What has always struck me about projects is their fragility. There are no guarantees of project success. Sure, we apply best practices, and join professional organizations, and obtain certifications, and so on. But, in reality, every project is a gamble. Why? Because projects are delivered by people. Much like anything else of course, but the uniqueness of projects includes the time pressures and expectations that they bring with them. Projects have specific goals and time frames. Projects don’t exist until someone raises an expectation. That expectation, and others like it, are what the project needs to meet. And egos aside, the truth is that project managers don’t deliver successful projects; project teams do.
Given how critical a project’s resources and team dynamics are to its success, it still surprises me how little project managers do to nurture it. Even worse, it’s astonishing to me how project managers can neglect or destroy what could otherwise be an effective project delivery team. Throughout my career, I’ve noticed 3 things that project managers do which can end up destroying their project team, and likely their project:
Nothing inspires people to give their best effort at work every day like having it scheduled in half hour increments. One bathroom break, and you’re already off-plan! Aside from the impracticality of granular management, it speaks volumes in terms of the amount of trust and faith that you have in your resources (none). The reality is that the project team you want isn’t a project team that requires micro-managing.
You want the go-getters, the self-motivated, the dedicated, the “I take pride in my work” kind of resources. Those are the resources that put in extra effort to meet their deadlines (without being asked), and that you never question when they need to take a day off here or there for personal reasons. It doesn’t matter, because you know that they’ll consistently meet their deadlines, and deliver quality work. The rest is just unnecessary detail.
Sounds great. Unfortunately, this just isn’t a reality. And the larger the project team, the more likely you are to have one or two, or even a handful of resources who need to be micro-managed. Those are the resources who are showing up at work so they can collect their paycheck, but nothing more. How little are they required to give? That’s exactly what they’ll do. Resources with that perspective require more attention, more effort, more energy, and yes, more micro-management. The mistake that project managers make is applying the exceptional management required for one bad apple to the rest of the group.
2. Unfair Workloads
Within project teams, you’ll notice differences between resources. Inevitably, you’ll have a few key “go to” people on your team. Even high performing project teams have their standouts. Time and again, I’ve seen project managers focus in on their top performers – not to reward them, thank them, and acknowledge them, but instead to load them up with more work and continually increase the expectations and burdens that are placed upon them. “For a ‘normal’ resource this is an impossible task with an unrealistic deadline; but Joe/Jill can get it done!”.
Instead of valuing these dedicated resources who will consistently give their “A” game to the project, these project managers consume them like they’re a never-ending source of energy and results. The reality check typically happens with a sudden collapse. The over-burdened dedicated resource quits, breaks, or simply decides to disengage. Not only does that leave the project manager with a hole in their project team, it can also spread like a contagion to the rest of the team. The “go to” people on a project team are leaders, regardless of their official role or title.
Project team members take their cues from the top performers. If those people leave or check-out, it’s a signal to the rest of the team that the project may be in trouble. Or, at the very least, that maybe it’s time to stop caring so much. Performers should be valued and recognized; not burdened and consumed.
3. Some Pigs Are More Equal Than Others
With apologies to Orwell, nothing is more apparent than unfair treatment within a project team. Project teams by their nature are micro-societies. Applying some rules to some of the people, some of the time is never more apparent. If, as a project manager, you decide to implement and apply certain processes and procedures, you also have the responsibility of managing those processes and procedures equitably across your teams. If the rule is that a vacation request needs to be submitted 4 weeks in advance, then don’t approve the guy that asked you yesterday for next week off; if you require signed approvals for certain tasks to be considered complete, don’t accept anything less than that just because it’s your trusted resource or good buddy Joe/Jill.
I’ve seen this time and again on projects, either because the project manager just doesn’t care how it appears to his or her team, or, more frequently, because the project manager naively believes that the team doesn’t notice these inequities. They notice. And the longer the project, the more time for resentment to build. The results are always the same – a demotivated project team that doesn’t respect or believe in their project manager.
Managing project teams, even those stacked with the best resources, requires effort and diligence. Lazy managers easily fall into the traps above. If you can avoid them, you can accomplish one of the key success factors for any project: an effective project team.