4 new skills for the human side of project management

This article is copyrighted material and has been reproduced with the permission of Project Management Institute, Inc. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited.

Leonardo daVinci, one of the most creative thinkers and doers of all time, recognized as the foremost artist and scientist of the 15th century, said this:

“To develop a complete mind
Study the science of art
Study the art of science…”

We would have to look very hard through the next 500 years to find any person who studied the science of art as deeply and completely as daVinci. We would probably find only a few who studied the art of science as profoundly as he, and virtually no one person would have done both—study the science of art and the art of science.

Our 21st century culture world-wide is pretty much devoted to single-mindedly studying the science of science.

Project management is no exception It is nearly always learned and practiced as a science. Take a look at the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) if you want an example. Think back to your PMP® preparation, examination, and qualification. We're about science. The science of science. And science is about planning, organizing, arranging, measuring, controlling, and all the other things that scientists do. So thoroughly have we accepted science as “the way” that whatever scientists do, managers do, too. That includes project managers.

And yet in my 35-year career in project management, I haven't met a single successful manager of large projects who thinks the PMBOK describes what he or she does.

We're good at the science of project management. There are hundreds of books, thousands of articles and papers, and tens of thousands of earnest consultants all describing how we can objectively manage projects, usually at arm's length, and with some measure of certainty about processes and outcomes. We all know it isn't so. So why do we keep telling each other it is, and keep doing it the same way, getting the same less-than-excellent results, and wondering who to blame for project failure this time?

We are seeing only one side of the coin, and denying the other side exists. In our officially sanctioned one-sidedness, the most we can hope for is to do half the job we've been given.

What about the other half? The other side of the coin? Where is it written about the art of project management? Have we forgotten, 500 years after daVinci gave us the formula, to study the art of project management science? Where are the books and papers and consultants showing us the brilliance of the other side of the coin, the art of our science?

And just what is that art?

If we survey, interview, talk with—as I have—those project managers who have successfully led billion dollar projects or projects in the hundreds of millions of dollars, they don't quote the PMBOK®. That kind of knowledge and practice, while essential, is a given. That's the price of entry into the game. But making a project succeed takes more than expertise at the science of science.

There is much to the art of project management science, and I invite any of you to be the writer of what would surely become the most important project management book ever published. “The Art of Project Management.” We don't have time in our hour together to create such a book, but we can surely explore a small part of its territory. Thinking about the successful managers of mega-projects, they will all be found to have a deep understanding of the human side of project management. They are students of human behavior, tuned in to the personal lives of their technical experts, able to draw peak performance from their team.

Are they softies, then? No. We can discard the either-or mind set of our culture. They are experts at the technical details, determined to succeed, and uncompromising when measuring performance. They know the tools and techniques of project management inside out, and use them daily, sometimes applying them with an iron fist. But they know the coin has two sides, and that is only one of them.

These successful managers are of “complete minds,” to use daVinci's term. Not only do they have skills in the human side of project management, but they are wonderfully competent observers of human behavior, and are continually learning how to encourage the best possible performance from those working their projects.

In the last fifteen years, it has been my job to work with people who manage projects of all sizes in organizations of all sizes. Of the 45,000 project managers my company has trained or consulted with, I have personally consulted with 2,000 or more. Because I am a post-graduate psychologist, at the end of a project management career, my interests and focus naturally go to the human side of project management, exploring what is being done right now by the most successful of project managers.

This has necessarily been a long introduction, because it takes a different view—a more complete one of our project management job. What I have learned from my years with successful project managers is that there are four skills we are called upon to practice that lie beyond the PMBOK®. I have called them “new skills” only because they are new to most of us. These are skills not often known or practiced, and yet those who do are looked upon by their peers as the most successful of project managers. We'll consider them one at a time.

New Skill #1. Managing Networked Teams.

There are three different ideas here, one for each word of the title of this section.

Managing

Managing is about arranging, according to Tom Peters. It's the scheduling, planning, controlling, measuring, reporting part of the project manager's job. It's the science. We know how to do this, and it's a good thing, as it is essential.

