Extreme project manager makeover
As a project manager, whether your team members report directly to you or not, it is your responsibility to engage them and gain their commitment to the collective success of the team. Project managers are being called upon to do more than ever before and to add to their technical abilities the role of organizational leader and change agent. This paper identifies the behavioral skill needed to become an extreme project manager.
Why Extreme Project Managers?
It was bound to happen. First there was Extreme Makeover – the Body Edition. The producers of the show searched for perfectly normal, average looking people and convinced them they would be happier, sexier, and richer and produce brighter children if they only looked a little better. So they whittled away a little here, added a little there, plumped up, slimmed down, colored, cut, and styled, producing a group of contestants who looked nothing like they did at the start of the program, and then chose a winner based on some arbitrary measurement process.
Next was Extreme Makeover, the Home Edition. A better premise – at least there was a needy family that would benefit from the home improvements performed by the design team, a group of young people with more heart than taste, as evidenced by some of the resulting rooms.
In keeping with the extreme theme, in the technology industry we embarked on what was called Extreme Programming. Software engineers previously spent endless hours in analysis and design, gathering requirements from their customers, writing design specifications, and building prototypes before ever actually creating the final product. It took a lot of time, but it usually guaranteed the finished deliverable was pretty close to what the customer ordered. In an effort to speed things up, we just took out all the analysis and documentation and got right to programming. The final result was delivered much quicker but introduced a new competency requirement—that of convincing the customer that what you built is really what they wanted all along.
So is it any wonder that all of these extreme changes required that those managing them should go extreme, as well? And yet, while the world was morphing at the speed of light, many of us in the project management profession continued with business as usual; maintaining our GANTT charts, managing scope, crying over decreased budgets and disappearing sponsors … busier than we’d ever been. And just as predictably, project success seemed to always be just outside our reach. Even when we managed to meet a majority of the deliverables and close the project out almost on time and nearly within budget, we knew there was one success criteria we had not achieved and that involved the team. Too often we found we put the interpersonal relationships on a back burner in favor of other priorities. After all, satisfying the customer and our sponsor was the most important thing, right? Absolutely!
But was it possible that:
- We could have actually performed better?
- The quality of our deliverable could have been improved?
- We missed opportunities to discover a more creative and effective approach to the solution?
- You, as the project manager, could have been more influential and effective?
- We might have finished the project and still liked one another rather than counting the days until this ordeal was over????
The time has come – we need an Extreme Project Manager Makeover!
It’s a New Job with New Job Requirements!
Project managers are being called upon to do more than ever before and often, in today’s economy, with less! Consider this actual job posting from a well-known job board:
Wanted: Project Manager
- Manage, lead and motivate highly skilled project teams,
- Motivate a varied, cross-functional staff,
- Lead and promote change, growth and effectiveness, and
- Forge collaborative relationships among cross-functional teams.
- Proven leadership of technical and non-technical teams,
- Exceptional collaborative, teaming and consensus building abilities,
- Proficiency in staff motivation, conflict resolution and disciplinary procedures, and
- Experience in recruitment and selection, creation of goals and objectives, performance assessment.
Notice some very interesting things about this posting. Nowhere does it say anything about technical, project management skills. It does not mention certifications or credentials. It does not specify the project tracking software that is used. Why? Because the company posting this position assumes those are a given—if you are an experienced project manager, you probably possess those skills already. They will be able to discern this from your resume.
But clearly, what this company has discovered, and probably after much pain, they need an extreme project manager (EPM)! The EPM realizes that his or her technical prowess will only take them so far. How many times is the word motivate used in the description? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been particularly motivated by someone’s resume. Impressed maybe, but motivated, no. Your credentials or experience may initially lend some credibility, but your actions can just as easily destroy it.
Consider the word collaborative that’s mentioned twice! Collaboration requires that we bring diverse workgroups together and facilitate effective partnerships. Before we are able to collaborate on something, we have to share a mutual goal and display a similar commitment to reaching that goal. How do we go about that?
Finally, notice that the project manager that this organization is looking for is a leader. And not just a project leader, but a people leader.
Project managers are very familiar with risk—we devise complex, detailed risk assessments and contingencies to protect the integrity of the project. We consider risk in terms of resource availability, technologies chosen, budget and market conditions, all very important to the client and to the project itself. But how about what matters to you as an individual? What about your reputation? Think of the risk to our credibility and careers if we allow a project to get away from us!
I led individuals with diverse skill sets: software engineers, system and data analysts, database architects, and network specialists. I possessed some (one or two, maybe) of those skills, but not all. If they were not delivering for one reason or another, I did not have the option of jumping in and just doing it myself—I needed them to perform.
