This article expands upon points raised in Jim's blog post of March 27, 2010 at jimmillikenproject.blogspot.com.
The autopilot function of the human mind is both a benefit and a problem for the project manager.
The competent project manager may have some kind of involvement in a number of different projects at the same time. In each, he/she must be a master technician in defining and guiding process, a persuasive leader in keeping disparate stakeholders focused and motivated, and a creative solver of fast-moving problems and risks.
It may seem paradoxical, but running on autopilot is one of two key skills that project managers must work to perfect. What can be automated must be automated. Behaviors and actions that are always there, or happening continually, must not occupy more than an absolute minimum of the project manager's time and attention.
Being a Leader, Routinely
One example is establishing the leadership role. A cardinal goal of the successful project manager is to earn a special place in the minds of team members and other stakeholders. You want them to so respect you that they accept the high priority you place upon the success of the project, and they invest significant effort in meeting your expectations.
The good leader has studied other good leaders to determine what they do to get this kind of support – active listening certainly is important. So is doing one's homework consistently. So is practicing the behaviors that demonstrate confidence, caring, decisiveness. Having studied those behaviors, this good leader has practiced them so they have become second nature.
Importantly, the leader also has automated an inner alert signal to warn when something in this part of the work has gone off course, and must be brought into the conscious mind for direct examination and correction.
That's because the autopilot is perfectly capable of slipping, slightly or seriously. Running to catch the train, you can discover that your shoe laces were tied too hurriedly, and you'll be down to a pair of socks if you don't stop and – consciously – tighten things up.
The Slipping Autopilot
Carelessness in monitoring one's habitual behavior can cause damage when wandering isn't caught in time. The project manager can blunder into a problem by missing the signals that what had appeared to be routine – such as a conversation with an important stakeholder – suddenly turns ugly.
This facility in understanding what is new and risky in a project, and acting accordingly, is the second major skill set of the competent project manager. Across the board, the project manager needs to carefully sort out what is routine and must be made very efficient – and what is new/unique and must be subjected to careful individual handling.
There certainly is plenty of unique/risky content from the very beginning in a decent-sized project, and there also are plentiful opportunities for autopilot slippage.
The streamlining of the repetitive and the continuous leaves maximum possible time for the creative: Not only fixing variances, but also building relationships, planning ahead, anticipating problems and demands, influencing decisions and events – all those things that require close and thoughtful examination, preparation and execution.
The lifelong commitment of the effective project manager is the tuning of the two processes. And, after all, you may some day need to start from scratch. Someone may buy you shoes with Velcro fastenings.