by Mark Faggion

How to know if you’re a realistic project manager

Apr 04, 2016
IT Governance FrameworksIT LeadershipProject Management Tools

The three strong indicators that you live in the real world with your projects

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?  When negatively accused of either in a challenging project setting, do you respond like most people, “No, I am merely realistic”?  Most people believe they have a grip on reality, but I sometimes wonder if we project management types really grasp and respond to the reality within and around our projects.

As a program or project manager, how do you know you are REALLY realistic?  Consider the following three strong indicators of a solid grip on reality, which foster project success.

1. Positive

I’m not trying to secretly advocate for the optimists in the crowd.  GIVEN the good, bad and ugly within the project, what are the possible and best solutions to get (or keep) this project moving in the right direction?  A mindset that affirms that I AM RESPONSIBLE for the project and as such I WILL CONTINUE to advocate and work for a positive outcome, tends to live in reality.

Whereas someone overly optimistic might believe everything is OK within a project when it isn’t, a realistic project manager understands the real challenges and sees them as obstacles to diligently overcome.  Your energy focuses on moving forward, not on wishful thinking or resigned endurance.  You never give up and you never live in fairyland.

2. Proactive

Projects bring change.  Projects get changed.  Projects happen in a world of change.   Too often project managers get caught up in the day-to-day ‘reality’ of controlling change and become highly reactive.  We busily put out fires all day long.  Though addressing issues as they come is certainly part of the job, to merely react to what is happening in your project as it unfolds is like driving down the highway at 70 MPH wearing blinders focused only on the road 10 feet in front of you.  Wishful thinking will not avoid the nasty collision waiting to happen!  

To truly be realistic, a project manager must be able to look beyond what is merely urgent in front of him. He must proactively assess what lies ahead down the road, and actively assess the surrounding environment to anticipate potential impacts to the project.  

3. Practical

With this broad and clear picture of reality, a project manager can then devise and execute work that best aligns with the real needs of the project.  I.e., Commitment to pursuing what is best with eyes wide open poises you to CHOOSE tasks and approaches that actually benefit the project as a whole.  This may be obvious, but the words of Zig Ziglar come to mind, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”

For a solution or task to be realistically practical, it must have the end in mind.  “We’ll fix/stabilize/document it later; just get it done” is a typical kind of “practical” answer when deadlines stare us in the face.  It feels practical, but often only kicks problems down the road a few feet, or worse, sabotages project goals.  The truly practical generates near term action that fosters the long-term success of the project. 

Real world example

An ugly reality faced me when handed a large, failing enterprise implementation program a few years ago.   Saving the program started with a brutally honest assessment within AND around the project. Assertive, creative, and sometimes even odd changes to project tasking, resourcing, communication, tracking, and governance followed.  The changes assumed we COULD succeed, and fit the corporate culture and its pressures, the program staff and resources, and my strengths and weaknesses as a leader.  Reality!  This, along with highly proactive risk mitigation, cleared the path for getting the program back on track.  

The result?  The program SLOWLY began to gain traction.  I avoided trying to make everything happen at once.  It would have only bred more frustration and reactiveness.  It took a few months to go from RED to YELLOW.  The project finally turned GREEN two months before go live.  What looked impossible a year earlier ended up being a highly successful program that launched on time!

Over the years, people have accused me of being overly optimistic or pessimistic — often by different people in the same project!  I now consider that a compliment. It probably means I’m doing a decent job of living in the real world.

Are you REALLY living in reality with your projects?  What lures you out of reality?  Fear of failure?  Financial pressures? Toxic work relationships/cultures? Blind adherence to inadequate processes?   Hmmm…sounds like fodder for a future post.