We can threaten, cajole, and intimidate those we lead into performing, but that technique is not sustainable. Fear is only effective as a motivator for a season; the minute another opportunity presents itself, the oppressed will take it in a heartbeat. For the sake of our reputations as project managers, the sooner we develop more effective means of motivation and influence, the more successful we will be.
I learned early on that of all the moving parts of a project, there were really very few that I could control. Now, follow me here, and put your A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide – Third Edition) back on the shelf for just a minute: I had little control over the budget. I was often handed a budget to begin with only to have it slashed or appropriated or otherwise manipulated by those with lengthier titles than mine. I had limited power over the project scope. I have heard many project managers brag about their ability to manage scope and yet when faced with pressure from the VP of Squeaky Wheels, they cave in with the best of us. It is simply the nature of project management. You can include these things in the risk assessment, and I would encourage you to do so, and you can implement various change control processes, but ultimately change is going to occur and impact your ability to maintain total control.
But what I could control was how my team interacted with one another and with me. This was one area where I could wield a tremendous amount of influence and have a powerful impact on the successful outcome of the project. When a group of individuals finally become a team, the odds greatly increase in your favor. Creating a cohesive, gelled unit, working in community to achieve a common goal is the surest guarantee of success that I’ve found!
So what do you want to be known for? What do you want your reputation to be as a project manager?
Here’s how I measure success in my projects:
- On time—meaning whatever deadline I negotiated with my customers and sponsors by keeping them in the loop and well-apprised of any issues.
- Within budget – you usually can’t go back for more so this one is important to manage well.
- Happy customers and sponsors – which spoke to the quality of what I delivered.
- Team members who were proud of their product and ready to work for me again.
That last one was the most important to me. If I nailed that one, I had already ensured the other three.
What’s It Gonna Take and Will It Hurt?
Truly enlightened organizations know that good people skills will be a success differentiator in the coming years. After all, even with Extreme Automation we still need people to get things done. And the people on your projects can either work with you and on your behalf or they can just as easily sabotage your best laid plans.
I contend that many employee problems are actually management problems. And yet, organizations spend an inordinate amount of time and energy in devising plans to deal with poor employee performance. The process improvement gene in my DNA has a real problem with this – examining the end result and wondering why it looks so bad without ever looking a little further upstream.
Poorly managed workgroups are the key reason for low productivity and profitability. When teams have a leader with limited relational skills we find projects that are completed late, are missing deliverables or of such poor quality as to ensure lack of customer satisfaction. Not so touchy-feely—we’re talking bottom line impact—a direct correlation between the ability to lead and manage people well, and the profit margin.
Performance is a tangible, visible effect of a root cause. And while there may be many root causes, the ones I am going to focus on are the ones we can control – our management style and technique - and consider three indicators in particular:
- Productivity and profitability,
- Team morale, and
- Resource retention.
As a project manager, whether your team resources report directly to you or not, it is your responsibility to engage them and gain their commitment to the collective success of the team. As mentioned previously, and to be reiterated ad nauseum, the rules have changed along with the role of the project manager as organizational leader and change agent.
Productivity and Profitability
A Gallup survey found that, statistically speaking, poorly managed workgroups are 50% less productive and 44% less profitable than those with a clear sense of purpose and direction. (Prewitt, 2008) I find it interesting that this particular citation doesn’t address the behavior, talent or quality of the individual team members, but rather seems to indicate that the management of the workgroup might be the first place to look when identifying key causes. In my experience from both sides of the desk, I would have to agree. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but I have found that there were very few poor performers on my projects or in the groups I managed. Some of the contributing factors may have been:
Good hiring or selection processes.
Whenever possible, I involved others in the selection process, preferably those the candidate would be working with. In addition to technical skills or talents, their ability to gel with me and the other team members was just as important. In addition, I couldn’t possibly be the subject matter expert for all areas needed on the project so I deferred to those who knew better and sought their input and expertise. In the event I was not able to select the team members, I still relied on the other team members to help formulate my opinion of the individuals. This is not to say I had no opinions of my own, I just learned early on that I was not nearly as effective when operating in a vacuum.
Set clear project goals and objectives.
Individuals perform better when they understand what, when, where and WHY. It is next to impossible to extract the very best from your team if they don’t have the big picture: why this project is important, how it plays into the overall strategy of the organization, what success would look like and what difference it will make if we fail. I call this the project blueprint or roadmap – we know where we are going and we know how we are going to get there. It needs to be as clear as possible – and continue to gain clarity as the project progresses. There is no substitute for this – you cannot expect peak performance from your team if you parcel our information on a “need to know” basis.
