One misconception many new project managers bring to their role is a belief (or is it a hope?) that a particular methodology, the latest tool or a popular template will bring them success in their work.
It’s understandable, but it’s a misguided, often doomed way of thinking about your very critical role.
Focusing exclusively on processes or systems is dangerous because it could mean other equally important factors in your project’s success are being relegated to bit players, if not swept off the stage entirely.
The fact is, there will always be plenty of rules and requirements that tell you what to do. The best project managers always allow room for asking why and how.
That’s not to suggest project management fundamentals aren’t important. But once you’ve moved out of the classroom and into the world of personalities and problems, projects quickly become more than budgeting and scheduling.
Methodologies don’t complete projects, teams and individuals do. That’s where leadership skills are so important, and yet they still get labeled as soft—as if the ability to resolve conflicts, influence team members and convince stakeholders isn’t hard!
This kind of leadership requires credibility—along with intuition and decision-making, instinct and risk-taking. These qualities might be considered intangibles, but they can and quite often do make the difference between a project that bogs down as soon as it encounters its first crisis, and a project that nimbly navigates those choppy waters until is delivers as promised.
So that’s why you should make your credibility a priority — and manage it as your most important project of all!
A major renovation project at Denver International Airport is sending out Mayday signals, with cost overruns that could exceed $350 million and delays measured in years. It’s déjà vu all over again.
I once did a story on an infamous project debacle—a complex baggage-handling system that had delayed the opening of Denver’s new airport back in the 90s. Years later, I focused on the project rescue that had finally got the system working. I can’t speak to the issues plaguing that same airport’s current renovation project in 2019, but revisiting the lessons shared in that 2002 case study just might help you get a troubled project back on track, too.
At the crux of Denver airport's baggage problem—as with so many projects gone wrong—were promises that couldn't be kept. Such a complex baggage system had never before been attempted, and the contractor originally estimated it would take four years to complete. But caving to political pressure to cut ribbons and craving a big commission. the contractor squeezed the schedule down to two years. About a year in, as problems began to multiply, airport officials called on a team of rescue specialists.
No two projects are alike, and few operate under the intense media glare that fell on the Denver airport, but the rescue team’s systematic approach to salvaging the situation is instructive. It shows that project recovery is not an exact science, but it is often rooted in a most eternal of quests: the truth. The recovery required rapid stabilizing, ongoing reprioritizing and team rebuilding. And at each step, some hard truths had to be told.
Unload the Baggage
On a failing project where finger pointing is as abundant as straight answers are scarce, separating the core problems from the distractions is a crucial first step. Everyone has opinions about what has gone wrong and why. In Denver, it took eight weeks of meetings to stabilize the situation and set a constructive tone that would guide the turnaround.
“It's imperative that you take time to take a balanced look at the overall situation," says Phil Veal, an infrastructure project turnaround specialist. "It doesn't happen overnight or in one meeting. You have a series of meetings that are tough for everyone. You slowly work on making people see the big picture."
For the picture to come into view, airport stakeholders had to come to grips with the fact that the original opening date had passed. "You need to put that to one side, and say, 'Here's where we need to be, here's the date and here's how we're going to get there.' This is where you need to establish trust by talking honestly and scientifically with all the stakeholders."
Only after taking stock of the situation could the project's requirements be renegotiated and, once agreed upon, a new strategy developed.
Team members have to acknowledge the need for project recovery, too. When consultants arrived, they were handed piles of reports on tests showing on-time delivery of bags was actually improving. Digging deeper, they found the numbers had to improve at a rate 10 times greater in order to declare the system ready. "By looking at this curve, there was no way they were going to meet the required metrics for opening the system," Veal says. "But they were still saying, 'We'll open it,' because they had to."
Team members were also fighting too many fires, or perhaps hearing too many alarms. "If one bag in every 1,000 was falling off the conveyor, they were sending a team to solve that issue," Veal says. "That sucks up valuable time and effort. You worry about that later and go figure out where 100 bags out of 1,000 are being lost. You need to focus on the real crisis points."
