Don't get lynched
become a linchpin project manager
As a project manager, your success is dependent on many factors, both hard skills as well as soft skills. Have you focused on the right skills? Become indispensable as a project manager by enhancing your creativity, your communications skills, your ability to manage complexity, and by becoming self-actualized.
Leading your teams to the successful completion of a project vision requires an understanding of the many best practices and processes as proposed by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Additionally, the soft skills (communications, leadership skills, and relationship building skills) are also critical to your success as a project manager.
Effective project management not only requires a mastery of traditional project management techniques but the knowledge, wisdom, and ability to bend, throw out, or rewrite the rules when the situation requires it. Seth Godin (2010), the author of Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, proposes a list of seven abilities which make an individual indispensable to an organization:
- Provide a unique interface between members of the organization.
- Deliver unique creativity.
- Manage a situation or organization of great complexity.
- Lead customers.
- Inspire staff.
- Provide deep domain knowledge.
- Possess a unique talent (p. 218).
The purpose of this paper is to explore the growth opportunities afforded a project manager on the path to becoming a linchpin project manager. These topics will be discussed:
- Defining of a linchpin project manager —understanding the desired characteristics and traits of the linchpin project manager;
- Overviewing the cycle of growth—understanding the components of the cycle of personal growth in project management;
- Providing the unique interface between members of the organization—leading and connecting people;
- Delivering unique creativity—developing the abilities to question, explore, experiment and innovate;
- Managing complexity—leveraging knowledge and developing talents to manage project complexity;
- Leading customers—interacting with customers and leading for mutual benefit;
- Inspiring staff—inspiring staff to make a difference;
- Providing deep domain knowledge—capitalizing on the project management knowledge areas; and
- Possessing a unique talent—becoming an expert.
Per A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2013), “Effective project managers acquire a balance of technical, interpersonal, and conceptual skills that help them analyze situations and interact appropriately” (p. 513). To be effective as a project manager in today's rapidly changing environment requires the mastery of many separate skills. The demand is high for those individuals who have mastered both the science and art of project management. The “Project Management Professional (PMP®) Examination Content Outline September 2010” identifies that a project manager should be competent in the following 20 Knowledge Areas and skills (PMI, 2010):
- Active listening
- Brainstorming techniques
- Conflict resolution techniques
- Cultural sensitivity and diversity
- Data gathering techniques
- Decision making techniques
- Information management tools, techniques, and methods
- Leadership tools and techniques
- Oral and written communication techniques, channels, and applications
- PMI’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
- Presentation tools and techniques
- Prioritization/time management
- Problem solving tools and techniques
- Project management software
- Relationship management
- Stakeholder impact analysis
- Targeting communications to intended audiences
- Team motivation methods (p. 12)
Project stakeholders and project owners/sponsors also set certain expectations for project managers. Stakeholders expect the project manager to be the “champion” for the project owner/sponsor or both, if they happen to be separate. Stakeholders expect that the project manager not only understand the owner/sponsor's perspective but also represent the owner/sponsor for decision-making purposes. Stakeholders also usually expect that the project manager's primary responsibility is to get things done by applying processes and techniques to execute the tasks of the project and to manage organizational hurdles and politics in order to achieve the project goals. Another common expectation of the project manager is to have an expert knowledge of the application or industry of the sponsoring organization. The project manager is also usually tasked with building relationships that extend beyond the project's borders.
With all of these expectations and demands of a project manager, the development journey for a project manager can be challenging. Today's project managers, though, are uniquely positioned to take advantage of their roles to make the transition from traditional project management practitioners to linchpin project managers.
Definition of a Linchpin Project Manager
“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” —Albert Einstein (Mastery Quotes, 2010)
A linchpin project manager, much like linchpins in other fields, is characterized by a level of competency, creativity, and control over the working environment. These are some characteristics of a linchpin project manager:
- Masters the skills of the trade – for a project manager, the skills of the trade include not only the technical aspects of managing a project but also the interpersonal, communications and leadership skills required to navigate the project environment.
- Challenges the conventional – a linchpin project manager pursues perfection and continued improvement in the project management professional. In doing so, the linchpin project manager constantly challenges the traditional and conventional methods and techniques. Project managers on the development path towards mastery often have to adapt to new methods and techniques.
- Begins at the center – a linchpin project manager is centered in the core competencies and while the linchpin project manager starts with these core competencies in approaching a project challenge, the linchpin project manager is able to deviate as necessary or return “back to the basics” when the situation requires it.