Somewhere way back in my formative years, I can remember my mother saying, “_____ covers a multitude of sins.” Depending on the situation, she would fill in a word – for example, when she was trying to teach me to sew (the operative word being trying) she would say, “Ribbon and lace covers a multitude of sins.” Or in terms of southern cooking, “Breading and frying covers a multitude of sins.” This does NOT apply to okra, no matter how southern you are.
As I progressed in my business career, I learned that “Relationship covers a multitude of sins.” The relationships I build with my employees, with team members, with colleagues, vendors, business partners and so on, will go a long way to ensuring success. Basically what this means is, we are far more forgiving of one another when we know each other a little more, when we have invested in building some level of a relationship with one another. Poor morale can be the catalyst for poor project performance. If managers find themselves spending an inordinate amount of time managing conflict and putting out fires, they might want to look at the team morale and consider what they could do to improve it.
Experts across the board agree that the cost of replacing workers can rise to two and a half times their annual salary, not including the indirect costs of lost knowledge, declining morale, and rising inefficiencies. (Kaye & Jordan-Evans, 2001) Resource turnover is incredibly expensive – not only in the hard costs of recruitment, but also in the soft costs of productivity loss and downtime. Anytime you lose someone there is a gap in your project – someone isn’t doing the work you allocated to that resource, someone else is picking up the slack which decreases their effectiveness and when you do finally fill the position, they have to be acclimated to the project and brought up to speed. All of this signals a hit to your schedule and, possibly, the quality of your deliverables.
So retention is a big deal, and yet employees are not feeling the love. Very few employees today report that they see any evidence that their organizations are actively trying to retain them. In fact, according to the 2007 Spherion Emerging Workforce© Study, only 13% are doing more to retain their employees, while, according to the employees, 29% are actually doing less. (Spherion, 2007). Consequently, 31% of employees are planning to look for a new job within the next year. This is one area, however, where you might be able to exert some influence. The number one reason for leaving a job, as evidenced by exit surveys, is a poor relationship with the immediate supervisor. I restate my position that employee performance is often a management issue. Even when an organization fails to put good retention strategies into place, the relationship with the immediate supervisor or manager can help stem the tide for awhile. By making sure your team likes working for you and with one another, you might retain them long enough to finish your project.
You might be saying, “I’m a project manager, not the CEO of the company. I have no control over the culture of the company, and therefore, no control over retention.” I strongly, vehemently, violently, categorically—you get the picture—disagree. You have the ability to create the culture within the culture. Regardless of what else is going on in the organization, people can love working for and with you and stick it out as long as they are needed. Commitment and loyalty are attainable traits.
In this dynamic, fluid business climate, I contend we don’t need more project managers – we need more extreme project managers. If you’re up for the challenge, you’ll need to develop new, key Leadership Competencies.
Extreme project managers must:
- Assume a leadership role,
- Invest in team development,
- Learn to manage conflict, and
- Balance empowerment with accountability.
If you do not agree, or you are not willing to invest the time and effort, it’s going to take to develop these characteristics, I suggest you find yourself a very large stick and carry it with you everywhere you go. You’ll need it!
Assume a Leadership Role
Having worked for all kinds of people in various types of organizations and situations, I have seen those who drove people and those who led people. I believe the differentiation is what determines how well things get done. You can push people to perform at extraordinary levels and produce amazing results. You can do this through threats, manipulation, whining, lies, fear, or whatever else has worked for you in the past. You can even convince yourself that this is your leadership style. It will most assuredly work. For awhile.
It is not sustainable. People will only be pushed as long as the vehicle you are using is viable. When the market turns around, when organizations are hiring for their skill set, when they get a big income tax refund and can afford to take a risk and make a change—they’re gone.
And in the meantime, you have people working for you who resent you, hate the project, are apathetic to the goals of the organization, and quietly sabotaging any hope of success.
Invest in Team Development – and We’re Not Talking Money!
The people on your team are your most valued asset and, as such, deserve the highest percentage of your time and attention. All of the resources used to successfully complete your project are important, but the human resources are the ones who can talk back, provide support, quit, deliver exceptional quality or sabotage you. Occasionally you may need to spend some money for training, rewards or recruitment, but, by far, the biggest investment will be of yourself.
Step One: Understand the Team Composition
You do not have widgets assigned to your project, you have people with personalities and motivators and funny little quirks. The sooner you recognize what those are, the more quickly you can develop a strategy for either using those differences or putting plans in place to mitigate them. Don’t skip the “meet and greet.” Even when the project team is meeting virtually, the meet and greet ritual is very beneficial. You will learn a lot more about your team than simply the information that they share.
