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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Project Management and the Pursuit of Assurance

“Will this make me less risk-averse?”

The question, in a roomful of managers, startled me. I was a newly minted trainer, and we were gathered for a project management workshop. I hadn’t quite thought of the matter in terms of overcoming the jitters – but my views have radically changed since that long-ago day.

My previous experience with projects had been informal – in fact, I had never heard of something identifiable as “Project Management” until I got into consulting.

When, as a manager in the news business, I was responsible for getting something done, I rolled up my sleeves and went into combat mode. People knew that the poor devil stuck with the effort – special edition, process change, behind-the-news series, whatever – was in for a tough time.

They also knew that that person was going to disrupt their busy lives with demands for additional effort, generally unpaid and unrewarded. The thing rarely went well. Besides the reluctance of project “team” members and others whose help the leader needed, there were all the uncertainties of the work itself. The likelihood was that this was going to take a lot more time, blood, sweat, etc., than predicted. In all likelihood, more than it was worth.

So, with perfect logic, everyone stayed as far away as possible as long as possible. “Leadership” basically involved tracking people down and strongarming them for the desired output. All of this caused serious damage to relationships and left institutional scars that ensured a lousy start for any future initiative. It produced consistently poor results.

The essential problem with that familiar approach is its failure to properly engage and manage the one factor that makes all the difference: People. In the best of projects and the worst of projects, people are the most volatile variable. When this part is right, amazing things become possible. When it's not right, nothing will work.

And, in a typical organization, experience has inoculated potential participants against enthusiasm for participation.

When the manager mentioned above raised the unexpected question, it wasn’t just risk she was thinking of. She really was referring to the array of negatives, certainly including risk, that often surround the management of projects. Every one of them is based on – or heavily influenced by – people, their intentions, behavior and relationships.

This poor functioning of the human factor makes sound project management nigh impossible in many organizations, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For one thing, project managers have to stop supporting the negatives that bedevil them. WHAT?

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