Paper pushers & process police
BY KELLEY HUNSBERGER ILLUSTRATIONS BY LEON MUSSCHE
You're obsessed with reports.
There is no denying that reports are an important part of a project manager's job description. Between project plans, Gantt charts, financial run-downs, change requests and status updates, the documentation often piles up.
“Paperwork and reports in a project are like blood in the human body,” says Nashaat Younis, PMP, a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based area project manager at Thales Group, a company specializing in IT systems and security. “Being obsessed with reports is like being obsessed about having a healthy circulatory system in your body.”
But project managers may spend so much time compiling, trafficking or presenting these reports that team members and other colleagues start to believe it's the only role they fill.
What internal stakeholders might not realize, however, is that project managers aren't fans of spending a vast majority of their time on paperwork, either.
“I don't think that project managers are obsessed with paperwork,” says Dimitris Antoniadis, PhD, operations and compliance manager at Carillion, a construction company in Worcester Park, Greater London, England. “On the contrary, most of the project managers I've worked with complain about the heavy levels of company reporting and do not understand the reasons for most of the reports.”
Upper management often fuels this stereotype, he adds. “Companies try to reinvent the wheel by rejigging standard reports to such an extent that in the end, they become very cumbersome to produce and easily understand.”
First, work with your organization to see if it's possible to minimize the volume of project documentation and manage filtering the information.
“There are a handful of reports that are of value,” Dr. Antoniadis says. “The rest unnecessarily repeat information.”
Then, clearly communicate to team members the important role the basic reports have in the project.
“Paperwork and reports ensure proper controlling and monitoring of the project in addition to future lessons learned, and the most important thing—proper funding,” Mr. Younis says.
There are a handful of reports that are of value. The rest unnecessarily repeat information.
—Dimitris Antoniadis, PhD, Carillion, Worcester Park, Greater London, England
Project managers aren't the only ones whose reputations sometimes precede them. Stakeholders have acquired some negative stereotypes of their own. Below are two of the most difficult types of stakeholders project managers can find themselves teamed with—and tips for surviving the experience.
Maintainer of the Status Quo: Working with a client or key executive who is not open to new ways of thinking or doing things can be especially problematic. “The reason is simple: Projects are dynamic,” says Ethan Huang, EA (Electronic Arts), Shanghai, China. “Teams should be deciding the best way to accomplish the project goals, and that's an experimental, empirical learning process.” Creating this kind of open environment is a top-down effect. For it to work, stakeholders need to be as open to new ideas as project teams are willing to present them.
Ice King or Queen: These stakeholders don't consider the social factors—such as personality and relationships—that play a role in projects and building a strong team. Stakeholders with this mentality feel they are removed from the project team and therefore don't need to make that human connection. Instead, they should be embracing it, insists Dimitris Antoniadis, PhD, Carillion, Worcester Park, Greater London, England. Project professionals can break down that “them and us” barrier by inviting the stakeholder to team-building exercises and other project events. In addition, keep in close contact with the individual on a one-on-one basis. “By understanding this behavior very early, try to become the ‘buffer’ between the stakeholder and the team,” he says.
You're a control freak.
“Some project managers face the stereotype that they're not only telling people what to do, but also telling them what not to do. And that they'll use their authorization to punish anyone who doesn't follow orders,” says Ethan Huang, project manager at EA (Electronic Arts), an online game developer in Shanghai, China. That's a common misconception of any professional with “manager” in his or her title, he adds.
Project managers who are a bit controlling should consider a change in attitude. Instead of operating as autocratic leaders who exert absolute power over their teams, project managers can adopt a “servant leader” mentality and encourage respect, Mr. Huang suggests. “Teams are people with feelings, passions and emotions—not ‘resources,’ like 90 percent of project managers call them. You need to trust they're willing to commit and will try their best to meet their commitment. You need to respect the individuals and understand that they're usually more junior than you, and thus need your coaching and support badly. Transfer your responsibility from making decisions for the team to coaching them so that they can make their own decisions.”
Part of being a servant leader means removing obstacles the team might face.
“In Scrum, we have the ceremony of daily stand-up meetings, 15 minutes to discuss what's going on, what's next and what might be a roadblock,” he says. “And whenever there is something blocking the team from moving forward, the leader needs to jump in and get the issue sorted out.”
As servant leaders, project managers should also work to protect team members. For example, if leadership complains that the team isn't working overtime like others in the organization, you must ask yourself, “Are you going to transfer the pressure directly to your team and ask them to work more, or are you going to invite executives into a meeting, tell them what's going on in your team, how hard everybody is working and how great they are?” Mr. Huang asks. “You have to stop leadership from impacting the team morale.”
You do everything by the book.
Have you ever found yourself saying something along the lines of “Projects cannot deviate from the plan”?
Traditional project managers spend a lot of time and effort on a well-detailed project plan—and following it exactly often seems to be the best way to achieve success. In addition, a project manager may be nervous about straying from an organization's methodologies for fear of being reprimanded.
“It is usually lack of training and trust that pushes this stereotype, as well as internal pressures,” Dr. Antoniadis says. “The flexibility of the project manager is dependent upon the room for maneuvering he or she is allowed by senior management.”
Project managers need to open themselves up to new ideas. “Because we have to deal with different people in every project we undertake, we need to consider if the way we do things is appropriate for the teams and the stakeholders we are working with or for,” Dr. Antoniadis says.
These new ways of working may come from a number of sources: books, journals, talking to other project managers or attending project management events.
“It should go without saying that project managers should be talking to the project team continuously, exchanging ideas and considering all facts,” he says.
And don't just rely upon more experienced project professionals to discuss tech advances and new ideas, Dr. Antoniadis adds. Young project managers can offer a fresh, open way of thinking that contributes considerably to innovation.
“We should be challenging new recruits more about what they see around them and how they would do it differently,” he says. “Then we can implement the good ideas together.”
A word of caution, however: “New ideas usually mean ‘change,’ and that needs to be managed,” Dr. Antoniadis warns. “Resistance to change could be from both sides, top-down as well as bottom-up, and therefore having a good plan and an ally—someone who is open to suggestions—on both sides is very helpful.” PM
Change at the Organizational Level
Organizations can do their part to put to rest any misconceptions about their project managers.
“Education and training in general will enable lateral thinking,” says Dimitris Antoniadis, PhD, Carillion, Worcester Park, Greater London, England. “Individuals should always be looking for opportunities to improve and broaden their knowledge, and companies ought to be supportive.”
Personal development plans, for example, help to identify and honestly address weaknesses, and propose training and education in needed areas.
Organizations must also ensure that all parties involved in a project—sponsors in particular—are willing to accept new ideas and changes. One way to go about this: Have a project management office (PMO), with senior management's full support, audit the various project management approaches used. The review will highlight, without bias, what processes work and which do not, Dr. Antoniadis says.
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FEBRUARY 2012 PM NETWORK