As a project manager for over 20 years, I’ve seen different methodologies move in and out of vogue as technologies and working practices evolve. What remains constant is that project management is fundamentally about getting people to do stuff in the right order, at the right time, to the best of their ability.
This definition probably doesn’t appear in any project management manual but whether you’re building a house, a nuclear submarine, or a website, the same basic principles apply.
One of the tools of the trade is the project plan — a schedule that allows us to track progress and figure out how to get from point A to point B. It’s always struck me as odd that most project planning software labels those that do the tasks as resources rather than acknowledging them as humans.
I want to share some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in refining my approach to project management — treating it as exactly what it is:
Project management is inherently about working effectively with people.
The resources required to deliver a project may include materials (bricks, wire, servers or software). It may demand equipment (earthmovers, cranes, power supplies and so-on). But it’s the humans working on the project that truly determine success or failure.
Empowering rather than tasking
According to the Association for Project Management, a project team is “a group of people working together in collaboration or cooperation towards a common goal.” While that team may be made up of numerous individuals at different levels of seniority and with differing skillsets and interests, the important word to emphasize is cooperation.
Gone are the days when authority and management by decree were effective mechanisms for getting things done. I’ve worked under a number of bosses who tried to manage in this way, and I can attest that it doesn’t work. People do their best work when they’re empowered to take on a task and are supported in their efforts to deliver it.
Empowering a team means giving them the support and resources to succeed.
It’s not about inflating timescales or budgets to remove the pressure from them. Rather it’s about allowing them to feel like an integral part of the overall machine of delivery rather than a single, isolated cog.
Empowered teams are usually more motivated to meet deadlines and often exceed expectations, going above and beyond what is expected of them. This comes from treating people as humans. It recognizes their innate need to feel a sense of belonging and like their work makes a difference to the end-goal.
In his fantastic book Outliers, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell provides invaluable insights around the factors that underpin success on an individual basis. In one chapter he describes three factors that contribute to making work meaningful or not; autonomy, complexity and a direct connection between effort and reward.
A team member who is empowered will enjoy greater autonomy in determining how they complete their task, and will experience a greater sense of satisfaction in seeing their efforts contributing to the achievements of the team as a whole. Both of these make their work feel more meaningful as a result which in turn, increases their motivation.
Gone are the days (thankfully) when a manager would instruct and order their team to deliver, having them live in fear of the consequences should they fail or under-deliver. Good project management (and good management generally) is about respecting team members as human beings and treating them as empowered and supported adults who are capable of acting in accord with a common good.
Respecting them as individuals and equals
Hierarchies remain widespread in even the most progressive organizations. Projects tend to overlay even more bureaucracy, establishing governance structures to monitor progress, manage budgets, and take accountability for ultimate success or failure.
Project teams report into project managers, project managers into program managers, program managers into directors and sponsors — and on it goes.
Such structures serve a purpose of course, and with potentially vast amounts of money being spent on projects, it’s right and proper that controls are in place.
From the perspective of managing a project team though, I’ve never understood the need for authority or hierarchy. At the level of those who do rather than those who govern, we’re all on the same side and at the same level. Our successes belong to us all and our failures are our collective responsibility.
What does this look like in practice?
1. Respecting that we work to live, not live to work
I’ve yet to work on a project with life or death consequences linked to successful delivery. I’m convinced that very few projects are truly that critical.
There have been many high-profile projects where the perceived cost of failure might have been considered too great to contemplate. The failure of the UK NHS National Program for IT in 2013 after wasting £10 Billion trying to centralize medical records is one such example. Even then, when the dust has settled the main consequences are lost money, wasted time and boardroom embarrassment.
Regardless of how serious and potentially impactful the project may be, success isn’t going to be guaranteed by flogging the project team day-in, day-out. A team that is empowered and treated as the humans that they are will be more inclined to work as hard as they can for the project.
What this translates into is respecting that all the team are there to earn a living, not for the love of it. We all have commitments outside of work — families, kids, caring responsibilities, hobbies, constraints on our health and so-on. We all have good days and bad days.
Keeping a team motivated to do what they can to meet deadlines rests not in cracking the whip, but in demonstrating that you live by this principle as a project manager and treat others in line with it too.
2. Family comes first
For almost my entire career I’ve been a part-time single parent. I’ve been open about this with every employer and client I’ve worked for, from day one. I’ve expected flexibility to fulfill this higher role, and I’ve demonstrated flexibility and accommodated the needs of everyone who works for me too. I have never taken advantage or sought concessions that I wouldn’t grant to anyone in my team whether they had kids or not if they needed it.
Again, we work to live, not the other way around — if the culture is established whereby everyone in the team feels supported, and that they have flexibility if needed it’s more likely they’ll act responsibly and diligently in return. They’ll feel more inclined to do their part or even go above and beyond what’s expected of them when needed.
3. Don’t ask anyone else to do what you wouldn’t be willing to do
I now manage IT projects which demands coordinating the technical activities of people who are way more clever than I am. I don’t profess to understand most of what they do.
Regardless of my lack of technical prowess, I’ve spent many long evenings in the office alongside technicians who were working extra hours to meet an immovable deadline. I couldn’t do much more than ordering in pizza and offering moral support, but I did it anyway. If they were missing dinner with their families then it was right and proper that I do the same.
I’ve dialed into late-night conference calls where I knew I’d add little value, merely because others had to do the same and it was important that I was there in support.
The principle is simple really — it’s treating others as you’d like to be treated.
It’s about providing moral support and being present for my team, by their side. It’s a show of support to demonstrate that we’re all in it together, regardless of our role in the team.
Advocating for suppliers as well as the employer
This is a slightly random one but it’s been key in making many of my projects run smoothly. I strive to treat suppliers as well as I possibly can once they’re engaged, for the simple reason that they’re often as essential to success as the rest of the team. It’s not about screwing them down on the commercials, saving money, or defaulting to contractual terms to resolve disputes. Instead, it’s again about focusing on humanity.
In practice this means:
- Helping them to navigate internal red-tape and bureaucratic processes to ensure they get paid on time — They can focus on delivering for my project if they’re not preoccupied by admin hassles.
- Advocating for suppliers that I rate when new work comes up — If I can vouch for them and the quality of their work, why wouldn’t I?
- Treating supplier team members as complete equals to permanent members of staff — They have families and commitments outside work too.
- Including them in work socials and team-building activities —Their morale matters too, for they’re part of the same team as I am.
Whether team members are permanent employees, contractors, or supplier-staff it’s as important that they receive the same opportunities, support, reward, and recognition if they’re to thrive and deliver for the project.
I enjoy my role as a project manager otherwise I’d have struggled to spend 20+ years doing it. My creative itch is scratched through my writing, but there’s still enormous fulfillment that I find in delivering a complex project on time and to budget.
Project planning is an involved process of allocating resources to tasks so as to understand how long a piece of work will take, and to see where the bottlenecks might occur. It’s essential not to lose sight of the fact that many of those resources that we allocate and manage are living, breathing humans.
As big a part of the project manager’s armory of skills as planning, risk and issue management and budgeting, is the ability to work with people to bring out the best in them.
I suspect that’s common with any kind of management, just as it is with being an effective parent, partner, or friend too. The human element is the most important and rewarding part of all.