- Understands the “essence” – a linchpin project manager understands the “essence” of project management and draws on experience, knowledge and a wisdom that only comes through self-actualization as a professional project manager.
- Perpetually learns and teaches – the linchpin project manager seeks continuous personal development through learning and teaching. As Gary Zukav (2001) notes in his book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, “Every lesson that he teaches (or learns) is a first lesson” (p. 10).
- Creates – the linchpin project manager understands the craft of project management well enough to create new techniques, methods and approaches in solving project challenges.
- Finds “voice” – the linchpin project manager develops a unique “voice” and uses that voice to lead from within with confidence and power.
The Cycle of Growth
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all.” —Michelangelo (Mastery Quotes, 2010)
The true linchpin project manager never stops growing professionally. While the initial learning curve can be short or long, once mastery has been achieved, the linchpin project manager continues to learn in a never-ending cycle of novice, student, practitioner, expert, and master (see Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 1: Growth Cycle
The following is a summary of the different competency levels in project management (see Exhibit 2).
The novice—In the profession of project management, the novice is the beginner, the individual faced with managing a project for the first time or managing projects either on a part-time or even full time basis without the benefit of formal training. This individual is working in the zone of the “unconsciously incompetent.” Successes may happen by accident and failures may not be known to be failures until project completion. A novice does not know enough to evaluate whether competence has been achieved.
The student—In project management, the student has either received formal training or perhaps informal training from a mentor. As the student takes on project assignments, the student understands project principles but does not yet have the experience required to be effective. An individual working as a student in project management is working in the zone of the “consciously incompetent.” The student understands what is required to be successful but is not yet competent enough to ensure consistent success. As an example, a student may know that to be successful with a politically sensitive project will require targeted communications with certain executive stakeholders but is consciously aware that he or she has not yet developed that skill.
The practitioner—The project management practitioner has received formal or informal training and mentoring and has had experience managing projects, stakeholders and project teams. The work efforts of a practitioner are consciously directed toward success. The practitioner draws on knowledge obtained through mentoring or training and understands success and failure. A practitioner works in the zone of the “consciously competent.”
The expert—The expert project manager not only has the knowledge and experience but has the confidence of knowing what works and what doesn't work. An expert unconsciously knows what needs to be done to achieve success. An expert works in the zone of the “unconsciously competent.”
The master—The master in project management is the individual who has achieved linchpin status. This is the individual who approaches every new project with energy, optimism and a fresh perspective. The master has self-actualized as a project manager. The master is spontaneous in his or her actions, not necessarily bound by the conventional aspects of project management. By virtue of their actions, they also “teach” others without having to teach. As noted in the article, “Hierarchy of Needs,” by Kendra Cherry (2011), “Self-actualized individuals are concerned with solving problems outside of themselves, including helping others and finding solutions to problems in the external world. These people are often motivated by a sense of personal responsibility and ethics” (|17). The master in project management works in the zone of the “unconsciously creative” and is often perceived as others as individuals who consistently “think outside the box.” The master also unconsciously renews the cycle of learning.
Exhibit 2: Competency Levels
Provide a Unique Interface between Members of the Organization
“Stakeholder management also focuses on continuous communication with stakeholders to understand their needs and expectations, addressing issues as they occur, managing conflicting interests, and fostering appropriate stakeholder engagement in project decisions and activities. Stakeholder satisfaction should be managed as a key project objective” (PMI, 2013, p. 391).
“A linchpin helps lead, and he connects people in the organization, actively and with finesse” (Godin, 2010, p. 219).
The project manager is often placed in a position to interact with key stakeholders. Effective communications is not only necessary, it is crucial to developing relationships and managing complexity. Providing a unique interface between members (stakeholders) of the organization requires competency in leadership and communications skills and the ability to connect at different levels of the organization.
A common challenge for the developing project manager is making a transition from “doer language” to “leader language.” Technical project managers tend to lean towards “doer language” – they are comfortable with detail and tasks and are not comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. This type of language can lead to narrow objectives which more often than not fail to meet the stakeholders’ needs. “Doer language” may be effective for managing specific tasks but it is not effective for managing complexity, ambiguity, and large scale projects requiring the management of multiple stakeholders and needs. “Leader language” on the other hand provides the project manager an advantage in handling complex projects, multi-layered interests and conflicts, and leads to value-driven results.
Table 1 highlights the differences between “Doer language” and “Leader language” in the application of various soft skills required to be an effective project manager.
|Application||Doer Language||Leader Language|
|Developing vision||Narrow – task based||Encompassing, empowering|
|Communicating vision||Focuses more on “How to”||Focuses on the benefits, “what's in it for us?”|
|Stakeholder management||Task oriented, limited to the project life cycle||Relationship oriented, extends beyond the project life cycle|
|Decision making||Short term, limited to the project life cycle||Long term, extends beyond the project life cycle|
|Leadership||Task focused||People focused|
|Power/influence||Limited||Effective, extends beyond the project|
|Facilitation||Task based||Vision based|
|Coaching||Reactive, task based||Proactive, relationship based|
Table 1: “Doer Language” versus “Leader Language”
The words and language used by an effective project manager may vary depending on the factors of the key messages, the audience and the call to action. The key message for any communication must first be understood by the effective project manager. Knowing the audience and the audience needs and expectations are also vital. Of course, the project manager may know the message and the audience but if the call to action is not articulated, then results may be unpredictable.
Deliver Unique Creativity
“Associating, or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator's DNA.” (Dyer, 2009, p. 3)
The project manager is in a unique position to relate unrelated ideas and concepts during the project life cycle. The use of agile techniques provides opportunities to leverage your team to deliver innovative solutions. The open communications encouraged by the agile processes allow a sharing of different perspectives and ideas without filters. The project manager can help facilitate the exchange of ideas and perspectives by promoting and facilitating the removal of work “silos.” Self-organizing teams take ownership of all the work and attempt to eliminate the “not my job” mentality. “As Steve Jobs has frequently observed, ‘Creativity is connecting things’” (Dyer, 2009, p. 3).
In the Harvard Business Review article, “The Innovator's DNA,” Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen (2009) identified these five discovery skills common to “true” innovators:
- Questioning allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities.
- Through observing, innovators detect details that suggest new ways of doing things,
- In experimenting, they relentlessly try on new experiences and explore the world.
- And through networking with individuals from diverse backgrounds, they gain radically different perspectives.
- The four patterns of action together help innovators associate to cultivate new insights. (p. 1)
The discovery skills noted previously can be developed by the project manager on the path to linchpin project management. Every project provides opportunities to develop these skills. Product-driven projects and projects with multiple layers of complexity challenge the project manager to develop these skills.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013) specifically notes the following techniques to enhance creativity or solve problems:
- Brainstorming – facilitating process to generate and collect ideas.
- Nominal group technique – enhances brainstorming by ranking ideas for further brainstorming or prioritization.
- Idea/mind mapping – process to generate ideas.
- Affinity diagramming – process for grouping a large number of ideas into groups for further analysis.
- Force field analysis – diagramming of the forces for or against change.
- Cause and effect diagramming – diagramming process which can help analyze and solve problems.
- SWOT Analysis – the analysis of strengths, weaknesses. opportunities and threats.
- Root cause analysis – process for identifying and solving problems.
By mastering these techniques and continually striving to deliver unique creativity to stakeholders, a project manager can become an indispensable asset to the organization.
“When the situation gets too complex, it's impossible to follow the manual because there is no manual” (Godin, 2010, p. 220).
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” —Albert Einstein (Albert Einstein Quotes, 2010)
Projects can become extremely complex. The linchpin project manager learns to deal with complexity and leads the organization to elegant solutions. The linchpin project manager eliminates the clutter and removes obstacles.
These habits can develop the project manager's ability to manage complexity:
- Continually develop political and cultural awareness.
- Develop key relationships throughout the organization.
- Leverage other people's talents.
- Strive for simple design.
- Develop presentation skills.
- Break down complex projects into smaller manageable components.
- Enhance your ability to deliver complex communications in “bite-size” easy to understand “chunks.”
- Develop your storytelling skills.
“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” —Bill Gates (“99 Legendary Customer Service Quotes,” 2011)
The linchpin project manager connects with customers, provides them with authentic experiences, and leads them through mutually beneficial relationships. To become more effective in your conversations with your customers, you must first get to know them. Do you know what motivates your stakeholders, your customers? What's on their minds? What are their expectations? The success of your stakeholder engagement is determined by your customers, not you.
