better place if you know what I mean.

Isn’t ironic that we spend so much effort and time learning and using the project management tools and processes a la PMBOK which in the end are utterly useless unless you wisely and artfully utilize the appropriate people skills. If you can’t or won’t do this, please go find something else that you are good at and save yourself and many others a lot of grief, sweat and tears.

That, my colleagues, is THE TROUBLE WITH PROJECTS.

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4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Projects”

  1. Amen.

    Tools, common terms, defined liefecycle and policies and processes, etc, are very important to running projects. However, the people skills, both in dealing with peers and “worker bees”, as well as upper management (probably the most important), are the most important. Experience is very useful too.. (We all learn from prior failures hopefully).

  2. Yup, it’s true, it’s the people. For years I didn’t realize that! I’d come in to work Monday morning and straight away corner one of my project team members and start demanding status, progress, prodding them onward. After years of learning people skills I learned to ask “How was your weekend?” before grilling them! Age does help, and I finally “got it” that the relationships were going to last way longer than the projects, and even some of the companies!! In my opinion, if the project succeeds but the relationships are scrap by the end of it, the person who is ultimately going to suffer is the PM. I’ve led projects to success that were doomed to failure by riding people on the team like they were rented mules only to find out that they didn’t appreciate me, and neither did the corporate executives! I was amazed to find that I could not benefit from the very success that I’d been instrumental in creating. Well, I’m done with sacrificing my relationships in order to get a project done “on time, on budget, on spec.” Now my success criteria includes strong and healthy relationships and a piece of the success that I help create.

  3. To avoid setting themselves up for failure, project managers need first to push back to sponsors who demand unreasonable scope, schedule, or resources. I know this takes courage, but get beyond your comfort zone and try saying “No.” It also helps to take a negotiating course.

    A second step is to get the most out of the people who are assigned to your project, even if they are not the perfect resources. Find out what motivates them and where their strengths are. Yes, this takes people and persuasive skills. Much better results come from knowing what people want, their strengths and are capable of doing and then finding ways to creatively tap those talents than from forcing them to do externally imposed tasks.

    Randy Englund

  4. Genie Z. Laborde

    Your points about dysfunctional project teams are RIGHT ON! If you wanted to sum up the pit-falls facing project team leaders you could reduce this to four words……FOCUS: TASK OR PEOPLE? Many, maybe even most, managers concentrate on getting the task done, forgetting that the dynamics of the team govern every thought and action of those working on the task. Unless the team leader is aware of and responding to these dynamics, the task will suffer. People are extremely complex creatures and the skills of observation, rapport, and communication determine whether that task will be completed on time, on budget, and with that extra flourish that synergy brings. [email protected] Genie Z. Laborde

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