the project manager--a leader
Concerns of Project Managers
Editor's Note: This is part of the continuing saga of Sam, the world's first project manager, who is attempting to understand the concept and practice of project management.
According to the Olde Curmudgeon
Projects are ubiquitous. Projects must be managed. Ergo, project managers (PMs) are ubiquitous.
Indeed, it is the rare individual who has not managed a project of some sort.
Building a house is certainly a project. Moving into it is also a project. Designing a new car is a project. Rebuilding an old car is also a project. Adding a new member to the family is a project, whether it be a child, a parent or pet. The number and variety of projects undertaken by individuals are endless and occur throughout life. Each is managed to one degree or another.
Thus, we have all been, and all are, project managers to one degree or another. So why all the fuss?
Consider one type of project with which we are all familiar: moving. When you moved into your own room (a project), the project manager was probably your mother. When you moved away to college (a project), there may have been some question as to who was really the PM, you or your mother. When you moved into your first apartment (a project), you were the PM. Then you moved into a house (another project). Each of these projects was larger in magnitude, cost, duration, and complexity than the one before and the skills and knowledge required to effectively and efficiently perform them were greater.
Some people, lacking the time or skills to manage such a project, turn to someone else to manage their move, to take everything out of every shelf and closet and put it all in its proper place in the new location. The expectations for these professionals are often greater than we have for ourselves. Thus, they must be skilled in determining what is expected of them and in planning, executing, and closing the project. This is an especially challenging task because we often do not understand the pending project well enough to state our requirements with any precision, and therefore tend to make changes to those requirements as the project progresses. This may be acceptable on a small project where we are spending relatively small amounts of our own money. However, the larger the project and the more people involved, the more important it is that the PM be skilled, not only in the technologies involved (packing dishes, for example) but also in managing the processes involved.
This illustrates an interesting hypothesis about how you become a PM: one zero at a time. Most professionals get an opportunity to manage a project early in their career. The first one may involve a few thousand dollars. If it is managed successfully, the next one may be in the tens of thousands of dollars, the next in the hundreds of thousands, etc. Thus, if you aspire to be a PM of large projects, the best advice is to be prepared to manage the first one very well. Then the next one and the next one. If you are really good, and fortunate, you may move even faster.
“Oh, my, what have I gotten myself into now, ”said Sam. “I've never built a raft before. I have no experience in such a large undertaking. Here l am, a PM and have no idea what a PM is supposed to do or if / have the right stuff. All I've ever done is hunt, fish, pick berries, cook, and shape rocks. What do /do now?”
Sam was not the first nor the last to have that experience. But what is the right stuff? Centuries later, learned scholars asked the same question. One professor summarized the results of six professors into three major skill categories: leadership/interpersonal, technical, and administrative . While these will be used for discussion below, another interesting and useful taxonomy has been referenced to enhance this discussion .
LEADERSHIP AND INTERPERSONAL SKILLS
Leadership and interpersonal skills are those necessary to relate to others, persuade them to participate, give them guidance, and ensure that decisions are made when necessary. To some extent, these skills are based on inherent physical and mental characteristics of the individual or on values and inculcated behaviors learned since birth. Regardless, training and knowledge can enhance skills. The leadership and interpersonal skills and characteristics are presented here in a sequence representing the priorities this old hand considers most important. However, an effective PM professional must have at least minimal skills in each of the areas.
Interest in the Job
The first test, although not necessarily the most important, is interest in the job. If there is no interest, the remaining characteristics may be academic. That is not always so. Sometimes our interests change when more information is available. Have you ever felt that, “No one has explained it to me that way”? If interest cannot be generated, enthusiasm will wane with the adversity that is inevitable in managing a project.
For my money, the most important of these skills is being action-oriented. Such people are often referred to as self-starters. They are aggressive and assertive but not obnoxious and intractable. Neither a milquetoast nor a hardhead can be an effective PM in the long run. The milquetoast, not being able to make a decision or to deal with the slightest obstacle, will loose the faith of the team. The hardhead will end up getting sandbagged, inadvertently or deliberately.
Other characteristics that relate to being action-oriented are decisiveness, ascendancy (willingness to take command), and need-to achieve and be proactive (willingness to exercise control over others).
There is another side to this coin, however, which is not often documented in academic research. Seeking responsibility must be accompanied by accepting responsibility. It seems to this observer, that accepting responsibility has become a scarce commodity, at least in the U.S. Many want responsibility but few are willing to stick it out through the bad times as well as the good. In the short-term-oriented society that characterizes the U. S., it is all too easy to move on to greener pastures when the going gets tough. The outstanding PM will see the project through or provide the client a well-supported recommendation that it be terminated, but will not leave the client holding the bag.
Tolerance for Ambiguity and Change
The professor says, “ability to manage in an unstructured environment.” More directly, you must be able to deal with ambiguity and to bring order out of chaos. Ambiguity can be in the form of contradictory directions from various stakeholders, conflicting requirements that make the job seem impossible, and even vague statement of requirements and desires. Somehow, the PM is expected to read minds, operate a Ouiji board, and see clearly into a crystal ball.