Networks

This is art. It is art because networks are still relatively new to our organizational way of thinking. Maybe we need to get beyond organization, as our ideas about organizations tend to revolve around hierarchies, authority, and reporting relationships.

A more useful model of a network is the neural network of your brain, which has billions of potential paths. These paths connect neurons (cells) by means of electrical impulses (synapses), most of them temporary and used only when there is reason to use them. The number of potential configurations of all existing paths is staggeringly high, and yet we somehow—most of us—carry on a somewhat controlled existence. The configuration we need is available when we need it, and otherwise it exists only as potential, not in reality.

Or think of the internet. It's not even managed, in any meaningful sense, and yet we can develop a particular configuration that suits us any time we need to. The combination of web sites you put together yesterday is not necessarily the one you need and will put together today.

Networks are called “federal organizations” by one researcher (Charles Handy). The essence of networks, I think he would say, is that (1) there is a center that directs the configuring and reconfiguring, (2) what is getting configured are independent “nodes,” and (3) the configurations are temporary. Another writer has referred to these as “fleeting organizations.” They don't last long—an hour, a few days, a month or two—and we don't have control over them. We, as the center, simply put them together as needed and disband them when not needed. This is the ultimate exercise in organizing, and the antithesis of what we usually mean today by organization.

Our project organizations will never be the same two days in a row, and we have to get used to it. There is very little routine. We have no authority over most of our resources, and not much control over our tasks. In some cases our team members are in different locations, different time zones, and speak different languages. They are independent, autonomous units that can be available to us, but who also have other commitments. We're in permanent whitewater.

Teams

If we expect high performance from our project's human resources, we would do well to study the research into teams. I would resist the easy metaphor of sports teams, as there are so many different styles of teams—a baseball team bears little resemblance to a basketball team—and in an era of highly paid superstars many teams are not teams at all by any academic or practical definition of the term.

Better to study emergency room teams, air search and rescue teams, surgical teams that work 50 straight hours separating conjoined twins, teams that develop new products in record time, mountain climbing teams, combat teams, extreme programming teams. Some of these were studied by Carl Larson and Frank LaFasto, and are the subject of their groundbreaking book, Teamwork. They distilled the experiences of thirty high performing teams into eight dimensions they all had in common. (1) A clear, elevating goal, (2) Results driven structure, (3) Competent team members, (4) Unified commitment, (5) Collaborative climate, (6) Standards of excellence, (7) external support and recognition, and (8) Principled leadership. Notice how many of these dimensions are related to human behavior, and how few depend solely on technical knowledge and skills.

New Skill #2. Leading by Relationships.

There may be no more important task in the early stages of a project than the one of creating an environment of good relationships. This is not accomplished by the exercise of management, but by the exercise of leadership.

What's the difference? A manager has all the skills of arranging. A project manager knows and practices the PMBOK. A leader also has all the skills of a manager, and has added to them the skills of relationship. Someone said you can manage without leading, but you can't lead without managing. It is this competency in relationships that makes a manager a leader.

We know what these relationship skills are. James Kouzes and Barry Posner have surveyed thousands of leaders in many parts of the world to find what they have in common. They have also surveyed the leaders’ peers, bosses, direct reports, and others who know them, more than 100,000 surveys in all. This is massive research by any measure.

They report five practices of exemplary leaders:

  • Challenging the Process
  • Inspiring a Shared Vision
  • Enabling Others to Act
  • Modeling the Way
  • Encouraging the Heart

Notice that every one of these practices—everything a leader does that makes him or her a leader and not just a manager—is a practice of relationship skills. And it is through the practice of relationship skills—added to our considerable technical and management skills—that we are able to change the world.

New Skill #3. Guiding Organizational Transition.

By its very nature, the goal of every project is to change things, to change the world of those on the project and to change the world of those affected by the project outcome.

Change and Transition.

Here's the simple formula. Projects are intended to implement or facilitate change, in most cases organizational change. Projects not only implement change, but they also cause or create change. Project managers are the original change agents (even though organization development consultants have tried to co-opt the term.)

