by David Cotgreave

Make yourself a better project manager

Mar 07, 2016
IT Leadership

No gurus, no textbooks – how, with a little reflection, you could make yourself a better Project Manager

I was listening to Smooth Radio when Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” came on. I had never realized before – what a great IT Project Manager he would have made!

The song’s all about clear messages (communication and vision) and getting it right while you’ve got the time (deadlines) but also “if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make the change!” I love that last bit.

It will be bad news for the Project Management gurus and text book writers but often as a Project Leader, a little self-driven self-improvement can succeed in a way that hours of management training and on-line courses can only dream of. The thing is, by this time in your career, you probably know most of what you’ll read in those text books or what the guy on the webinar is preaching. You make copious notes and when you return to your project you probably do things differently for a day or two but then slip back into old habits when the project gets hard. There’s safety in the familiar.

Just like an IT Project, if the case for change is not made clearly and communicated and internalized by all involved it stands considerably less chance of success. It has to really sink in – deep, deep down! Too much external Project Management coaching, for instance, only polishes the surface – you leave the motivational speaker all buzzed with new ideas but find that they fizzle quickly when you’re back in the office.

Don’t get me wrong, I am the world’s biggest fan of external project resources and coaching but unless your partner in the process is willing to get to know you, your organisation and your culture as well as you do – they would be better sticking you in front of the mirror and telling you to have a word with yourself!

With that in mind and inspired by Michael Jackson, I present … “Project Man(ager) In The Mirror”.

See what I did there?

From here you’re kind of on your own.

Block out some time in your diary and take a long hard look at yourself and how you manage your projects and the people on whom your project’s success can depend. Ask yourself some tough questions about you! Are your methods up to date? Do you cut corners? Do you sometimes settle for good when you could strive for great? Do you have the right people in the right places? Are there gaps in your operation? Could you benefit from buying in complementary Project Management services? 

The more honest that you are – the more you will get out of it. The more that you drill down, the more uncomfortable it will get and yes it can be painful – but so worth it. To realize, for example, that you’re operating outdated methodologies that no longer do justice to your goals is a painful truth to acknowledge, at first. The freedom it gives you moving forward though pays back big time and can form the basis of a very powerful personal and team mission statement!

As I say, it’s a personal thing.  Unless you have a coach or Project Management services provider that knows you inside out you should do this on your own. However, if you DO have a partner you can trust, to be honest then you will get much more out of the process having someone to bounce thoughts off.

By way of illustration, I recently did this with a Project Manager and as a result, lots of positive changes were introduced to her project management approach. You may recognise some of these in yourself, you may not! Ultimately, it’s as personal as your fingerprint. Here’s what my friend came away with…

1. Listen more than I talk

My friend realized that she was “over talking”. As the Project Lead on a number of busy strategic projects, she had fallen into the habit of telling everyone how it was going to be. By reining that back she found that her communication was more focused, which meant her vision was better understood by everyone and what’s more because team members felt they were being listened to they engaged with projects faster. Plus some of the ideas they came up with weren’t half bad!

2. Love the admin

She had had got into the mind-set that “admin” side of her job was a pain, a chore and had fallen into the trap of making “mental notes.” The are many differences between good and great PMs, I’m always impressed by PMs who can answer a question, update you the status of a project or share just the right data as if it were part of their DNA. For most that means writing notes and using PM software to store information. My client started to see her “admin” role as a means of banking project-critical data. 

3. It’s a team game

From planning to execution, from celebrating victories to laying blame – we established that she had become an autonomous PM treating her team as “gofers.” A culture of blame had developed too, when something went wrong the gofer would be hauled in and ‘what went wrong’ would be analysed. It was all done with the best intentions but affecting morale. Afterwards, a collective responsibility emerged within the team, suddenly everyone had everyone else’s back.

4. Culture by design

There wasn’t a great culture before and it was one of the things that she would complain about to her boyfriend over a glass of Merlot at the end of the day. We realized that as someone who was responsible for designing and delivering complex IT architectures, she was more than capable of designing and delivering a great culture. This was the most fun. In the same way, that commoditization of IT means you can build a project piece by piece based on specific needs so too a great culture was created bit by bit. Long dull meetings were replaced by quick catch ups, humor was injected into the process, emails – where possible – replaced with actual face to face or phone interaction. It naturally became an environment ready to produce successful outcomes. 

These four points allowed a good project team to grow into a great one, other improvements were made too but the main thing to take away from this is that they came about through a little honest introspection.

Try it for yourself, if you have a Project Management services provider, coach, colleague or partner that you trust …  use them. 

If you don’t – there’s always the mirror.