When I started working in Project Management, I was asked: “which is more important: the art or science of project management?” I unflinchingly answered, “Science! It’s the key. The art of project management is essentially irrelevant.” In my mind, proper project plans, schedules, action items, and documentation all but guaranteed project success. My philosophy was that, with the right structure and discipline, you could get any project done. My idea of people skills was using that structure to impose discipline on the team; with the right organization and authority, you can force a team to do whatever it takes to complete their tasks.
When I was parachuted into my first project, my first instinct was to follow my ‘science first’ philosophy. I was ready to tell my team exactly what to do and when they needed to do it. After all, I was the project manager and they were there to help me get the project done. There was just one little thing wrong, I fundamentally misunderstood what I needed to be a good project manager. Don’t get me wrong, plans and documentation are key components to a successful project, but without learning these vital lessons I would have never earned the trust, respect, and support of my team.
Listening leads to solutions
When I heard that 90% of Project Management was communication, I assumed that meant 90% of Project Management is telling others what to do and when to do it, and holding them accountable. No compromises. However, my stakeholders had a number of things to say about “my” project. After the initial shock of the feedback wore off I accepted my role as facilitator and listener and I began to actually hear what my stakeholders were saying. They came to me with their problems, expressed their concerns, and sometimes they just vented their frustrations. I had earned their trust. Now, when my stakeholders talk to me I am able to hear the real problems. I’m able to take ownership, solve their problems, allay their concerns, and make lives a little less frustrating. When your team notices you owning their problems, they’ll realize you “get” them. When they see you are there to support them, they’ll want the project to succeed.
As I started proactively managing projects and taking ownership of stakeholder’s problems, I fell into the habit of having their conversations for them and I ended up being a messenger for stakeholders. And by being a messenger I was fostering a culture of avoidance where people weren’t having the tough conversations because now, I was having tough conversations for them. I was doing the organization a disservice.
To encourage conversation, I stopped being the messenger. To solve problems, I held meetings with the relevant stakeholders to collaboratively develop resolutions. I utilized status meetings to create a dialogue between the team and the leadership. Instead of me reporting status, each of the team leads presented on the issues impacting their work, and together with leadership, we determined the next steps and priorities.
Every team and project is unique, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you find the best way to create conversations with your team. Once you get the conversations going, you’ll see your teams solve their own problems.
Clear the Path
Our lives are more complex than ever – we face never-ending to-do lists, consume overwhelming amounts of information, and navigate rapidly shifting priorities every day. More than ever, teams need someone who can clear the path and filter the noise so work can get done. I look for opportunities to remove friction from workflows, improve processes, and proactively remove obstacles from my team’s path which allows them to clearly prioritize and focus on what matters most.
I had a pretty simplistic view of project management when I started out and it’s embarrassing to admit that I thought I would be able to manage projects from my keyboard. Yes, ensuring the agreed upon scope is filled is a vital responsibility, but for me, being a project manager is so much more than creating schedules and assigning action items – it’s about enabling others. I’ve come to see myself as a servant to my teams. I’m there to support them, to make their lives easier, and bring out the best in them.