Friday, September 30, 2011

There's No Such Thing as "My" Project, by Michael Greer

Most project managers don't start out their careers thinking they'll be project managers. Most of us start out as specialists in a field that we love. In my case, it was instructional design and development. For others on my teams it was media production, computer programming, technical writing, performance analysis, systems design, engineering... even marketing. We all began our professional lives trained in a unique discipline and were secretly thrilled when someone hired us -- trusted us! -- with the responsibility to practice our unique specialty in their organization. The best among us are a bit perfectionistic. We willingly put in long hours to "get it right" and to polish and refine our contributions. The best of us can remember how the hours seemed to fly by as we created, privately reviewed, adjusted, revised, and refined our professional work products until they were the absolute best they could be.

And this eventually got us recognized. We became the "go to" person who could handle the tough challenges. We became the one who could solve those professional puzzles, finishing with a flourish like a rodeo cowboy tying off the legs of a roped calf, stopping the clock in record time, arms raised in victory and waving at the crowd. We became local hereos.

And what did this incredible track record earn us? The chance to lead a team of our own. The chance to work our magic with the help of a whole bunch of our fellow professionals.

Yes, every project manager can remember that moment when it all changed -- that moment when they were called into their supervisor's office and told that their record of individual victories had earned them a team of their own. I remember when my first big PM opportunity came. I remember stifling my Homer Simpson-like "Whoo Hoo!" and summoning up my most confident Mr. Business serious face and telling the boss that she had nothing to worry about. We'd get it done... and done right. [Gulp!]

As the years rolled by, it turns out that I was a fairly good project manager. Because I had first-hand experience struggling with the same issues and meeting the same deadlines as my team members, I could empathize with them, anticipate their problems, accommodate their needs, and generally serve as their advocate to keep things running smoothly. And the best part of my PM was that my professional judgment had been years in the making. I knew what quality was. I demanded it of myself and I demanded it of my team. And together we all produced deliverables we were professionally proud of.

Eventually, I left the consulting firm that was my employer and started my own, independent consultancy. It wasn't long until I was developing bids and competing with the big guys. And to my surprise and delight, I was winning contracts!

One client in particular was a major multi-national tech firm with whom I contracted for nearly a decade. And it was early in my relationship with this firm that I had my major "ah-ha" moment.
Here's the deal: My center of gravity -- my core -- was my ability to carefully analyze, prescribe, design, and develop excellent training systems that supported the client's new products. These training systems helped their sales people, customers, installers, and support reps get these highly complicated devices installed and keep them running smoothly. I hired smart PhDs and super-techy specialists and some of the best media people our money could buy. The bottom line: We did really good work and became a top-choice vendor among vendors for this client. They gave us plaques and awards for our jobs well done. And we took enormous pride in our work.

After several years working with this client, we got to know their staff fairly well. We knew who we preferred to work with and we knew who could be a pain. So when it came time to design one particularly complicated project and I learned that one of the biggest pain-in-the-neck client reps was to be a key player, I pulled out all the political stops and simply designed our project around her. I assured our main client contact that we would be just fine without her input.

As the project unfolded, our new pattern emerged: We (my team of professionals and I) became the self-contained experts that we had gradually evolved into in this organization. We told ourselves we knew best what was needed and took responsibility for creating it. In the meantime, our pain-in-the-neck nemesis was watching from afar... tracking us... quietly building her case for blowing everything sky-high. I heard rumors about her disagreeing with us, but I dismissed these. After all, it was our project -- she had been neutralized early on by my management end-run. So, really, what did her opinion matter?

When it came time for our developmental (beta) test of the training, she finally emerged from the shadows. She managed to insert her people into the test and do everything she could to discredit our design. She went public with her own analysis and set of recommendations. Powered by the rage of having been marginalized for so many months, she pulled out all the stops and brought the project to a grinding halt. Vast amounts of money and months of labor on the part of many people were thrown out the window as we were forced to start over. This time she would pick the team (another vendor) and this time her voice would be heard.

News of this incident spread throughout the client organization. A professional reputation that had taken us years of overtime-laden, perfectionistic effort to build was now in question. My bids were no longer slam dunk wins, but instead got extra scrutiny and took extra effort to defend. In short, this one woman and her supporters had really knocked us down a peg or two. And while we would eventually climb back up a little, we would never again have the unquestioned credibility we once had.

So what's the "aha" here? Well, this painful incident produced several. The main one is this: There's no such thing as "my" project. There is only "our" project. All the stakeholders who matter must be engaged and participate in a way that they find satisfying. In my hubris (in my whole team's self-contained pride), we had developed a "we know best" belief and tried to marginalize an important person. I simply didn't want this woman mucking about in "my project." The result is that I was able to ignore and suppress her in the short term, but in the long run it all blew up in my face. Truth is, it never was solely "my project." It should have been "our" project and I should have engaged her in a meaningful way on the team.

Which brings me to another "ah-ha." A project manager is not there to be the resident expert. A project manager is there to be a facilitator among experts -- someone who "teases out" of the client and the specialists on the team a mutually areed-upon and team-executed set of deliverables. It is an arrogant indulgence for the project manager to think his vision, exclusive of other key stakeholders, is the perfect solution. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfect solution. There is only a shared "best we can get" solution that reflects the inputs of all the important stakeholders.

In the end it comes down to this: I became a project manager because I was good at my particular area of expertise. But I succeeded as a project manager because I was able to let go of my role as the smartest guy in the room and adopt the more important role of the guy who facilitates an entire team full of "smart guy" contributions. In other words, I became a real project manager when I began to derive my greatest joy from synchronizing an amazing team effort instead of hogging the spotlight as a soloist. And while this transition can be a difficult one, it can lead to enormous professional satisfaction as you enlist the efforts of many good people to create something that transcends them all.

Posted by . Michael is th author of The Project Manager's Partner, The Project Management Minimalist and other PM books. He creates and presents customized, on-site Project Management workshops and provide other consulting services. His current professional passions are:
1) Simplifying PM for PM newbies through my Project Management Minimalist books, videos, audios, webinars, etc. More details here
2) Shining a light on useful, absolutely free, no-strings-attached PM Tools, Training, etc. through my blog Project Management FREEBIES. More details here
For lots more info, visit Michael Greer's website or email him.

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