Most organizational projects start with grand ideals, lofty goals, and at least some sort of plan of execution. So if complications arise, a little bit of panic naturally ensues. When major problems emerge, unaddressed panic multiplies. Stress builds and builds, nothing goes right, and kaboom, you officially have a project disaster on your hands. Your bosses are mad at you, your team is demotivated, and you’re left wondering how everything fell apart.
Although some crises occur through no fault of anyone on the team, a bigger risk is people becoming too panicked, too disillusioned, too angry, and/or too indifferent to see the project through to completion. The heart of a successful project is the people responsible for ensuring that everything comes together. And the responsibility for helping people reach their potential—in a way no app or tech innovation can replicate—lies with the project manager (PM).
Outstanding project management requires much more than simply moving a project from start to finish. It also requires the ability to motivate, inspire, and encourage the people on the front lines, even when things get tough. Furthermore, project managers must effectively interact with and impress, or manage up, their own superiors. The balance is tricky but mandatory; organizations that fail to effectively pull off projects also falter at innovation, productivity, and meeting their customers’ needs. Those consequences are the true disaster.
The best project managers leverage employees’ skills and reinforce the the value of teamwork while understanding that team members drive success but need the manager’s support and confidence. The same great PMs also execute their managers’ visions and assure them that success is possible. The following three project management skills are essential to not only avoid disaster, but also, more importantly, to facilitate successful projects.
1. Frame projects positively
Few, if any, projects are smooth sailing from start to finish. Unexpected roadblocks will undoubtedly arise, causing progress to slow, or worse, take a major detour that derails momentum. When this momentum fades, people become discouraged, even if the obstacles arise because of unfortunate timing or uncontrollable circumstances and aren’t their own doing. No matter the situation, when there’s a problem that needs solving, project contributors look to the project manager for guidance and reassurance. Negativity can fester, which is why PMs must be positive, realistic leaders on multiple fronts.
At its core, positive leadership, as described in Kim Cameron’s Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, focuses on leaders seeing the potential excellence in all employees and supporting them on their paths toward that excellence. For example, when digital systems crash and the project falls behind schedule, positive leaders are able to both reevaluate system capabilities and negotiate new deadlines, all while keeping the project contributors motivated to leverage their creativity and ingenuity to problem-solve and move forward as a team. For a positive leader and project manager, when the system fails, reframing positively means that people will bounce back and solve what technology couldn’t.
Zachary Wong, author of The Eight Essential Skills of Project Management: Solving the Most Common People Problems for Team Leaders, gets to the heart of the importance of staying positive and dealing with change and risk: “People naturally look to their team leaders for guidance and direction, but when faced with change, problems, and new challenges, people will not blindly go along with taking risks. … These are times when your will and inner strength are tested. As a leader, not only do you have to deal with the uncertainty of the circumstances but you also have to contend with your team’s fears, which can lead to team disagreements, conflicts, rejection, and criticism. Such discontent would make any team leader hesitate, back off, and lose confidence. Yet, to perform at a high level, project leaders are expected to overcome these concerns, trust their abilities, and be willing to ‘go for it’ …” In other words, your management sets the example for your team. PMs who stare down crises and trust their teams to help solve problems inspire those teams to approach success, motivation, and adversity the same way.
2. Influence and flexibility
The “my way or the highway” approach to project management often causes projects to self-destruct when the unexpected occurs. Whether out of fear, hesitation, or lack of initiative, team members refuse to react and wait for orders from the project manager, who can’t quite understand why people are tentative. While this PM sorts through the mess they were ultimately responsible for, the disaster escalates beyond the point of no return.
Delivering influence instead of authority inspires people to take ownership of project success rather than imposing your will upon them. Great influence and humble inquiry—taking the time and sincere effort to understand people— also fosters appreciation from team members, who will more likely seek your input when faced with a challenge.
In Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Management, author Ruth Pearce writes, “As a young project manager, I would often make the mistake of assuming that others see the world as I do. … It came as a surprise to me as I matured as a project manager to find that others did not have this ‘pathway view’ to see the tasks laid out before them. For some, the image was more like a map that showed the starting point—where we were at the moment—and the ending point, and how we were going to get from A to B was something to be discovered along the way by making decisions as we went along.” When project managers are influential and flexible instead of commanding and controlling, team members are more likely to come along with you on this project journey, become and remain motivated, and maximize their potential.
3. Lead and manage
As we’ve explored before, the differences between leadership and management are often overlooked, but they are key to understanding what the gaps in knowledge and practice are. Projects need aspirational leaders, and in a crisis, the leader must be strong and grounded enough to guide the team through the storm. In a crisis, a manager must trust the team and not micromanage through the disaster and distract from overall goals. Achieving balance between competing interests can mitigate fear and stress with your team and give your bosses what they expect from the project.
The concept of managing up encourages people to think about how they can build better relationships with bosses to the benefit of both parties. Dana Brownlee writes in The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up, “Ultimately, project managers have to manage up, down, across, in between, upside down, inside out, and every direction imaginable to achieve the best business results and team harmony.” Combining leadership and management gives you the means to support your team, keep your superiors happy, and build successes no matter what stands in the project’s way.Ultimately, project management isn’t so much about the project itself and should be more focused on the people executing the project. Great PMs know that if the team is skilled and effective, potential disasters won’t be disastrous. Project managers who engage and empower their teams build trust and appreciation. As Ruth Pearce writes in Be a Project Motivator, “I believe that having the skills to engage ourselves and others is not just a nice added value but also essential for us to be effective and to enjoy our role. Being project motivators elevates us within the organizations for which we work, and it elevates the organizations themselves.”