The Honest Guide to Project Management

The Honest Guide to Project Management

10 things your project manager won’t confess. Ever.

Every project management book teaches you how to organize and manage processes. But projects aren’t about processes — they’re about people. That’s a sensitive subject so managers avoid it (or whitewash it).

So here are confessions: things the best project managers know from experience but share only privately; tales from the trenches that are difficult to codify and put in a diagram; intimate personal revelations about the true nature of project management.

1. Badgering is a great getting-things-done technique

The task is on the list. You said in the meeting it has to be done. But you know it won’t — especially if the task is tedious, has no clear responsibility, and isn’t urgent. To get it done, you need to badger people, check-up on them, and employ others for badgering synergy — you have to be as annoying as an indecisive mosquito in July.

Sometimes, even your best, most responsible people let things slip by. To get them to do the thing you need, unleash a never-ending barrage of “are we there yet”. They'll submit out of sheer exhaustion.

2. There’s always a favorite on the team

You see a younger version of yourself in one of your team members, and naturally, you want more people like them. But you need to run a zoo and have a whole cast of different characters. Different perspectives are good as they let you see the project from many angles. For every naysayer, have a yes-man. For every forward-thinking hippy, have a straight-edge sergeant. For every Steve Jobs, have Steve Wozniak.

In nature, biodiversity is the key to survival. You can’t adapt and survive if all you have are dinosaurs or sharks — you need some bacteria, birds, dragons, mice, snakes, and oxen. Have a perfect person for every need, from handling customer complaints to running a tight shift on your supplier.

3. Ego-mania comes easily

And it's difficult to control it. You envision the perfect workflow, project objectives, report forms — everything. Great. But you have to test them. That perfect report won’t do good if half is not filled out. This can be a big blow to your ego.

That's why you need to listen to others. If they think there’s no need for so many meetings, maybe there isn’t. Pushing it will only hurt your image. Choose wisely — it’s not about winning a battle, but the war. This can only happen if you don’t get in a situation where your feelings can get hurt.

4. Management wants to know and control everything

There's always an insider on the team from whom you can learn what's the word on the street. In most cases, that person is the secretary. The insider is the critical link between hierarchical layers and tangled relationships. Treat them well and with respect, and you'll never get caught flat-footed.

The insider should be as political as a bamboo leaf, and ethical as a nutshell. Their unofficial job description is to:

  • serve as a double agent for the management and the team;
  • know the vision and be your biggest preacher;
  • deliver and disseminate good and bad news;
  • have power and be included in big decisions;
  • be funny, likable, and fair;
  • be omniscient and know what makes each person tick;
  • be vocal about issues.

5. It’s difficult to keep up with office politics

Gossip is a pain to deal with it because it impacts the power structure in the company. What can you do when Sally criticize Jessica’s report behind her back, and the whole team knows about Jake’s appreciation for some liquid courage? It's like high-school, only worse because there are money and career futures involved.

Gossip can drag down the motivation of the team and the credibility of the management. The only remedy is to be transparent, employ your insider, address issues, and bring out all the dirty laundry in the open. It hurts, but you need to clean the wound before it gets infected. Those who think management should be above office politics are right - but being right and realistic are two different things.

6. Tough love is an underappreciated concept

There's always someone who promises they’ll do the task, but you know they'll just come up with an excuse why they didn't. The truth is, they don’t care as you do. So they represent great risk - if they don’t do their part, the team will have to cover for them and pause their own responsibilities.

You can spend a lot of time managing the rogue worker that you neglect the rest of your team. The best course of action is to cut them free and regroup. This way, you know what you have to work with a plan. Nothing ever comes from wishy-washy teamsters whose heart belongs to someone else, so letting them go is the best thing for the both of you.

7. It’s easier to send an email than to talk

But email isn't good for collaboration. Neither are other types of writing, skyping, or tweeting. It’s just the way our brains are wired: as material beings, a physical stimulus is more relevant to us than theoretical. Chocolate can make us more excited about work than an extra dollar.

Getting face-to-face also gives you leeway for learning about other topics. Emails tend to be on the point and short. But during a conversation, you can find out things that can change the course of your project. Jack may feel uncertain about some clients and won't write it anywhere. But, once you talk, he's more likely to voice out his concern. Maybe he heard about the embezzlement rumor. That could be important.

8. The best way to avoid the blame is to defer responsibility

When introducing a task that no wants to do, remind the team that’s not your decision, you’re just the messenger. You feel for them, but it’s a directive from above. There’s nothing you can do about it.

This works great in multi-hierarchical teams. It saves your credibility and rating among team members, while still be able to call yourself "one of the guys". Nothing is better for team morale than a common enemy. Higher-ups are perfect — no one ever sees them and no one questions them. So the team just accepts the work as their cross to bear.

9. It’s tempting to hijack someone’s job

You want to be supportive and nurturing but you got to let people earn their bread. You have to restrain yourself from doing someone else’s job. If you do, you’ll do another, and another. You’ll soon become the go-to person for every concern. But that one time you don’t have spare time to help, you’ll be labeled as rude for the rest of your life. People will remember it.

In a perfect life, you’d be able to do everything on your own: get coffee for the whole team, update the budget, correct promo material, send a thank-you note to every client, bond with the team, review project proposal, organize a meeting, and still make it in time for “happy hour”. But you can’t accomplish even half of this. So why do you expect to oversee every detail of a complex project? The day you learn to delegate is the day you’ll stop being your worst enemy.

Delegation is an art and one you must master early. Your ability to accomplish the project depends on resources, but many managers refuse to give up control — so they crash and burn, become a bottleneck, and slow down the whole project.

10. Developing people have an ulterior motive

Managers don't pay for employee education because they're a good person - they do it so people don't depend on them. You need to empower your team to work on their own and be the best they can be — even if it means making a mistake.

You shouldn't try to be an expert.

You’re not paid to be the best designer or financial analyst. Your job is to make the designer and financial analyst be best friends.

The time you spend on micromanagement and correction is the time you could use to improve your workflow, find solutions, and tackle that big client who's on the fence. That makes you more valuable (and earn more) than the knowledge you dispense.