Build or burn?

Project management is torture

Project management is a form of corporate-sanctioned torture where the pay-off is the experience you gain.  In most jobs you eventually run out of ways to stretch yourself and projects are a great way to gain extra experience, network outside your normal circle, and get noticed.  The bigger the project the bigger the career gain.  However, if faced with a project that doesn’t do these things, run a mile.  The scars are not worth it.

Why is project management such torture?  Because it’s no one’s full time job and you are no one’s line manager.  Your only method of getting things done is through influencing.  OK, I’m mincing my words.  Project management is torture because NO ONE EVER DOES WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO.

A bit harsh?  Think about it.  Projects by their nature cut across the normal organisational hierarchies.  They are a one-off, time-limited push against the normal flow of communication and instruction to achieve a specific objective that, once achieved, everyone gets back to their day job.  The only person who really cares about the project enough to keep them awake at night – is the project manager.  For most other people it’s just another thing to fitted in with all the other things in their day job.  Even those people temporarily seconded on a full-time basis know that, once the project’s finished they need to slot back in to their old job and can’t therefore afford to go native.

Against this inertia, a project manager has a limited number of tools at their disposal:

1) Your personality

For most day-to-day purposes, the project manager exerts their leadership by building good working relationships and communicating openly and widely.  Unable to compel people to work on the project they must instead persuade them, inspire them and motivate them in other ways.

From time to time a project manager needs to drop out of this consensual mode and adopt a mode that might best be described as ‘holding people to account’.  It’s most commonly tripped by someone not doing something that they said they’d do.  How you deal with this conflict situation is very important to the success of your project. The ‘old school’ style of project management is to get angry and bang the table but I’ve never seen that approach work.  However, if you can bring assertiveness into your manner without ever losing control, this can be effective when deployed sparingly, especially if you do it from a platform of having built positive relationships beforehand.

To be used very sparingly, and hopefully never, is what might be called ‘brute power’.  This is not to be confused with bullying.  In fact, it can be the opposite of bullying because it might be employed against a recalcitrant manager that is more senior than the project manager.  The best place for this is, for instance, when chairing a project meeting.  You can use your meeting chairmanship to assert your will over the team.  Obviously, this is a bit of a nuclear option because it might damage relationships but project management is not a popularity contest.  Difficult projects do not achieve themselves.  Sometimes the only way to ensure someone does what they say they’ll do is to force them.

2). Your Stakeholders

A project manager has only one source of authority, so it needs to be a powerful one.  Ideally it should be either a Board, a Chief Executive or someone similarly unimpeachable.     However, simply being senior is not enough.  The stakeholders have to care about the outcome.  If they don’t, everyone in the organisation will know this and take their lead accordingly, which means the project manager is, in effect, toothless.  Pity the project manager in this position.  It is sometimes the case that stakeholders will say they support a project but their behaviour doesn’t match their words.  In this position, the project manager has a choice, either they can blow the whistle or they can play along and get out of the project as quickly as they can while maintaining their reputation intact. This is a personal decision we each have to make when faced with such sham projects.  In happier circumstances, the stakeholders will care deeply about the outcome, and that’s all the authority you need.

3) Your Brief

I recall a piece of research that said the number one reason for most project failure is that there was confusion or unresolved conflict about what the purpose of the project was in the first place.  This has certainly been my experience.  All projects of any scale or impact always have more than one stakeholder.  And where there is more than one stakeholder, you can be fairly certain they disagree about what the project is supposed to achieve.  This is quite normal, and should not give a project manager any cause for concern whatever.  Indeed, I’d say if there wasn’t conflict between stakeholders over the project’s objectives it means the project must be quite small and / or limited in its ambitions.

The trick however is bringing all these conflicts out into the open, getting them discussed and, more importantly, resolved.  And I mean genuinely resolved.  If there’s blood that needs to be on the walls, get it on the walls.  Do not, under pain of ruining your own reputation, attempt to carry on with a project by sweeping conflicts under the carpet, living with ambiguity or otherwise hoping the tensions can be resolved along the way.  They never can be and they will anyway manifest themselves later either as extra cost, delay or sub-standard quality, so it is in your interests to resolve these differences early.

I’ve made project management sound like hell.  But it’s a special type of hell because achieving someone thing under pressure is all the more satisfying.  There is after all a reason why projects are a good way to build your career.

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