Unrealistic performance measurements and the inability to rank priorities had overwhelmed the team. "They had never dealt with anything quite this complex," Veal says. "There were so many problems unlike any of the other projects they had delivered. They couldn't see the woods for the trees."
They developed a "70 percent solution." It involved this question: What will keep the most people satisfied for six months until we can get the rest of the system running?
The answer may have seemed as cold as a jet's cargo area, but it was honest. "We could put up with travelers complaining that their bags were 15 minutes late to the carousel [on arrival]," Veal says. "But we had to get the outgoing bags through the gate in the target time, otherwise aircraft can't depart. It wasn't realistic to deliver the whole complex system, but if we got this significant part running to satisfactory levels, then we could declare this airport open."
Cut to the Chase
“It is easy to get confused between meaningful metrics and a sheet full of numbers that aren't germane to the issues," says Veal. "A misperception is that if you have an inch-thick report with a bunch of data, the team is on target. A concise report is much better for decision-making.
When managing projects, Veal circulates an executive report to facilitate what he calls the "elevator conversation." It summarizes the top issues so that if you run into a stakeholder, you can pinpoint in minutes what is going well and what needs improvement. If a project manager is talking for an hour about the issues, then they don't know where to focus energies.
Prepare for Turbulence
Once the system's requirements were adjusted, the team had to adjust its attitude and approach as well. As the project was broken into chunks of work that people could get their heads around, changes were made in who was assigned to do what.
"You need to realign the team and send the signal that things are different now," Veal says. "You don't do that by sweeping out the entire team. You put capable people in a couple of key roles."
Typically, a troubled project is lacking a technical expert or a delivery specialist, and sometimes both, Veal says. He developed "tiger teams" charged with resolving specific parts of the project. Then, as a project regains momentum, you might tweak the team again. "Over time, you start thinking about how you strengthen or refresh this team, and you reassign people who don't have the capabilities to match what you're trying to achieve."
It can be effective for the recovery specialists to "shadow" the project leaders and other key technical or delivery roles. It may be just a case that people got distracted by the detail and lost in the complexity of the system, so they need someone to make sure they have the correct perspective. There's no single way to strengthen a team. You need to be situational in your approach.
Create an Early Win
In addition to determining a project's crisis points, it helps to find a secondary issue that can be fixed fast to improve perceptions. For example, Denver airport visitors saw bags falling off carousels during tests, creating a poor impression that fed bad publicity.
"It's not a crisis point, but it may be something you artificially raise in your hierarchy of issues," Veal says. "If you can resolve it, you can use it as a public relations lever and a stepping stone to greater things.”
Cleared for Landing
In the heat of a project recovery effort, participants often lack the perspective that the passage of time can bring. If it feels like a war has been fought, victory is sometimes hard to recognize. Veal says the experience is not always as bad as it seems upon reflection.
A positive, supportive partnership with the project sponsor or client is not only helpful, but often essential to success. By the same token, success requires the project team to act with the urgency of a vested owner when red flags arise. From both sides, it comes down to insisting on the truth, however difficult that may be.
Team leaders and members must have the courage to speak out at the earliest signs of trouble. And they have to be brave enough to tell the project leaders what's going on.
"Human nature is to shy away; and then the problems build until it's patently obvious you're not going to deliver anything," Veal says. "You need to always confront the issues as they arise, in the open, with honesty and integrity."
Relationships take a lot of work. Are you working on your project relationships?
The importance of building productive working relationships with your team can't be overstated. It's a fundamental part of a project manager’s job—as time-consuming and critical as creating the project plan, managing risk, updating the schedule, monitoring the budget, and communicating to stakeholders.
So how do you know how well you're doing it? You might need to evaluate your project relationships if team members...
... voice concern that they don’t know where they stand in terms of roles or expectations.
... don't come directly to you with questions, issues or concerns about the project.
... resist participating in meetings and avoid the project's communication channels.
