The mortar in a project's wall

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2017

In all the years I’ve been working with project managers, I hear one phrase that gets used a lot and drives me crazy. Very smart, capable people will say: “I’m not a people manager, I’m a project manager.” It’s true. It’s also as ridiculous a notion as there is.

What they mean, of course, is that they don’t have direct line management responsibility for the individual team members. These people may answer to different departments, bosses and even organizations. In that sense, it’s true - you don’t “manage” them. As PM your direct responsibility is for the processes, outcomes and stakeholder happiness. That should be enough for any human to handle.

The problem with this is probably the word “manage.” Because you may not have direct line reporting responsibilities and all the formal HR duties that conjures up. Still, influencing people, setting goals, assessing and coaching performance and ensuring things run smoothly is your job and the one constant in all of that is people. If you’re not managing people, you’re not managing the project very well (or at least you need to get incredibly lucky.)

The analogy that has always worked for me when it comes to this discussion is a brick wall. The individual bricks must be well made, consistent and put together neatly. That is the “project management process” stuff. Your documentation, workflow, and all the other little pieces must be in line. However, what holds the wall together is the mortar between the bricks.

People, specifically the effective, clear and proactive communication between individuals is the stuff that holds that wall up. Just stacking the bricks perfectly won’t keep the wall together over time. And all the processes, individual brilliance, and task execution won’t ensure success either. Handoffs must be managed, changes communicated and confronted, and stakeholders informed. All of those things involve serious communication. Between people. And, yes, that’s what you’re managing.

We know being right about something is no guarantee your stakeholders will take the course of action you recommend. You need to manage that relationship.

Really bright, talented people sometimes get tunnel-vision and don’t communicate effectively with each other. Guess who has the final responsibility for that happening on your team? Yup.

Communication is more than simply effective data transfer. It’s messy, unpredictable and requires (wait for it) effective management skills. The processes are fine. It’s the people you need to help.

So maybe “manage” is not the exact word, but if you spend all your time on the project’s processes, and leave the people to their own devices, that lovely, perfect brick wall isn’t going to be as solid as you’d like. And neither is your project.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.