But organizations don't change. They can't. Organizations are fictions. They are collections of resources bound together by agreements about how we will cooperate to get work done. What's real, what you can actually touch, what actually can change is the people. People change. And when enough of them change we are entitled to say an organization—more accurately “the way we have agreed to work together”—has changed.

That means in order to understand organization change we must first understand how people change. And people don't change easily. For the most part, they like things to stay the same. No surprises. And yet the defining moments of our lives, the events that shape us, are the big, big changes—personal changes. Marriage, having children, major illness, divorce, death in the family, new job, loss of a job, moving to a new house. The defining moments in the life of an organization are, not surprisingly, similar—mergers, spin-offs, new systems (and consequent death of old systems), fatal illnesses in some components, new business, loss of contracts, moving to new facilities.

The management writer Harrison Owen tells us that it doesn't matter whether we are dealing with the death of an organization—system, project, product—or the death of a loved one. We cope in exactly the same ways.

This coping, or adapting, is called transition. A change is an event, a point in time, an announcement, a discovery, a decision. Transition is what follows change, and it can take weeks or years to play out. Not allowing for transition is a common and devastating organizational mistake.

As the original change agents, we project managers can do a more complete job if we understand how people make transitions, how they adapt to, or cope with, change. Not only will we want to understand for the benefit of the changes our projects will cause or will put into practice, but we also will want to understand what our team members are going through as they live their daily lives.

In the last ten years or so, many new books have appeared in the self-help section of bookstores that help us understand life's changes. The same books help us understand organizational changes, project changes, and our own personal changes.

Perhaps the most important learning from the many researchers and writers in the area of change is that transition is a process. It is well defined, has identifiable stages, and known symptoms at every stage. Because it is a process, we know we'll get through it. And also because it is a process, we can practice it, gain more skill at transition, and make it through the next transition in less time, with less pain, and with better results.

Guiding

Guiding is a third activity we are called upon to do, in addition to managing and leading. Yes, there is a difference. Managing is arranging, and we can think of it as giving our project team a swift kick in the pants. Leading is relationships, and we can think of ourselves as out in front of the project team, assuring them we know the path. Guiding is—well, think of a river rafting guide. If we're on a float trip through the Grand Canyon, we want the trip to be managed well—the right food in the right quantities, the right number of people in each boat, helicopter pickup at the right place and time—and we want someone to create an environment of good relationships—to have led well the expedition company. But these are not quite enough. We also want someone with us in the boat—a guide.

When it comes to change in organizations, which project management is about, we need someone in the boat—a guide through transition, someone who has been through transition before and can show us the way.

New Skill #4. Energizing Creativity.

Before a project can be managed, it must be planned, and before it can be planned it must be envisioned. Someone had a vision of how things could be if this project succeeds. That vision is a creation. It came from somewhere as an insight, or an Aha!, or an image, a mind picture, of the future.

We might wish to believe that once envisioned and planned, the project is ready to roll, but as students of human behavior, we know that's not so. It's a beginning. Before we are ready to roll, every person on our project team should also have a vision of his or her contribution to the final result. Remember one of the five practices of exemplary leaders is to “inspire a shared vision.” This is done by being very clear about our vision of the outcomes, if we are the project leader, and then by painting an irresistible, compelling wall-to-wall picture of that vision in technicolor, surround sound, and full animation. Only then can our team members see our vision in enough detail to choose where they can contribute—that is, create their own vision.

Creativity, like transition, is a process, well-researched, well-defined, and practiced since the dawn of humankind. We are all creative. The creative process can be learned, it can be practiced, and our creativity can improve the more we practice it.

It is generally accepted that the creative process has these steps:

  1. Frame the question (or problem to be solved)
  2. Prepare (gather data and information)
  3. Incubate (let the unconscious mind process)
  4. Insight (vision of the future state)
  5. Validate (take a rational look at the vision)
  6. Proceed toward the vision, or re-examine the question

Conclusion

We have looked at four skills of project management that go beyond the PMBOK® and PMP® certification. These are skills that are currently practiced by successful managers of large projects across North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. It is what differentiates them from ordinary project managers. We can learn from them, and their lessons will contribute to a more satisfying career for each of us.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003

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