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?