Project managers won’t save you

There’s a fallacy in tech that having great project managers will make all things possible, will allow you to ship awesome products, will make your company great, and everyone happy.

Some real examples from recent job postings/interviews for project managers:

  • “our Project Managers are responsible from beginning to end to restore our customers’ peace of mind.”
  • “Fully owning and being responsible for the success of the program”

In my experience when companies realize they need someone to help get stuff done they think that bringing in a project manager is the beginning and the end of what needs to happen.

Here’s this mess, fix it! Make us better!

Project managers get a bad rap as either tyrannical task masters or ineffectual project plan junkies. It’s easy to bring someone on, give them admin rights to some tools, and tell them to have at it. That rarely works. A good project manager is a change agent/force multiplier/your favorite OB phrase. This is hard to do, really hard. It’s easier to rely on status reports and traffic lights to report status and leave out the messy details. Because project management is different things to different people it morphs into trying to be everything to everyone.

So what’s the secret?

The secret is — “there is no secret.” If there was something that always worked everyone would be doing it. Especially given how much companies in general and tech companies in particular copy everyone else. What works is whatever works.

Nonetheless, I’ve used some principles when I’m managing projects or programs :

  • Repeatability — People rarely get anything right the first time. You have to coach them and help them develop a muscle memory for what you (whoever you is: executive, stakeholder, manager, customer) are looking for. I’ve found it doesn’t help being too prescriptive in the beginning; give them guidelines and let them surprise you. Which leads to:
  • Iterate— Once you’ve established some kind of outline for what you’re looking for, keep refining, simplifying, clarifying. For example, I’ve used Google slides for status updates and they work great because they are real-time, don’t require any specialized tools or knowledge (some people love Gantt charts but they are outdated as soon as they are created). But once the information is captured, see that it communicates what it’s trying to communicate. Is it accurate? Concise? Timely? Actionable? If not, fix it for the next time and move on.
  • RACI — OK, this is a classic and there are multiple flavors and opinions regrading it. But it basically comes down to who does what. Jobs called it the directly responsible person. It’s great to discuss projects and plans and initiatives, but if we don’t know who’s ultimately going to make it happen, what good is it?
  • Stop! Look! Listen! — There is nothing more aggravating and demotivating than asking people to “provide an update” and then not doing anything with it. If you’re going to ask people to do something, the least you can do is to take it seriously and look at it.
  • Focus on risks, but celebrate what’s going right — This is another way of saying trust your people (and have them trust you). If they are saying things are going well, you should believe them. If they are not forthcoming with the real issues, it may mean they don’t think you want to hear it. They need to trust that you can accept some ambiguity and uncertainty (not knowing every checkin and every task in the queue) and allow them to do their job. Be a problem solver, not a task master. And always find ways to congratulate and recognize them. People in tech have “aced the Maslow hierarchy” and are on the esteem and self-actualization levels. Don’t aim low with your carrots or sticks. They won’t respect you.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat.