Project Management 101

by Sandy Nelson on March 29, 2011

Managing projects is not such a hard thing to do. It’s not rocket science.

As a beginner all you need to get started is a willing, competent mentor, a tried and true checklist of “to do’s” and “not to do’s”, and the commitment, tenacity, mindset and adaptability to stick with the process and make it through the inevitable breakdowns that come with the game.

Back in the early days of my career, I had the mentors, the checklists, the mindset, commitment, adaptability and a determination not to fail that served me well and helped me learn how to drive complex projects forward within budget and to meet impossible deadlines—over and over again. In project management, as in all else, practice over time with (effective) coaching is the key.

True enough. But, then, there was that other pesky piece of the pie that I had a really hard time learning how to handle—the people that populated the teams I had the privilege to lead.

People, you see, are not particularly delighted to be treated as one more item on a checklist. Human beings are occasionally open to being driven relentlessly to an end goal, as long as the vision they serve, the impact they can have and the prize at the end of the journey are compelling enough. Even then, somewhere along the way, and the timing varies from one to the other, driven hard and under tended, they will rebel.

People, you see, while capable of phenomenal rationality in building a business case, analyzing an opportunity or solving a problem, are, above all else, creatures of Emotion.

The real work of world class project management is not in making sure the checklist is properly followed and the deadline met (both essential) but in optimizing relationships and moods.

If your goal is to get projects out the door, you are willing to deal with and can afford high levels of attrition, please, disregard this message and just focus on projects. Find or create a process and checklist that work best for you. Put a recruiting firm on retainer and plan to spend a lot of your time frustrated and in interviews.

On the other hand, if you aspire to higher callings—setting the standards for your industry, transforming customers into passionate advocates, being an employer of choice, attracting and retaining top talent, for instance—proactively place your attention on being present and available for the people you lead and manage.

Be straight forward with them. Have direct, timely, thoughtful conversations. Set, model and uphold high and clear standards—people do better when the rules of the game are known and consistent.

Make and show up prepared for regularly scheduled one-on-ones, carefully design, structure and deliver developmental reviews and in-process performance assessments as scheduled. See and treat relationship and mood as the primary fuels that feed success.

Funny how this idea is suddenly gaining so much attention and traction—Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch, David Brook’s bi-weekly columns and 2011 TED Talk, and Google’s Project Oxygen to help build better managers.

Face it. As much as we like to think of ourselves as living models of the Cartesian world view—”I think, therefore I am”—the time has come to acknowledge and accept that, at the end of the day, it’s mostly about emotion.

Project management 101—your primary job is not to manage projects. It is to optimize relationships and mood. Do that and all the rest is likely to work itself out.



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