Move Beyond Herding Cats

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by Dave Wakeman

Project managers are more than a bunch of cat herders. Yet, that’s frequently how I hear our role summed up, thanks to the team members, stakeholders, resources, deadlines and general chaos we’re often put in charge of wrangling.

But does it really need to be so difficult? I don’t think so.

Here are my methods for keeping control of the madness that sometimes ensues on projects:

Focus on communication: I had my Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification for about a week the first time someone told me: “90% of a project manager’s job is communicating.”

I don’t know if that stat is true or not, but over the years it has often felt about right. For many of us, getting the communication process correct is a challenge that stands in the way of actually getting people to work in a defined direction.

To maximize your ability to communicate effectively, I’ve long advocated for a communication schedule that lays out clear timelines for when you are going to communicate or expect to be communicated with.

For the top stakeholders, you may need to talk with them daily. For others, once a week may be all that you need.

The key is that you set the expectations and the processes early. This will help ensure that you have people on the same page.

Don’t micromanage: Our projects are so complex now that it is impossible for any one person to know and achieve every task in a project.

So don’t try.

If you have people that are great at their jobs, let them do the work. Trust them to make wise decisions. Set the objectives, not the actions.

If you have problematic people, help them set next steps, actions and get focused on where you need them to get to. But don’t try to do everything for them. That’s a recipe for failure and won’t help you stop “herding cats.” 

Be the positive example: I’ve been told on many occasions that when I’m involved with a project, even if things are going sideways, that everything “feels” under control.

I focus a lot of energy on being composed and pulled together. Leadership flows down from the top: If your team witnesses you always being out of control, flustered and in a state of panic, they will mimic that behavior as well.

This is why a lot of projects and new initiatives fail—the people at the top don’t live the actions that they want their teams and organizations to embody. 

To help maximize the leadership on your project, make sure you act as a positive example for your teams. This means communicating effectively and as necessary. This means approaching your projects with an eye to problem resolution and not just problem overwhelm.

While these concepts aren’t new or even revolutionary, they are things we have to consistently be focused on or we can easily slide back into a situation where we are struggling to keep our projects on track.

How do you ensure that your teams are focusing on the right things and moving in the same direction? Let me know below!



Posted by David Wakeman on: May 19, 2017 07:08 PM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Thanks, David.

Transparency - ensure all team members understand the big picture, that we all understand the goal and intent of the project. This helps keep members vision aligned with the project goals while they work on the individual pieces.

Thanks, David. I guess everyone of us sometimes has that feeling of herding cats. While there is probably no magic bullet, what I found to make my job easier is to really make people feel they are part of a team. I try to make sure that they know about the goal of the project, how their work packages bring the project forward and how things are progressing.

Thank, David.

Great insight thank you for sharing.

Communicate, communicate, communicate, yes.

We review work as a team every 1-2 days to confirm everyone is on track and going in the right direction. (we're a smaller company) We do a quick 5-20 minute check in and reflection and then get going again. Sometimes this is with all members, sometimes with just some. It's more informal but I find the team enjoys the short get together (and they keep showing up to it)

We do larger meetings once a week to really dive in to details and hash out anything.

In real estate they say "location, location, location." In project management it is "communication, communication and some more communication." While you don't want to overburden people with too much communication, finding the correct rhythm early and monitoring and adjusting that rhythm as necessary throughout is key. This is especially true with the project sponsor who needs to stay engaged.

I like the bit "effective and as necessary". As project managers we also need to resist the habit of pressing the "copy all" button when responding to emails.

One of the reasons I love project management so much is because I love the communication aspect of it. I love to meet and experience people. Project management requiring high levels of communication really made me feel right at home.

I have always found a positive attitude to be important. People underestimate how useful the communication plan and roster are in keeping a project on track. The comment on transparency is a good one.

I usually ask team members to explain to me what they are doing, or will be. When they can put it in their own words, I know they've got it.

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