How does an ordinary human do all this? Sometimes by asking questions, but watch the body language, because a lot of folks don't like to be asked tough questions, especially if they think the answers might be used against them. These folks subscribe to the eleventh commandment … thou shalt not commit thyself! Others shoot from the hip and give you answers you really don't need.
Probably the best way to deal with this is to overwhelm them with staff work, i.e., develop the solution you believe to be the best and provide answers to all possible questions. The advantage of this approach is that soon you will get a reputation for thorough staff work and knowing the right things to do. You will be asked fewer questions. Be sure you are right, though.
Even better is to develop two or more alternative solutions and present them in clear comparison for your boss or client to make the decision. Be sure to provide a decision deadline, however, or it may take forever to get the decision.
A caveat: such thorough preparation may result in you getting more and larger assignments in the future.
No, this does not mean that you need eyeglasses. It does mean having a vision of the product of the project and of the project itself. It means having such a clear idea of what your client desires from the project that you can communicate it in a clear and enthusiastic manner. It means believing in the project and wanting it to be the best project ever done. Lack of enthusiasm will be recognized immediately by the project team and all those around you.
Having a clear vision is essential for providing clear direction. Without it, decisions are likely to be inconsistent and often late, priorities will waver, and team members’ confidence in their leader will wane.
Objectives and Priorities
The successful PM establishes clearly defined objectives and priorities. This should be done with the participation of the relevant project team members and stakeholders. Often the relevant group is larger than you think. Those who believe they have a legitimate role in making a decision but were excluded become the most recalcitrant in implementing the decision. Also, resist the temptation to modify objectives and priorities with every little shift of the winds of organizational politics.
Objectives are clearest when they address three characteristics: attribute, yardstick, and goal . For example, your objective may be to complete the project on time (attribute), based on a calendar (yardstick), and by July 3 (goal). Alternatively you could have project duration as the attribute, working days as the yardstick, and 105 working days as the goal. Until the objective is stated with such clarity, it will not be effective in guiding the project team's behavior.
A group of people is subject to the laws of entropy. Left to its own devices it will tend to go off in all directions, like Pegasus.
This is especially true of project teams, as they are characteristically interdisciplinary, with each member having different knowledge, skills, and values; coming from different organizational and discipline cultures; and often being at different phases in their personal life cycles. Starting with such a group the PM must quickly develop a cohesive team with a sufficient set of common values to enable them to work together and with a common vision of the journey on which they are about to embark. Responsibilities must be delegated and the team must be structured to facilitate effective working relations.
To accomplish this, the PM must exercise considerable interpersonal influence, persuasion, and negotiation skills.
Having initiated the team development process, the PM must motivate team members and other participants to apply their best efforts and energies to meet the objectives of the project. This is done by eliciting commitment and creating personal involvement at all levels by understanding the professional needs of and showing consideration toward individual team members.
Many old-timers still believe that the opportunity for continued employment is sufficient motivation. That may be true for those who have no alternative, but few professionals fall in that class. Furthermore, reliance on that crutch will hardly ever motivate a team to that outstanding performance which results in an excellent performance rating for the PM.
Conflict is inherent in projects as a result of the many decisions that must be made and the diversity of project team members. Managed conflict on a project can lead to innovative time- and cost-saving solutions to problems. Unmanaged conflict will probably result in chaos and failure. The PM must have not only the “stomach” for managing conflict, but also a deep understanding and honed skills in resolving conflict. Perhaps the most difficult skill is in ferreting out the existence of conflict, since people are generally reluctant to bring it to the boss's attention. The adroit PM will ask questions in such away as to force the issues onto the table.
Assisting in Decision Making
It is a real temptation for many project managers to become too involved in decision making. The result will be the opportunity to make even more decisions and become the major bottleneck on the project … always on the critical path. This will lead to neglecting those responsibilities that are uniquely the PM's. Once this vortex starts to form, unless dramatic action is taken, the project is destined to go down the drain. The operative word is “assist.” The PM must allow the appropriate person or group to identify, analyze, and solve the problem, stepping in only to provide information not otherwise available or presenting alternative decision-making theory or techniques. This does not relieve the PM of final responsibility for the decision. It must be reviewed. Thus, the PM must ensure that the decision-making process is adequately documented to permit timely review and filed for future reference in the event of changes or claims.
Gaining Organizational Support
Ideally, an essential element of project success is the support of upper management, at least of relevant upper management. Sometimes this is instantly available. At other times, your project may be of only passing interest to upper management. Sometimes you will be happy if they are at least neutral to your project. Nevertheless, your future will depend on your success on this project.
Regardless, there are techniques and approaches to elicit support. First among these is to understand the organization and key people in it. It is important to know the formal policies and procedures, but perhaps more important to know the informal ones.
