Nope. There’s just no way around it. You are going to have to work with people.
Even if you are a “technical project manager” buried in the bowels of a data center or focused on software projects or on enterprise application integration projects, the key to your success is how you work with people.
Your project stakeholders are people, your project team members are people, and the business value of your project is understood or misunderstood by people. You not only need to work with them, you need to be able to persuade and lead down, up, and across.
My colleagues have written at length about people skills, leadership skills and stakeholder management. I would like to offer a couple of simple tools and techniques that I have observed experienced project managers use, that even new project managers can get started with right away. These simple tools and principles, applied liberally, can take you a long distance from being a mere manager who is a nerdy expert in methodology to a true project leader.
Stakeholder list. Discover your key stakeholders, their change issues, and preferred communication. You will want to pay some special attention to the less vocal among them. At the most basic level you want to know the most effective way to communicate and set expectations as well as respond to problems. On projects involving major organizational change, or for more experienced project managers, this can key into a full-blown change management plan.
Issue log. Use a project issue log to capture those issues raised by your stakeholders, and make it visible to them. Publishing project issues and planned responses not only ensures that you capture and address problems that threaten the success of your project but also demonstrates to stakeholders that you are committed to solving their problems.
Just as the risk management plan functions both as a tool to manage the risks themselves and as a tool for focusing your team on value, the issue log can be a powerful tool for managing your stakeholders through change.
Your goal as a leader among your stakeholders is to develop a reputation as a relief valve and problem-solver for them and not just for the purposes of the project. The project in their eyes automatically creates problems for them, or so they will assume. You need to help them solve those problems in order for the project to achieve its goals.
If you act with honesty and integrity, make yourself available and use your knowledge about them to maintain appropriate contact with your stakeholders, the effect of these techniques will be to position yourself as a leader and as a trusted adviser to individuals who will be experiencing discomfort or might otherwise question the value of work on your project.
You can and should spend time throughout your career working on improving and broadening your people management skills. But if you start with these simple tools and principles, project issues and risks will find their way to you so that you won’t have to chase them down. You will find out about them earlier and you can address them proactively.
At the same time you will start yourself down the path toward becoming a leader instead of a mere manager. Based on observation of experts, these tools will continue to live in your toolkit as you become more experienced and you use them in tandem with other tools you acquire.