Projects don’t fail, people do

getting people to excel at what they do


If that's not the most negative way to start out thinking about a project, then I don't know what is. Maybe I should be more positive and say that projects don't succeed, people do. It doesn't really matter which way you say it; the facts are still the facts. Success or failure is on the shoulders of the people. So why then do we spend more time worrying about the numbers and statistics of the project and so little time in setting the people up to win?

The answer, for many project managers, lies in the lack of people training. Most new project managers were great as a specialist in their field, but never had to actually manage people until the first opportunity came along and magically they became a project manager or team lead. Have you ever noticed how a job that we have never done before is called an opportunity? Early in my career, I always thought that opportunity was a good thing. But, as is true of many more seasoned project managers, I have come to learn not to shake an outstretched hand until I understand what is truly expected of me. So what does this have to do with project failure? A lot. It usually happens that project managers are brought up through the ranks and eventually, through time, luck, or magic, become a project manager. Then, if they don't get hit with too many arrows and bullets through their first project, they go on to be an “experienced” project manager. Let's avoid a few of the wounds of the project wars and talk about one of the keys to project success or failure. The key is people and how a project manager gets the best out of the available personnel assigned to the project.

Getting the Right People Involved

A principle of primary importance is to get the “right” people involved with a project. There are several issues surrounding this principle including, “How do I know who is right?” and “Even if I know who is right, how do I get them on my project?” Let's first look at the issue of “who.” The project manager immediately runs into a paradox. To identify who is right for a project there must be a very good understanding about what the project entails. However, to get a good understanding about the project, you need to get the people with the right knowledge and background to clearly spell out the project needs. There is no one best way to solve this paradox. There are some obvious players in all projects that must be intimately involved for project success. These include a business customer that wants the project, a sponsor (usually upper management) that has the authority to obtain funding and to commit people, and personnel with the appropriate skills to meet the project needs. Starting small is usually a good tactic. To do this requires identifying one or two people who have basic knowledge of what is required (at least at the project concept level) to discuss, detail, and document their view. From this high-level picture, a better idea of one or two more technical (or detail) people can be used to further scope out the picture. Repeat this detail/people loop until business customers and developers agree that the detail is sufficient to continue. Of course reality keeps people resources at a scarcity level that challenges the best project managers, but then that's why tools like Project Life Cycle Methodologies help to break projects into smaller logical steps. The project charter and a statement of work for each phase of the project are also essential to getting commitment to the involvement of the right people. But let's be honest here about the reality of getting the “right” people involved with a project. The vast majority of project managers that I have talked with agree that the day-to-day reality is that the “right” people for a project is whoever is most available or least busy. Project team members are often chosen by someone other than the project manager. And yet, the project manager is responsible for success. So what does a project manager do in a case like this?

Getting People Involved the Right Way

The gut response to “What do I do now?” might easily be to run as far and fast as you can. However that is not often a viable option for anyone who is looking to make project management a career choice. So let's look at the reality twist to people involvement. The principle from before now becomes, “How do we take the people we have been given and get the best possible performance from each of them?” What we need to look at is what motivates people to perform closer to their peak. I ask many groups of project managers, “Why do you get up every morning and come in and do a good job at work?” Common responses include the challenge, learning new things, fun, good people on the team, feelings of accomplish, doing something useful, and the ever present need for the paycheck.

Exhibit 1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Everybody has his or her own personal list of motivators and there is no one motivator that always motivates everyone or someone. This adds to the challenge for the project manager. With a team of several people the project manager must figure out which motivators are important to which individuals today, since circumstances change daily for each person and that changes their motivators. This issue was struggled over by Keane's management until they decided to create a simplified set of motivator categories. After reviewing dozens of motivators and talking to scholars educated in the concepts of Theory X, Theory Y, and other team motivation and management philosophies here is how we have classified motivators for project management.

Fear, Greed, and Pride

The categories simply stated are fear, greed, and pride. Those of you with psychology degrees, please don't say that this is an over simplification (although you would be right), but see this as a means to a successful project end. Most project managers don't have the time to learn, understand, and figure out how to apply in-depth psychological concepts (not that they couldn't, just no time to do so). Keeping it simple may not be technically accurate, but it works. At Keane, we found that just about any motivator that you can think of will fall into at least one of these three categories. Let's take these three categories one at a time starting with fear.


Fear as a motivator is often used (or misused) but usually does nothing to improve project results. Fear often causes, rather than cures, more problems. For this discussion, I am classifying fear as that which is imposed by a project manager, or someone else, on a team member. It would be easy to argue that people often fear failure and therefore do better, but for now let's classify fear of failure as being a part of the pride category. Because of pride we do not want to fail and therefore the fear is self-imposed. In my example, a project manager instills the fear by coming in and demanding results or “heads will roll.” Many managers at all levels of organizations have tried this technique. Some team members may fear for their job in this case and do whatever is demanded. Are they energized to perform at or near their peak? I would say no. In most cases the project manager has little or no real authority over the people in question, so the people ignore the threat as minimal or, after too many uses, they get motivated to update their resume and mail it out in mass to escape the situation. This isn't a desired project success result. Even if the project manager does have the authority to carry out the threat, most employees will eventually become motivated to change jobs to escape the tyranny. Remember, our goal is to get people to excel at what they do for better project results, not excel at righting their resume and exiting the project. I highly recommend that you avoid, at all costs, trying to use fear as a motivator.


Second motivator, almost as useful to project managers as fear, is the greed category. The project manager comes in and offers a $5,000 bonus, or a future raise to be named later, to get extra work done. The people counter with a series of questions. Does the project manager really have access to bonus money? For most the answer is a resounding, “No.” When do we get the bonus, or raise (if we believe the money is available)? The answer here is often fairly obscure; “Sometime after the work is done.” How much work are you dumping on me? Assuming someone actually understands the answer to this question, the work is often not an equitable balance to the offered money. Since the answers to these questions don't come out the way the people would like, the money usually isn't a strong motivator. In fact, for this motivator to be effective there are three variables that must be in alignment. The amount of the bonus must be sufficiently large, the time until the bonus is received must be reasonably short, and the amount of effort that the team member must put forth must be within the realm of possibility from the team member's perspective. Since most project managers cannot control all three variables, reality steps in and shows that greed as a motivator is seldom an available option to project managers. So most project managers should cross this category off their motivator tool list, too.


That leaves us with one last category, pride. A project manager that understands this category can strike gold when it comes to getting the best from people. In fact, a project manager that understands how to use pride will create situations that are good for the people, the project, the business customer, and the company. You can't ask for better than that. To understand this category it is helpful to use a concept common to both basic management and basic psychology—Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (see Exhibit 1).

It is not necessary, however, to get into a deep psychological discussion. Let's use Maslow, but keep the discussion simple for project purposes. Maslow's Hierarchy says that needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be met before higher level needs become important as motivators. The Hierarchy also says that once a level is satisfied for an individual then next level up must come into play to keep the individual motivated.

The bottom level of the hierarchy is food, clothing and shelter. For most people that project managers will be working with, this level is of little concern. Not that the people don't need food, clothing and shelter (take the team to lunch now and then and see what it does for motivation), but most project members have what could be called sufficient levels of each. Maybe not as much as they would like, but at least reasonable. If this level becomes a problem, there is usually little the project manager can do to help. However, a project manager must realize that if project personnel drop into this category, little else will matter to these people until the issues are somehow resolved. The most common occurrence here is related to weather or other natural disaster. For example, let's say your team was located in eastern North Carolina in the late summer of 1999 or southern England in the fall of 2000. Major rainstorms came through these areas and left many communities under many feet of floodwaters. If your team had been located in either of these areas at that time, do you think that any of your people would have cared about critical project deadlines when their day-to-day survival was in question? Not likely.

The next level up on Maslow's hierarchy is personal safety. This includes things like job security, work location safety, safe place to raise a family, and other similar issues. Again, there is usually very little a project manager can do to affect this level. Being aware of team members with concerns in this area helps the project manager be patient and at least give support to the individual. There is occasionally a work-related situation that can be addressed. For example, in one of our projects we had an information systems team member who was located near the users for “better” access. The problem was that the client was a steel foundry and the consultant was given a desk out on the foundry floor near where the molten steel was sparking and splashing. The team member constantly worried about, “What if the steel splashes near me?” The worry totally destroyed his ability to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Once we convinced the client to move the desk off the foundry floor to a “safer” location, the team member was able to concentrate again. Results improved immediately.

The third level of Maslow has to do with the need to belong and the need for love. I will not address the issue of love here other than to say that in my observation when love happens between project members, it often causes some difficulties in the project. That being said, the need to belong is very important. If you have ever been assigned to a team and had no idea why you were there, then you understand why belonging is such an important motivator. If a person doesn't know why they are on a team and how they can be useful, then there is little reason to try hard to do a good job. However, if a person does know what you expect from them and they believe that they can make a contribution, human nature shows that the person will be much more likely to give their tasks all available attention and maybe a little extra effort. Therefore, project managers need to be sure that they are able to identify and explain to each person how the individual can contribute to the success of the project and then get that person to agree and accept that they can meet the expectations and desired results. This way the team member will believe in the possibility of success and feel useful in the accomplishments of the team.

The next two levels of Maslow are the two that the project manager has the most influence on and that can bring significant results (both individual and team) without spending extreme amounts of time to achieve those results. Level four of the hierarchy is self-esteem. In simple terms, each person has the need to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments and each person has the need to have others feel good about them. Each of us has various levels of need for self-esteem and different views of how much we currently have. Psychologists who study this issue have suggested that many people reach a self-esteem maturity level by the time they are in their early teenage years that they carry throughout their adult life. This is why parents and teachers often try so hard to bolster and support the efforts of young children to help heighten and set good esteem levels before the children reach their teenage years. Permit me a personal example that will likely hit home with those of you who have or have had small children. I was home on a Friday afternoon a couple of years ago when my five-year-old little boy was getting off the bus coming home from school. As he ran up the street toward the front porch where I was standing, I noticed he was waving a piece of paper in his hand and had a big grin on his face. As he bound up onto the porch he enthusiastically yelled, “Dad, Dad, look what I drew for you!” He held out a picture for me to see. I took the picture and looked down at it and immediately realized that it was a painting with many colors and I didn't have a clue what the picture was. I hid my puzzlement (I didn't want to hurt his feelings) by putting a big smile on my face and exclaiming, “Wow!” If I was to guess at what the picture was I would have surely been wrong, so I covered myself (and protected his feelings) by saying, “Tell me about it!” He took the picture from my hands, reoriented it so I knew which end was up, and described it to me. To my dismay, even after he described it, I still could not tell what it was, but I said, “This is so great.” I took it and did as most parents tell me they do; I hung it on the refrigerator. The reason we go through this exchange is to raise the self-esteem level of our children, but I also had an ulterior motive. My hope was that by hanging it on the refrigerator, this would encourage my son to do another picture. By getting him to keep doing more pictures he had to get better and eventually he did.

From a project standpoint project managers must ask themselves, “What's my project refrigerator?” In other words, where will I post the accomplishments of my team so that they can be proud of their work and others can see what a great job they are doing? You might think that this sounds childish, but I can tell you that my experience shows that adults need to be praised for a good job just as much as children do, but often they get far less. Why else do we hang PMP® certificates, class completion awards, and diplomas on our office and home walls? Maybe you can commandeer a conference room wall or a hallway wall to post team accomplishments or maybe your organization has a newsletter that you can write an article commending the team progress and results. The need is there, look for a way to fill the need. When adults, just as with children, see their accomplishments are noticed and appreciated, they feel proud and are more likely to give extra effort toward achieving better results. If they go unnoticed, they feel unappreciated and aren't as likely to want to be bothered trying so hard. Another easy tool to use to show appreciation for individual effort is the simple “Thank You” note. When was the last time you said “thank you” in writing to a team member for doing a good job? This can be a very powerful tool. When writing thank you notes it is important to apply two simple rules. Rule one: Don't write them so often that people begin to expect them. Rule two: People should not have to “walk on water” to get one. Most project managers fail to find the time to use this simple tool and miss out on that extra effort that could just be enough to put the project in the win column.

The top level of Maslow's hierarchy has to do with self-actualization, or the need people have to set and achieve personal goals. Ask yourself how many goals do you set and why do you set them? People need to have targets to accomplish in their lives. The goal of the project manager is to get team members to set and achieve personal project goals that will help them focus on doing what is necessary for project success. It is important for each team member to have a stake in the goals that are set so that they are personal. What we have found is that short interval goal setting is essential to project planning, team commitment, progress tracking, and project success. Often times project managers assign team members activities or tasks that may take several weeks or months to complete. The hope is that with these longer target dates each team member will manage their time and get done by the due date. What usually happens when a target date is set many weeks or months in the future is the same thing that happened to most of us when we were in school. It is called the “student syndrome.” Think back to when you were in a class where a term paper was assigned. Usually the assignment was given with several weeks before it was due. The problem is that the student sees there is “plenty of time” to get around to the assignment and puts it off as not being immediately critical to start. Time passes and other things come up that need doing. Often the student forgets about the assignment until a day or two before it is due. Now it is a crisis. The student spends the entire night before it is due in the library digging through several stacks of research materials. The computer keyboard is heard clicking through the night as the masterpiece is spliced together and turned in the next day just under the deadline. Why is it the student is surprised when the paper receives a less than fantastic grade? This is the “student syndrome” and it is alive and well in the project environment. Getting each person to break their work into pieces of only a couple of weeks each creates lots of small energizing goals to achieve during the course of the project. With each completed goal the individual can congratulate themselves on a job accomplished and feel good about moving on to the next. If the goal is months away, it is harder to stay energized and focused. With low energy and focus come poorer quality results.


Project managers lack people training. Most new project managers were great as a specialist in their field, but never had to actually manage people until the first opportunity came along to be a project manager. Success or failure of a project rests on the shoulders of the people, so project managers need to do a better job of setting their people up for success. A principle of primary importance is to get the “right” people involved with a project. The reality has to do with how a project manager gets the best out of the assigned people whether or not they are exactly “right” for the project. What project managers need to look at is what motivates their people to perform closer to their peak. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is an important concept for project managers to understand and use to help improve individual team member performance and project success. Theoretical concepts like those of Maslow when practically and simply applied can lead to excellent project management success. Here's to the success of you, your people, and your project.


Keane Inc. 1999. Productivity Management. Unpublished course material. Boston, MA: Keane Inc.

Keane Inc. Project Managers Accelerated Development Workshop. 1999. Unpublished course material. Boston, MA: Keane Inc.

Keane Inc. 2002. Productivity Management: Keane's Project Management Approach. 3rd edition. Boston, MA: Keane Inc.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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