Project management: it's the people, stupid

2014

This week I’m speaking to a group of Project Managers (PMI folks to be specific) about remote team communication and virtual meetings. I love it. In fact, I will do it any time I can. Yet during Q and A, one of these smart, accomplished, well-meaning people will inevitably make a statement that makes me crazy. Something like: “Wayne, this is all great information, but it’s for people managers. We’re project managers and that’s different”.

It’s not just project managers, by the way. The dirty little secret in the training business is that you’ll sell more of your product by implying it’s for a niche audience. “Communication for Sales Managers” and “Communication Skills for Project Managers” is about 90% the same course in any company’s course catalogue. Take a look. The point is, that many fields thrive by feeling different from (or superior to) the rest of the world and you make money by exploiting that feeling.

So how is Project Management different (or not) than what we normally think of as team, or functional, managing?

Project Managers, and the people who hire them, tend to put more value on their technical expertise than their soft-skills. This makes sense, since people who rise up the PM ranks tend to be excellent individual contributors in highly technical or analytical fields and promotion to leadership seems like the next logical step in their careers or a reward (and a way to stop them from leaving).

Because that’s what got them the position in the first place, there’s a feeling that they should play to their strengths. The fact that their world operates differently from HR, or Sales, or other lesser (in their minds) disciplines is a point of honor to many PMs. Hiring managers, though, still believe that communication skills trump pure technical skill in promotion and advancement. Being the best coder on a team is no indication of future success as a leader.

Other people are seen as a distraction to an individual contributor. They’re the whole point as a PM. The ability to work on one’s own and shut out distractions is a gift for a highly technical worker. But it’s deadly as a project manager. Your job is not to DO the work, it’s to encourage, enable, and assist the team to achieve the end goal.

So by definition, the very thing that is used to be your biggest strength becomes a potentially fatal weakness. You spend less time doing and more time talking, writing and generally communicating about it than anyone ever prepares you for. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s often an unpleasant surprise.

You need less laser focus and more peripheral vision than ever before. Things that are distractions or constraints to an engineer working on a project are a constant source of information and frustration to project leaders.

Stakeholders, suppliers, and customers both internal and external will constantly make requests, demands and create seismic shifts in the ground under you. An effective project manager looks at these people as resources and sources of vital information, as opposed to nuisances or obstacles to be overcome. This requires a proactive approach to communication and a willingness to listen and build trusting relationships. Otherwise you’ll spend your life “putting out fires” and feeling frustrated.

The communication skills necessary to lead projects are becoming more complex. As a worker bee, you need to be able to listen, understand, then communicate in words, writing and deeds in order to get your work done. As a project manager, you still require those key skills, but you also need to gather information from many more sources, and communicate across disciplines.

Convincing an engineer of something requires a different communication style than getting the sales people to get you good information on time. Not only that, but the work of a project team is increasingly done virtually. Not only do you need more, often different, skills at gathering, processing and interpreting information than ever before, you’re using tools like webmeetings, email, and video conferencing that you’re unfamiliar with.

You’re often working with people who aren’t forthcoming with the information you really need. Your project team is made up of people who are largely individual contributors. Their work and communication styles are great for what they do, but often make it difficult to get the exact information you need, in the way that’s most useful to you. You’ll find yourself having to probe, ask questions and generally make multiple requests for information.

Actually, these people are doing exactly what you did when you were in their shoes. It’s called Karma, and you find yourself being a lot more forgiving of your former bosses.

You might be managing the project, but you’re not their manager. This is the single biggest difference between project management and traditional “people” management. Most project teams , at least large project teams, are virtual teams. This means that while they are working on a common project, they don’t have direct “solid line” reporting relationships. This means that unlike a regular manager, you don’t have “hire and fire” ability. You must lead by influence, not threats of termination.

At the end of the day, you manage a process, but every single milestone and box on the Gantt chart is dependent on people. You might be a project manager, but if you’re not also a people manager you’re in for a long, tough haul.

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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.