At least equally important is knowing the key influence leaders in all levels of the organization. On more than one occasion, the essential person has been a custodian or secretary. The astute PM does not ignore these people in the rush to impress.
Also, it is important to know the sensitive issues for each key person. The wrong statement or question in their presence can instantly convert a passive stakeholder into an active obstacle. In short, the PM must learn to engage in organizational politics, not harmfully but constructively. Politics is not a nasty word to be avoided, but is an inherent aspect of organized human behavior.
The PM must be a skilled communicator, both verbally and in writing. The greater the magnitude of the project, the more critical it is to the organization, and the larger the number of stakeholders, the greater the skill required. The most important skill is knowing when and what to communicate. Timing is critical. Bad news can be tempered with good news. Failure to communicate may result in your boss being blindsided, a sure way to “lose friends and influence people to turn you to other pastures.” Attempt to communicate too much and you will lose your audience. Use visual aids and keep it brief. Seek the help of professional communicators if available. Otherwise, seek out a trusted associate to listen to your presentation or to proofread your report.
Honesty, integrity and loyalty are critical if you are going to be credible. These characteristics may be in conflict in some instances. Exercising tact may be the only option. Protecting your credibility should be of the highest priority. Once in question, your support will be eroded. If destroyed, it will be a long, hard battle to regain it. Consider the faith others place in you to do the things you promise, be correct in the things you say, and support those who depend on you. Then put yourself in the other person's position. The answers should be clear.
A popular concept in management today is “Managing by Walking Around.” First, you are more likely to know what is really happening. Second, you convey your interest in the project, and that interest is contagious. Third, with some preparation and practice, you can demonstrate your interest in individual needs of team members. Fourth, many team members will communicate more frankly with you in their own environment than in your office. Fifth, you are more in control of your time, as you can leave the area when you wish, while it is more difficult to get people out of your office.
General Interpersonal Skills
Many who find themselves in management positions arrive there with no formal training in interpersonal behavior other than that attained from their parents or on the playground.
“Who needs it?” you ask. “I've been getting along with people all my life!” Yeah! Right! If that is all it takes, then why is your boss such a … ?
Getting along with others is not an innate characteristic that all people are born with. It is a skill, an art, that is learned, and just as in golf, a qualified instructor can improve your swing enough to take several strokes off your game. Have you ever known someone whom you would recommend to “enroll in the Dale Carnegie course and just keep enrolling until you can pass it!”
Don't be cocky in this area. You too can be helped and it may improve your score in the PM game.
Various studies have verified the importance of these characteristics. If you have them, you may aspire to a career, or at least a stint, as a project manager. If you really do not like any of these characteristics, you should probably seek an alternative career. In between, you should set realistic aspiration levels as to the magnitude and complexity of projects you would like to manage. Most people can manage some level of project. As in other aspects of life, only those who excel in these characteristics will ultimately progress to the largest, most complex, and most important projects.
Perhaps you feel weak in some areas. Training and/or education can help your development. Experience is always a good teacher, although it is sometimes more painful and slower than a more formal approach. Experience need not be limited to employment opportunities: there are countless community and other organizations that desperately need leaders. You could obtain an opportunity to develop skills and knowledge, generally by only mentioning that you might like to help. Valuable experience, and training, can be obtained through such organizations as Toastmasters International, an organization dedicated to helping individuals learn how to communicate.
These opportunities are available to everyone. Seeking them out and becoming involved should be considered as the first step in proving your “interest in the job” (i.e., being a project manager) and in being “action-oriented.”
Sam reflected on these characteristics of a project manager and took some immediate action. Realizing that the objectives of the project may not be clear, Sam went to the client. After considerable probing, it was determined that the client intended to move across the river. A raft was needed to carry all the household items, fifty sheepskins of grain, thirty sheep, twenty geese, ten goats, five asses, two oxen, and one aged mother-in-law. Sam pondered these requirements and their implications on the specifications for the raft. From the resulting specifications, Sam conceived of a vision for the product of the project and then for the project itself.
Then Sam wandered off and sat under a large shade tree and reflected on the other skills, wondering where and when a workshop in these skills could be found. “Look in the October PMNETwork, ” came a loud whisper from above. Sam, very interested in this project and a recognized self-starter, vowed to improve the rest of these skills.
With this in mind, Sam's thoughts turned to concerns about what were the appropriate technologies required and what administrative techniques would be employed to plan and execute this project. Inquiries soon made it clear that Sam would have to go on to the cave in the next mountain to find the answers to these concerns.
Editor's Note: Join Sam in this continuing search for wisdom in the March 1994 PMNETwork.
1. Thamhain, Hans J. 1991. Developing Project Management Skills. Project Management Journal, vol. XXII, no. 3, September, pp. 39-44.
2. Petersen, Normand. 1991. Selecting Project Managers: An Integrated List of Predictors. Project Management Journal, vol. XXII, no. 2, June, pp. 21-26.
3. Ansoff, Igor (ed.). 1974. From Strategic Planning to Strategic Management.