Step Two: Establish the Basic Ground Rules
You may think we should be beyond this ritual but evidently not, as shown by my past experience in managing projects. And while I do not agree with those who start each and every meeting by rehashing the agreed upon rules and guidelines, I certainly endorse the practice of establishing them at the onset. The team needs to create the rules together, so they’ll all buy-in to adhering to them. Do not neglect the act of formulating ground rules, even if this team has worked together many times before, reiterate their application.
Step Three: Be Sure Everyone Knows the Project Goals
Never assume everyone already knows or “gets it.” It’s naïve to think that those working on your project have the slightest clue what the company’s overarching strategic goals are but until you are able to link the project’s goals to the organizational strategy, you’ll have a hard time convincing them of the importance of success over failure!
Step Four: Maintain an Environment that Breeds Trust
Everything I have written to this point goes towards creating an environment that breeds trust among you and the team members. Trust is a funny thing—it can take a long time to develop and be lost in an instant. The EPM who assumes the role of the leader and invests their time and energy into strengthening the team has laid the foundation for trust, but it is just that, a foundation. Without proper care and feeding, it can begin to degrade until there’s nothing there to sustain the weight of all that might come against the team.
Step Five: Have Some Fun!
It’s so simple, it’s ridiculous—along with letting people bring their brains to work, we should let them bring their funny bones, too. I’m not sure where the notion got started that we can’t have fun at work—the cure for apathy, boredom, and burnout is JOYOUS teamwork! Breaking up the tedium, stress, and monotony with a little fun is a guaranteed performance enhancer.
Learn to Manage Conflict
Conflict—just the very word conjures up thoughts of angry words, upset stomachs, maybe even throwing punches. Extreme project managers have learned how to manage conflict, how to prepare for the inevitable as well as how to harness the positive energy that comes with disagreements.
Conflict is acceptable when it is:
- Productive: The disagreement or opposing viewpoints surround topics that need to be addressed.
- Limited to ideas, concepts, methods: We are not arguing about the scope of the project, the relevance of the work, or any other point outside the control of the project team.
- Not focused on personalities or individuals: Arguments that come about because people do not like one another have no place in your project meetings.
- Focused on the current issue and not past, residual resentments.
Balance Empowerment with Accountability
Why is accountability such a difficult team attribute to achieve? I believe that accountability and empowerment go hand in hand, but it is crucial that we understand what each term really means and how both are necessary in the proper balance for success.
Accountability does not mean blame, rather it means holding something in such high regard that you will do anything and everything in your power to hold up your end of things. It would never enter your mind to slack off or perform at less than top quality and potentially damage a successful outcome. It is the highest demonstration of selflessness you will ever see in the corporate world.
A lot of managers—and companies, for that matter—give lip service to empowerment but it’s really just an excuse for not holding anyone accountable. Empowering others does not mean abdicating your responsibility to lead and direct others. A project manager may say they believe in empowering the team to do whatever it takes to get the job done, but what they really mean is they don’t want to be bothered with measurements or attending to detail.
You will be able to tell when your team feels empowered. Motivated, empowered teams exhibit a confident, can-do attitude with a palpable excitement about possibilities and challenges. They will demonstrate a collective commitment to the mission and will use possessive words like our and we. You will see willingness to cross-train one another and take on extra tasks when another team member is struggling with a particular problem.
Finally, combining the traits of accountability and empowerment, extreme teams use their freedom with discretion. You will be able to trust them not to violate the privileges afforded to them because of their commitment and accountability to one another.
Project management equals people management. To become an extreme project manager, we have to be willing to be in the people business. Where do we begin?
- Assess your leadership skills
- Ask others how you’re doing; possibly perform a 360-degree assessment
- Get a leadership coach; a trusted advisor who will give honest, valuable input
- Review the team development
- What steps did you skip, if any?
- What is your conflict management plan?
- Check for signs of empowerment
- Assess your own behavior
As a project manager, exercise control in the area where it will matter most—how our team interacts with one another—this will have the greatest impact on the success of our projects. When a group of individuals finally become a team, the odds greatly increase in your favor. Creating a cohesive, gelled unit, working in a community to achieve a common goal is the surest guarantee of success that I have found!
Havel, K., & Robinson, J. (2007). The emerging workforce© study. Retrieved on June 20, 2008, from http://www.spherion.com/pressroom/index.php?s=43&item=448
Kaye, B., & Jordan-Evans, S. (2001). It’s the talent, stupid. Retrieved on May 13, 2008, from http://jobfunctions.bnet.com/abstract.aspx?docid=96795
Prewitt, E. (2008). Good riddance to bad bosses. Retrieved on June 20, 2008, from http://www.cio.com/article/8335/Good_Riddance_to_Bad_Bosses/2
© 2008, Pattie Vargas
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA