The blind spot of the project manager
The heightened pace of today's workplace has exacerbated the challenge every project manager faces: delivering on time, to budget, and within the scope set out in the beginning. This frenetic sense of urgency matched with tightened resources, has forced the project manager into a myopic focus on the deliverable of the project itself without the ability to widen the lens to see the big picture. A blind spot emerges, blackening out the broader landscape in which the project is actually operating.
Although project management has always provided a deadline-driven environment, the new economy has placed even more pressure on managers to do more with a lot less. When urgency emerges, project managers default to an over reliance on their technical capabilities at the expense of everything else. The project manager's singular focus on the outputs of the project causes important signals to be missed; as a result, miscommunication arises and oftentimes activity is completed for activity's sake, without driving business impact.
The project manager's blind spot causes him or her to miss important clues as to what really needs to be delivered and what the real timeframes are. A lack of awareness on many levels ensues: whether it's the project's context, stakeholder motivation, or personality types, the project manager's blind spot hinders optimum performance.
The purpose of this paper is to shed light on how project managers can regain awareness about project context, stakeholder motivation, preferred communication styles, and personalities by first establishing that everyone has a blind spot. With that awareness, the paper will identify which potential blind spots a project manager can have, where they occur, and what to do about them.
What is a “Blind Spot?”
For many of us, our first exposure to the term “blind spot” was when we learned how to drive an automobile. You probably remember the moment when, with sweaty palms and white knuckles gripping the steering wheel for the first time, your instructor revealed one of the great mysteries- and ultimate dangers of driving- the blind spots.
“If you don't constantly monitor your blind spots, you'll end up in an accident and probably kill someone,” is what my instructor warned. So, what is a blind spot? The term originates in the medical world to describe a region in a human's eye, on the retina, that is insensitive to light because this is where the optic nerve enters the eyeball. Every human has this physical blind spot. After our first driving lesson, we learn that cars can have blind spots. We are told to beware of the blind spot—the areas of the road that cannot be seen while looking forward or in the rear-view or side mirrors.
But what do these definitions have to do with the project manager? Are there blind spots in the project manager's field of vision of the project being managed? As it turns out, every project manager encounters blind spots while managing a project—a blind spot about the project and its environment—including stakeholders, and about themselves. In a project environment, a blind spot is defined as anything that a project manager doesn't see that needs to be seen in order to produce a successful project.
Why do we need to know about the blind spots of a project manager? If we return to our experience in learning how to drive a car, not knowing about the blind spots—those areas we can't see directly or indirectly with the aid of mirrors—can have devastating results: a collision with another car or a pedestrian. Similarly, not knowing about the blind spots in a project environment can cause a project to be significantly derailed.
What are the Blind Spots of the Project Manager?
There are two general categories of blind spots that the project manager needs to aware of when managing any project:
- Blind spots about the project
- Blind spots about themselves
Blind Spots about the Project
From a project manager's perspective, a project is essentially a collection of interdependent activities linked together in some way to deliver a required output or deliverable. While the deliverable may be a tangible product or service, the focus of the project manager is on making sure that the required deliverable is delivered according to time, cost, and scope expectations. To do this effectively, the project manager needs the right information to affirm that project constraints are known, and are being compared with actual results.
A blind spot about the project is anything that a project manager doesn't see that needs to be seen in order to produce the required deliverable—or in this case, information that the project manager doesn't have that he or she needs to keep the project on track. However, the project manager doesn't usually operate in a vacuum—the project manager is typically inundated with data about projects, organizations, home and family, personal interests, and world events. So, the major blind spot for the project manager about the project is not a lack of data, but a lack of time to convert the data swirling around him or her into useful, meaningful information that can then be used to effectively manage the project. Examples of specific project information blind spots are:
- Managing solely to milestone dates
- Capturing earned value metrics without tolerance ranges
- Using every tool in the project management methodology on every project
- Insistence on reviewing all the project information during regular status meetings
- Keeping track of dozens of risks simultaneously
Experience has shown that when a project manager tries to look at too much data too frequently, nothing meaningful is ever really seen—it becomes just a pro-forma activity done by rote. The larger, more important signals are then missed, and (just like in the car) accidents are inevitable.
Blind Spots about Themselves
The arena of the self is where project managers have the most significant blind spots. Fortunately, this is also the area where the greatest opportunities for improvement in dealing with blind spots are possible. A blind spot about themselves is any unconscious (unseen to themselves) actions or behaviors that are seen or perceived by others, which reduce their effectiveness and success as a project manager/leader. We're all familiar with the project manager with bad breath (“wish this was a virtual team!”), but this is a minor blind spot for the project manager that's easy to fix. The more significant blind spots that project managers must face about themselves fall into the following categories:
- Impact on others
- Misused strength
A successful project manager has a lot of experience managing projects; yet, unsuccessful projects can occur when a project manager relies heavily on his or her experience. Francisco Varela (in his book written with Umberto Maturana, The Tree of Knowledge, Boston, MA, Shambala Press, 1987) says that “the blind spot of contemporary science is experience.” This could easily be applied to the management of projects when project managers depend heavily on habit and how they've always done things.
By definition, a project is a unique, temporary endeavor. A project's uniqueness, then, often requires unique approaches to what may look—at first glance—like a situation similar to a past project.
The practice of project management can be a very solitary pursuit, especially in a virtual environment. And, since most project managers are managing several projects at the same time, this means that project managers become accustomed to making many decisions on their own, without much input from the team around them. This situation then sets up a pattern of solitary working and decision making, oftentimes leading to the common refrain, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”
Project managers who allow themselves to be isolated from others—especially from their own team members— unwittingly create the blind spot of over-dependence on their talent and decision-making ability, which reduces critical skills and information that they need for successful projects. This type of blind spot also diminishes the buy-in needed from team members.
Impact on Others
Project managers often work in environments where a sense of urgency is not only important, but required; there may be a compelling end constraint date that has been established for the project that is restrictive or unrealistic. A sense of urgency may even be a treasured behavioral trait within the project manager's organization.
However, a sense of urgency overdone continuously can lead to the project manager placing more importance on time and results than on how the overwrought sense of urgency affects those around him or her. A blind spot develops within, in which the project manager doesn't take into account the impact of his or her abruptness on others. The common language heard when this blind spot arises, goes something like this: “Look, we don't have time to worry about anybody's feelings right now. We just need to get things done. It's not personal. It's just business.”
Misuse of Strengths
This type of blind spot includes both over-utilizing and under-utilizing particular strengths that a project manager may deploy. Every project manager brings many talents to the projects he or she manages, such as critical thinking skills or collaboration. Personality types are also an example of talents that a project manager naturally employs on projects. Over time, the successful project manager develops a set of core strengths based on these talents. And, time and time again, these strengths are used to pull “a rabbit out of a hat” and produce magical project results in the face of looming disaster.
An over-dependence on one or two strengths then develops a blind spot to other talents that the project manager has and needs to develop to be better-rounded. And, ultimately, the overdone strengths may then become a major weakness, thereby limiting the project manager's ability to lead the project team.
What's a Project Manager to Do?
Given what we know about blind spots and the possible perils they pose to projects, project managers have an obligation to come to know their blind spots and take action to reduce the impacts of their blind spots on projects. A very simple process can be enacted that will mitigate the blind spots and their effects. But just because the process is simple does not mean that it is easy to implement for effect. Human beings have a wonderfully, endearing, yet stubborn tendency to create pictures of themselves, which can be quite different from how those around them see them. In effect, we have the ability to develop a blind spot about our blind spots! Also, humans are creatures of habits, which is really another name for a hard-wired batch of neurons that will always default to a predictable way of operating. Experience has shown that it is very difficult to break a habit, so the best approach to dealing with blind spots (a habitual way of dealing or not dealing with our environment) is to create and reinforce new habits or ways of seeing.
No process will ever eliminate blind spots immediately, but a good process will make us aware of them so that we can reduce the effects of our blind spots on our performance over time. The process for uncovering and dealing with our blind spots is:
- Become aware of a blind spot
- Take action to deal with the blind spot
- Seek confirmation that the blind spot is mitigated
Awareness is the key to improving performance in any arena, and it's the absolute bedrock activity for turning a blind spot into an advantage. Awareness, especially if it isn't critical or judgmental, is curative in and of itself: when we become aware of an unsettling tendency that we have that we weren't aware of, particularly if it's a tendency that we dislike when we see it in someone else, we can usually eliminate the unwanted behavior over time. For example, a video of a wedding reception we attended zooms in on us while we are eating, and we notice that we smack our lips very loudly while we are eating. If the awareness is unsettling enough, we'll be conscious of our lips and what they are doing the next time we eat something. This awareness, and the attending consciousness, very quickly “cures” this particular blind spot.
For another example, think back to the very real blind spot referred to earlier when learning how to drive a car. Using this situation, the process works like this:
- Become aware: we are told that there is a blind spot in our ability to see every part of a car and how it interacts with the road and the other cars around us. This awareness is reinforced when we get behind the wheel and can't see cars in the lanes beside us and just behind our peripheral vision.
- Take action: we move our head slightly to the right and left continuously so that we can scan those blind areas, thereby increasing our field of vision. We may also adjust the mirrors to more optimally cover more area.
- Seek confirmation: in this case, we know we've taken the right action if there are no honking horns or collisions.
For a project manager, developing awareness about the blind spots that have been mentioned comes down to one critical action: asking for feedback. The main reason project managers continue to have blind spots is because they are not aware of them (DUH!), and they are not aware of them because feedback is difficult to get.
Because of the frenetic pace of today's workplace and the “more with less” philosophy, many of the best intentioned organizations have allowed formal and informal feedback as a part of performance reviews to fall by the wayside, thereby reducing important opportunities for feedback. Additionally, feedback isn't always welcomed, especially if the feedback isn't offered in a constructive, supportive way. A good way to ask for feedback for any type of blind spot mentioned is for the project manager to ask: “What am I missing?” And a good way to close this informal feedback session is to remain open, non-defensive, and say “Thank you.”
With this process in mind for dealing with blind spots, let's take a look at some examples of how the process can be deployed to help project managers.
Dealing with blind spots about the project (project-oriented blind spots)
Project-oriented blind spots can be dealt with very directly. Information is usually readily available to help the project manager see the right information that will keep the project on track. However, as mentioned previously, because of the over-abundance of project-related data, the key to mitigating project-oriented blind spots is to get the right kind of data so that they can be converted into meaningful information. For example, the blind spot created when a project manager uses only milestones to manage the project schedule is that the project manager doesn't know the progress of individual activities at any point other than at the milestones. The “feedback” from this situation typically is that individual activity schedules fall behind schedule (without anybody realizing it) until finally all activities, and the project overall, begins to fall further and further behind schedule when progress is checked at the milestones. The best action for mitigating this blind spot is to regularly monitor the scheduled start and finish dates of each activity.
Dealing with blind spots about the self (self-oriented blind spots)
Dealing with self-oriented blind spots can be difficult for the project manager for several reasons. First, the missing information that makes up a blind spot is usually subjective rather than objective (“I'm hurt that you didn't see my eyebrows arch when you said that to me” versus “We're two weeks late completing the module test activity”). Also, human relationships aren't always geared toward providing the information necessary to uncover blind spots (“I didn't tell you because I was afraid you'd get angry at me, so I told Jennifer instead.”). And, people might have priorities and agendas that are at odds with the project's goals and objectives (“My functional manager wants to see your manager fail, so I didn't give you the information that might have helped you bring the project in on budget.”).
If a project manager is truly interested in uncovering blind spots, then an environment of open, trusting dialogue must be established at the beginning of the project and continuously reinforced through the life of the project. This means that the project manager, preferably at a kick-off meeting, declares an intention to reduce the number of project- and self-oriented blind spots, and asking for everyone's help in giving feedback to uncover any blind spots. Then, during the project, the three-step process can be activated, possibly by the project manager asking everyone during status meetings, “Am I missing anything that I need to know?”
For example, assume that after the project manager asks for feedback during a status meeting, a project team member says, “Can we go off-line? I've got something you may need to know.” From here the project manager initiates the process:
- Become aware: When off-line, the team member tells the project manager: “I'm not sure whether you realize this or not, but I've noticed that you're ignoring every idea that the team has mentioned to try to get the project back on schedule. A couple of us have been in this situation before, and we've got a pretty good idea of what's really needed, but it's like you don't hear us. And I'm not the only one who has seen you isolate yourself.”
- Take action: The project manager, upon hearing this feedback, first says, “Thanks for the heads up.” In this case, the project manager may articulate a plan for getting everybody's input on a regular basis. Alternatively, a more powerful approach would be for the project manager to ask the team member, “How would you suggest I get ideas from everyone? We're in a real tight spot right now, and I can use all the help I can get.”
- Seek confirmation: The project manager should reinforce the process by validating the ideas that were received (“Sounds like that might just work—let's try it.”) and implementing them. Next, the project manager should circle back to the team and ask directly if they have observed any isolating behaviors, and to continue to come forward with feedback when the behavior is witnessed.
Look Ma—No Blind Spots!
Although this paper has focused on the negative impacts of a project manager's blind spots, and for finding and dealing with the blind spots, not all blind spots are inherently bad. Complex projects represent a special case in which the project manager understands that not everything about the project can be seen or needs to be known.
The degree of complexity in projects is defined as the number of interdependent variables that a project environment has, such as resources, deliverables, facilities, contractors, or activities. As the number of interdependent variables increase, the complexity of the project also increases, at nearly an exponential rate. In complex projects, certain characteristics, such as non-linearity, self- organization, and emergence arise that are usually not present in simple projects that have few interdependent variables. These attributes tend to increase the number and types of blind spots that the project manager faces, because they occur “within the fog of battle” that complexity creates, and are therefore outside the project manager's usual field of awareness. And, while this special case of complex projects is beyond the scope of this paper, project managers must learn to accept and embrace that these complexity blind spots, which are active in every complex project, are actually powerful contributors to project success.
Every project manager needs to know that blind spots exist on every project, about the project and about themselves. Also, every project manager should have a process for dealing with the blind spots that threaten the project objectives. And, every project manager needs to realize that blind spots represent an immense learning opportunity that, if approached openly, can turn a threat or an illusion into personal and project opportunities.
© 2012, Jonathan Gilbert
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings - Vancouver, Canada
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