This may sound like a play on words, but consider that in many cases we struggle to make our projects successful and simply can’t. Oh, we know that our projects will do better and be more successful if they follow our proven methodologies, processes, best practices and disciplines. But we do not (or should not) do the actual work on a project, so we cannot claim the success when it’s done. Yes, we motivate the team, deliver on the plan, manage expectations, solve problems, escalate issues, build relationships, stand firm, communicate, control and on and on — but as many of us have learned through difficult and troubling projects, these things executed perfectly still do not guarantee success. We can facilitate a project’s success. We can keep a project from straying into “rough waters.” We can allow a project to succeed. We are enablers of project success. And we can keep it from failing.
The project needs us; we need the project; we are co-dependent. What brings this point to perfect clarity for me is that while others bask in the glory of a successful project, what I feel is a lessening of tension, stress, worry and anxiety. As the stress level recedes, I find myself once again looking around for the next “project fix.”
As an experienced project manager, and as a manager of project managers many times over, I have had my fair share of lessons learned over the years. I have come to realise that not all project managers are created equal. While there are various tools, classes and means to learn the craft of project management, there is a learning-and-growing process that most project managers go through. For those inclined to embark down a project management career path, and those already travelling one, I offer the following guide.
1. Admit we are powerless over the things we cannot control.
One of the early mistakes I have seen, especially for new project managers, is the drive to control every damn thing related to the project. Stephen Covey provides the best guidance for this: you have to clearly understand what you can control, what you can influence and what you have no control over at all. Otherwise, you waste a lot of time and energy, both yours and others.
2. Realise there are higher (and lower) levels of authority.
As project managers learn the basics of managing schedule, cost and quality, they often get carried away with themselves and don’t clearly understand the level of authority within the project matrix. In other words they either overextend themselves in the scope of their decision-making or underexpose themselves to the decisions they should make.
3. Make decisions on behalf of the project.
As project managers get a better sense of their scope of control and level of authority, they embark on what I can only call “gamesmanship.” They take advantage of situations to position themselves, and forget that it’s all about the project.
4. Know your stakeholders.
As project managers learn to work the project towards success, they sometimes lose perspective of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. While it is certainly about the project, the project is the outcome of stakeholder needs and wants. These individuals need to be addressed (and managed) which can is a great challenge. While they may seem unreasonable at times, it is the project manager who must bring reason to the situation.
5. Be entirely honest with yourself.
It is easy to overextend yourself. To be overconfident and feel you can do it all. But as my father once told me, “You can do anything you want in life, you just can’t do everything you want.” Know your limitations and learn how to live with them.
6. Do the next thing right.
Sometimes you can find yourself overwhelmed with challenges that all demand your time and attention. Learn how to focus and shut out the noise. Then pick the next thing that must be done and focus on getting it right. With this you will begin to clear the chaos. Otherwise, if you hurry through and do things poorly, it will come back to eat you alive.
7. Be humble, value others.
There is so much that can be said here, but if you feel that you are the only one that can get things done then I guarantee you will be the only one getting things done. The single most important job of a project manager is to enable others, which also means you are only a very small part of the total work effort. Don’t ever forget it.
8. Learn from your mistakes.
We all make them, and the only real mistake is to not admit it and learn from it. This does not mean you need to advertise or proclaim them to the world. But be realistic about them because you can do more right by fixing a mistake than by trying to hide it from yourself or others.
9. Fix what can be fixed.
Leveraging the previous steps, you can begin to activate higher levels of project management influence by focusing on where you can affect the greatest good. Harness your understanding of what you control and influence, realizing the correct levels for each decision, the true needs and wants, and your own limitations and past errors. You have the ability to influence the project positively. Focus your energy.
10. Look to improve every day.
As you move forward and begin to positively focus your effectiveness, you can also find the opportunity each and every day to change one thing, however small, to makes a difference. Each small change builds on the next small change until you begin to realize an overwhelming sense of ability to accomplish.
11. Look for ways to help others.
As you fix things on your project and improve your own skill set each day, you will find that you have the ability to show others their ability to improve themselves and their projects.
12. Carry forward what you have learned.
This allows a synergy where you learn and exchange with others so that the total building process leads to projects succeeding throughout the organization.
These 12 steps have a progression to them, though you can practice more than one step at a time and in various orders. The point is to build on some fundamentals as you gain experience, knowledge and ultimately (hopefully) wisdom.
To capture the essence of one of my early mentors, “No one would subject themselves to this kind of job if they didn’t truly love being in these positions.” While this 12-step program does not address the technical aspects or specific skills of project management, it does provide a framework in which to survive and thrive.
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