... seem unenthusiastic about collaborating on solutions to project challenges
WHAT YOU CAN DO
As the saying goes, “no man is an island,” and no project team should ever feel like it is working on an island. As the project manager, you should be the face and voice of the project. You need to make sure each team member can clearly “see” and “hear” you; likewise, they need to know that they will be seen and heard.
You must be fair and consistent in your dealings with the team, it should go without saying. But you also need to acknowledge that each team member is an individual, with different strengths and weaknesses, work styles and motivations. That means you want to try to be flexible and attentive to each relationship as it evolves. A formulaic approach will only garner formulaic relationships. You want more. You want the best that each team member has to offer.
The ultimate goal is to find how your team’s individual talents can best serve the project as a whole, and how you can help them make that happen. This requires honesty, respect and support from you. In return, you can rightfully expect, and should receive, the same from your team.
Define Your Role. Before you can define what you expect from team members, you need to describe what they can expect from you throughout the project. Make it clear that your eyes are always on “the prize.” From project kickoff to closeout, they should be completely confident that everything you say and do is in the name of project success.
Set Expectations. Once you’ve established your role, you need to set expectations for the team as a whole, and for each team member. Some of these expectations will be universal regardless of the project or team makeup—accountability for their work and effort, commitment to the goals of the project.
And some will need to be tailored to each individual’s skillset. This requires time for discussion, questions and clarification with each team member. Expectations can’t just be handed down “from on high.” Yes, you are ultimately in charge as the project manager, but to establish productive work relationships and generate buy-in, you want these expectations to serve as motivational tools, not emotionless dictates.
Be Available. From the get-go, some team members will have no qualms letting you know exactly what they think and how they feel. Others will be less inclined to speak out in the presence of their peers. Whether your preferred managing style is “open-door,” “walk the floor,” or something a bit more reserved, it is critical that you make yourself available to team members for private, one-on-one conversations. These talks can be much more informative than what surfaces in official settings.
Be Appreciative. Diligent team members are bound to bear down on their daily tasks and responsibilities. When they occasionally look up from the work at hand, they should feel that their contributions are being recognized and acknowledged in relation to the bigger picture.
Appreciation can’t really be conveyed in monthly status reports. Make it personally meaningful by thanking them face-to-face whenever possible. In addition, make their contributions visible to the rest of the team and sponsors by giving shout-outs to deserving team members in weekly meetings as well as informal group settings. Recognition is a powerful relationship-building tool.
Be Trustworthy. You can’t expect team members to openly share their concerns about the project if there is any apprehension that bad news will affect their standing or be shared in a detrimental way with peers or superiors. If a culture of fear has existed on other projects in the organization, make it clear that it won’t rule the day on your project. It might be difficult to convince an individual who has been burned before; others may prefer to play politics. But showing that you value honesty over calculation will eventually pay dividends, be it uncovering festering problems or encouraging more realistic estimates and assessments of current risks.
Be Congenial. It doesn’t hurt and can often help to show interest in your team members’ lives outside the workplace. This doesn’t mean you have to step outside of your comfort zone or try to feverishly form friendships with everyone, though that might happen naturally at times. The point is, professionalism and collegiality are not mutually exclusive. In the end, a team that knows you care about them beyond the spreadsheets and timelines is a team that will almost always work harder for you and the project.
Be Yourself. Finally, there is no substitute for authenticity. You don’t want a job that forces you to be someone else. That won’t bring you satisfaction, and it won’t be effective in leading others. Be yourself, and at the very least, your team will know who they are in the trenches with.
Whether you're an introvert or extrovert, building productive team relationships is part of the job. And like all relationships, it takes work. Get to it!
Risk is everywhere. Crossing the street. Changing lanes. Joining a pickup basketball game. Digging in the yard. Some risk we take for granted—most drivers observe the red light, so we go ahead and cross the street; after all, we want to get to the other side.