Why should project managers invest more of their time understanding their stakeholders? Rob Sherman (2001), in his introduction to his book, Sherman's 21 Laws of Speaking, reports that “one executive observed, ‘just five minutes in front of the right audience can be worth more than a whole year behind your desk’” (p. 8).
Knowing your customers is critical to effective customer conversations Per the PMBOK® Guide—Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013), “It is critical for project success to identify stakeholders early in the project or phase and to analyze their levels of interest, their individual expectations, as well as their importance and influence” (p. 384). You can then develop strategies for communicating with your stakeholders.
Brian Tracy (2008), in his book, Speak to Win: How to Present with Power in any Situation, states that “the starting point of preparation is your audience. Remember, it is not about you; it is about them” (p. 19). In preparing for your conversations, ask yourself “Why does my customer need this conversation?” Ask yourself “Why am I leading this conversation?” Ask yourself “Why is it important for my message to be heard?”
In preparing for your customer conversations, consider these questions:
- How much influence or power does your customer bring to the conversation?
- What are the specific interests of your customers?
- What are the individual roles and responsibilities of your customer?
- Are there any significant events occurring in the organization which could affect the perspective of your customer?
- What are your common interests?
- What are the demographics (age, income level, education, occupations, gender, etc.) of your customer and how should you consider these in your conversation?
By answering these questions and adjusting your conversations accordingly, you will be better prepared and will set yourself up for a successful experience. As a linchpin project manager, seek to understand your customers and strive to create the best experiences possible.
“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” —Stephen Covey (2004, p. 98)
Similar to creating experiences for customers, the linchpin project manager will invest time and effort in creating experiences for their staff or team members. The following are actions that can help improve the staff experience:
- Become the model for your staff – be authentic.
- Provide or build an environment that encourages open communications and individual growth.
- Encourage individual personal development and growth.
- Recognize individual strengths and talents
- Leave room for acceptable failure.
- Encourage experimentation.
- Provide constant and relevant feedback.
- Focus on strengths as a means to minimize weaknesses.
- Proactively provide opportunities for growth and development.
- Help others self-actualize by aligning their passions to their work.
Provide Deep Domain Knowledge
“If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.” —Vincent Van Gogh (Vincent Van Gogh Quotes, 2010)
In addition to obtaining and pursuing mastery in a specific topic, the linchpin project manager should seek mastery in the domain of project management. The 10 project management Knowledge Areas outline the growth opportunities available to the project manager seeking mastery:
- Integration management – communications, leadership, team building, negotiation, and influencing skills.
- Scope management – facilitation, analytical, creativity, and influencing skills.
- Time management – facilitation, communications, analytical, and decision-making skills.
- Cost management – facilitation, communications, analytical, and decision-making skills.
- Quality management – facilitation, communications, analytical, and decision-making skills.
- Human Resource management – coaching, communications, trust building, motivation, cultural, and political awareness.
- Communications management – coaching, communications, cultural, and political awareness.
- Risk management – facilitation, communications, analytical, and decision-making skills.
- Procurement management – negotiation, communications, analytical, and decision-making skills.
- Stakeholder management – negotiation, communications, analytical, conflict management, trust building, and decision-making skills.
Possess a Unique Talent
“When you meet someone, you need to have a superpower. If you don't, you're just another handshake. It's not about touting yourself or coming on too strong. It's about making the introduction meaningful. If I don't know your superpower, then I don't know how you can help me (or I can help you).” (Godin, 2010, pp. 222-223)
The linchpin project manager will discover a unique voice that evolves through self-actualization as a project manager. Stephen Covey (2004) describes voice as “unique personal significance—significance that is revealed as we face our greatest challenges and which makes us equal to them” (p. 5). Per Covey (2004), “Voice lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate and inspire you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for), and conscience (that still, small voice within that assures you of what is right and that prompts you to actually do it)” (p. 5).
The project manager is uniquely positioned to develop voice through the talents that are developed through the application of project management practices. Project managers often find themselves at the helm of challenging projects which invoke their passion and remind them that they are doing what they were meant to be doing. Great and significant projects need great project managers, individuals who have found their voices or on the journey to finding their voices.
In today's challenging work environments, it is not only desired but required to become indispensable. The good news for those with a passion for project management is that the journey to linchpin project management is doable and rewarding. Linchpin project managers do become indispensable to the organization. Become indispensable and take the journey to mastery.
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© 2013, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2013 North American Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana