Project Management Institute

Change your mindset

Bruce Howard, International Program Manager with MWH, Broomfield, Colo., USA, pictured at a Hurricane Katrina debris site in New Orleans, La., USA

Bruce Howard, International Program Manager with MWH, Broomfield, Colo., USA, pictured at a Hurricane Katrina debris site in New Orleans, La., USA


There comes a point in every project manager's career when it is no longer enough to be competent within a single technical area. More complex and rewarding projects require leaders who can manage diverse functional groups, using excellent people skills to focus work toward a common goal.

Executive Summary

➔   Dealing with diverse functions is a challenge for every project manager.

➔    Enabling effective communications between each function is critical to achieving overall success.

➔    Senior management has a role in creating the right environment for this communication to take place.

➔    Cross-functional awareness can enable project managers to contribute to the bottom line success of their organization.

In 2003, Maria Natalina De Parolis experienced first-hand the challenge of dealing with diverse functions. Ms. De Parolis works in the European Space Agency's Directorate of Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration, Noordwijk, The Netherlands. Her section is in charge of, among other things, developing and creating laboratory support equipment for the International Space Station.

Placed in charge of the Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for the International Space Station (MELFI) project, she found herself working with a range of experts—each with their own priorities. For example, scientists focused on the challenges of creating a freezer capable of storing and transporting scientific specimens at –80° Celsius. The industrial contractor was concerned with the cost of implementation, particularly as the technology had yet to be proven. However, operation and safety experts also wanted to address their concerns for deleting hazards and identifying correct procedures. “First, I had to understand the thinking of the parties, adapting to their world, and then I harmonized all this with the project-specific needs of the moment,” Ms. De Parolis says.


melfi photo courtesy of nasa/ksc


She worked to facilitate direct communication between each function, through the project office and between each of the partners. “We believe that trying to use intermediaries or ‘good people’ does not solve problems,” Ms. De Parolis says. “It just introduces more people into the problem and delays the potential solution.”

By the Horns

Ms. De Parolis’ attitude of tackling differences head on and enabling communication between parties helps her get buy-in from all team members. When Reading, U.K.-based property developer Arlington worked with architect Norman Foster on the new McLaren Technology Center, Woking, U.K., the team talked through the building process long before any work took place, says Windsor Richards, Arlington managing director. “Mr. Foster and his team tend to use construction management as a process by which their clients procure a building,” he says. “Arlington, on the other hand, takes a design-build procurement route.”

Through discussion, the project team learned that Mr. Foster wanted to retain a degree of flexibility in the design of the final building. This approach reflected an attention to detail, a desire to continually improve on the design and the incorporation of leading-edge techniques and materials up to the last minute. By communicating early on, Mr. Richards and his team preserved this flexibility while achieving the certainty of price associated with the design-build route.

These techniques clearly require great confidence in handling people and facilitating productive dialogue. Achieving this outcome doesn't necessarily require extensive knowledge of each expert's point of view.

In fact, truly successful project managers may not be focused primarily on a functional area at all. Instead, they are concerned with the business demands of the project. “IT departments will go for IT solutions, whereas the actual issue might be organizational, people- or process-related,” says Marcel Ekkel, project director of IT company SynergySynQ, Hong Kong. “A project manager must get everyone together and look for the best solution overall.”

Mr. Ekkel has found that his thinking has moved away from the IT camp and toward the business camp as he his project leadership experience grew. “My technical understanding goes more to a conceptual rather than a practical level,” he says. “But it's still enough to be able to communicate between the different parties.”

A Different View

Moving away from the technical mindset, however, is not an easy step to take. Project managers can find themselves working in a business environment that actively discourages seeing problems from another function's point of view, according to Alan Patching, project director for Australia's Olympic Stadium in the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games. “There's a function-verses-function silo mentality that can be part and parcel of corporate life,” he says. “Company politics may actually encourage people to keep their thinking within their own discipline. We've all experienced the manager who tells people not to talk to people from other departments. On a project team, that's useless.”

Successfully working across functions is, therefore, not simply a question of the project managers’ people skills and their intention to be inclusive. It also requires senior management—even the CEO—to create an environment where the cross-pollination of ideas can take place. Mr. Patching suggests training initiatives to enhance these skills, focusing on technical knowledge, leadership, corporate strategy and communication. “This training is not purely for the project managers alone,” Mr. Patching says. “It goes to anybody in the corporate environment who relates to those project managers. If there are six middle managers working closely with the project managers, they need that training too.”

Bruce Howard, MWH international program manager, also recommends interventions to extend a project manager's skills and knowledge in preparation for taking the next step up. MWH is a global water and environmental engineering company based in Broomfield, Colo., USA.



Before leaving corporate clothing supplier Alexandra plc, Bristol, U.K., RAEES LAKHANI led a project that saw the company transform from national manufacturer to global procurement organization. This move required coordinating the knowledge and effort of experts from IT, sales, marketing and the entire company supply chain. In addition, the company's manufacturing base in Scotland was replaced with a global supply chain sourcing products from around the world—reducing the U.K. headcount by 95 percent while increasing gross profits.

“The only way to do that was to sit down and understand the sales and marketing people,” Mr. Lakhani says. “Without being able to listen and compromise on certain aspects of the global supply chain, the project would never have happened.”

Listening and compromising are key skills to achieving cross-functional success. “If you are not prepared to listen to somebody's language and you don't try to understand what they are saying,” Mr. Lakhani says. “It is very hard to make a project work.”

“Before you become a project manager in our company, you need to spend time as a bench engineer, you need time working in the field and you also need time with the procurement group and even with contract management,” Mr. Howard says. “Some of these stints can be fairly short—some need to be longer—but it gives the project managers a better idea of the elements involved in a project. This means they can manage the project more efficiently. People in procurement, for example, can speed up processes and save you lots of money. If you want to do well, you need to know how these people work.”

Stepping Stone

While succeeding in cross-functional project management is a significant stepping stone for any project manager, it also can indicate a desire for a more senior role within an organization. Mr. Howard notes that as project managers learn about procurement and the financial functions of an organization, they can start placing their own projects within the overall objectives of their organization. “As a technical project manager, you might focus on keeping your project to budget, but you don't necessarily relate that to profits for the company,” Mr. Howard says. “If you're aware of things like the purchase and utilization of equipment, then you can see how your project has an impact at a higher level.”


We really do think differently. That finding was supported by “Business Energy—Assessing the Energy Level of U.K. Managers,” a 2004 research program carried out by the Chartered Institute of Management, London, U.K., and Adecco, Glattburg, Switzerland. The survey, which covered 1,500 managers in the United Kingdom, recorded perceptions of management styles in different industry sectors.

Among its findings:


While this research is based purely on perception of management styles rather than actual styles, functional staffs do operate in different ways, and, therefore, may require different treatment from project managers.

However, just because IT experts are perceived as bureaucratic doesn't mean every IT expert will operate in that way. Remember that the actual nature of an individual working on a project is partly due to their function, but also a factor of their personal and cultural background.

The world of business can be an adversarial place and more often than not, project managers find themselves in the middle of conflicts—faced with opposing views from technical experts who each are convinced they are right. The most effective project managers do not simply acknowledge this difference of well-informed opinion, but relish it.

Rather than viewing it as negative friction between people working toward a common goal, they see an opportunity to facilitate constructive debate between the two sides and achieve a successful outcome that is good for the project, good for the organization and very good for the project manager's career. PM

Simon Kent is a U.K.-based freelance writer. He specializes in human resources, IT and training.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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