The mortar in a project's wall

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Jan 08 2021 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

In all the years Iíve been working with project managers, I hear one phrase that gets used a lot and drives me crazy. Very smart, capable people will say: ďIím not a people manager, Iím a project manager.Ē Itís true. Itís also as ridiculous a notion as there is.

What they mean, of course, is that they donít have direct line management responsibility for the individual team members. These people may answer to different departments, bosses and even organizations. In that sense, itís true - you donít ďmanageĒ 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 ďmanage.Ē 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 youíre not managing people, youíre 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 ďproject management processĒ 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 wonít keep the wall together over time. And all the processes, individual brilliance, and task execution wonít 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, thatís what youíre managing.

We know being right about something is no guarantee that 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 donít communicate effectively with each other. And that's especially the case now that so many of us are working remotely and relying on Zoom etc to connect with each other. Guess who has the final responsibility for that happening on your team? Yup.

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

So maybe ďmanageĒ is not the exact word, but if you spend all your time on the projectís processes and leave the people to their own devices, that lovely, perfect brick wall isnít going to be as solid as youíd like. And neither is your project.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.