On projects, risk gets more complicated. There are unmarked roads to navigate with possible bumps or ditches around every curve. The consequences of being surprised can be costly. But managing projects in fear can also be damaging because risks are tied to rewards. And so risk management is part discipline, part art—a balancing act that requires courage on the part of project managers, teams and stakeholders.
Successful organizations understand that managing risk is as important as managing the schedule, budget or scope. They know unaddressed risks can threaten a project but also recognize that many risks carry potential benefits that can improve the outcome beyond original expectations.
In one sense, risk management at its best is an entrepreneurial endeavor. Data-gathering, analysis and identification are fundamental, but the big payoffs come when new decisions lead to redefined project plans that capitalize on the learnings and opportunities that risks can bring. The huge challenge for most organizations is to build an infrastructure that allows, in fact encourages, creative responses to risk.
Unfortunately, in many organizations risks are handled like hot potatoes—juggled and tossed from person to person, or buried. No one want to hear the bad news, but the silence can be deafening and far from golden. In this environment, stakeholders often receive much worse news later, when it is much more damaging.
A related barrier to better risk management is mistrust—or perhaps, just a lack of faith in new ideas or approaches. Sponsors are uncomfortable with redefining a project in the middle of it. They feel they are losing control.
But to manage uncertainty on transformative projects where unknowns are the rule, not the exception, continuous redefinition is the only way to go. There is still oversight, but it observes other criteria. You're no longer solely monitoring progress to the goal; you're also monitoring—and responding to—what you are learning along the way.
At its heart and soul, risk management is a conversation. It's looking at tradeoffs with your partners and stakeholders and saying, 'Here are the things that could happen. Do we need to take action now? Do we need to change our project plan? Do we go for it?'"
But if political realities, resource limits or a silo infrastructure conspire to make that conversation difficult if not impossible, project managers still should do everything possible to keep the discussion alive on their teams. Most team members are eager to talk about risk once they believe they can do so openly without being tagged complainers.
So let's be risk-aware, not risk-averse. Let's be risk opportunists, not risk opponents. It's a shift in mindset that offers great rewards.
Would we ask the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster, or to play the Ninth Symphony and the Seventh Symphony at the same time — you know, to be more productive? No, of course not.
But how often are project teams expected to juggle multiple roles and assignments, and to do so in unrealistic timeframes?
Doing things faster — and often at the same time — has become a way of life for working professionals (not to mention moms, students, and anyone else trying to cope with modern life). Project managers and their team members are no exception.
There you are, responding to dozens of emails before 8 a.m., simultaneously fielding random calls, updating information for three projects, and on your way to a status meeting, which you will leave early to attend another meeting about something else, while having a conversation in the hallway … deep breath, you are truly a mover and shaker. Or maybe you’re just moving and shaking?
In the digital age, we're taking productivity and efficiency to new levels, but it’s not always a badge of honor. At the least, we need to consider what productivity really means. It seems "faster" or "leaner" are the favored definition these days. I'm afraid that outlook is leading to a lot of high-speed crashes.
We’re losing touch with equally important factors like craft, care, culture and quality — never mind the value of finding pride in our work.
Tim Jackson, a professor at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, says there are many work sectors where “chasing productivity doesn’t make sense at all,” and that “certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention.” Attention!
Jackson cites a number of examples: teachers teaching ever bigger classes at the expense of actually educating students ... nurses stretched to the breaking point who are losing empathy for their patients. To take his point further, he writes, “What would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year?”
To that question, I’ll add: And what is to be gained by asking project teams to hurry up and deliver “results” that do not, in the end, deliver real value? "Fail fast" is one thing. Fail because you're rushing for no good reason is quite another.
More studies show plainly that this 24/7 full-throttle approach to work (and to life) is destructive and diminishing — to mental and physical well-being, and to our ability to be strategic and innovate.
In the sound and fury of this "faster, faster" management/economic model, we need to mix in a few “wait a minute” moments to question all this hyper-productivity. Because doing more with less, or doing it faster, is often just doing it worse. And who has time for that?