This commentary extends points made in a post at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com on April 23, 2010.
One's fists, the ability to use them in personal combat and the drive to do so aggressively were among the qualities that could distinguish a manager in the mythological frontier world of the old North Woods.
The corresponding working traits of today's successful Project Manager are of a different order. We like to think of them as more sophisticated. More than that, their effective practice can have a far broader and longlasting effect than the simple physical domination of one's immediate workspace.
Andy Crowe's Alpha Project Managers – the top 2 percent among 860 in an extensive study – were distinctly more effective in such areas as Attitude and Belief, Communication and Leadership. (“Alpha Project Managers: What the top 2% Know that Everyone Else Does Not”, Velociteach Press, 2006.)
The Alpha results support the conclusions of my own less-formal studies over a quarter-century. But, where Crowe identifies eight areas of distinction, I carry the analysis to a more brutally simple concept: Salesmanship.
Let me hasten to note that in no way do I disagree at all with the more-detailed “job description” Andy Crowe produces for the excellent Project Manager. Everything in the study report is absolutely correct and necessary.
Instead, I'm now walking that Alpha Project Manager back into the workplace, and visualizing that workplace as unfamiliar with the discipline as well as the value of Project Management. And somewhat indifferent/resistant/hostile, once the idea is introduced. You see, Crowe acknowledges one big unknown: Which came first – the great Project Managers, or the managements and organizations that made their performance possible?
Because I hear it onsite and in the classroom all the time, I want to account for the Project setting that definitely is NOT nurturing. Let's start with such unhelpful situations, and put those exceptional Project Management talents to work to transform them. Sell the Project to management, peers in the organization, every Stakeholder. And, of course, to the Project Team Members.
Just think of it: Instead of a passive or reluctant environment, what can happen when everyone needed for Project success is an eager, self-motivated supporter or even driver? Every conceivable Project factor is in motion toward a superb outcome, and the Project Manager is tuning and guiding rather than patching and battling.
How do you do that?
The persuasion of senior managers, those who control the fate of the project in various ways, must begin with the breathing of the first syllable about the Project, or the equivalent moment in the linkage of the Project Manager with it.
Expectations all around must be identified, analyzed and properly accounted for. This is especially true of those related to responsibility and accountability. Senior managers don't always see very clearly what's needed from them to make the Project work. They need information and, sometimes, convincing.
When this is done well with the people at the top, all other relationships can be managed – although each requires its own careful, tailored planning and execution by the Project Manager.
Certainly, the Project Team Members can be sold by establishing, with great clarity, the role of the Project Manager as maintaining a constructive professional work environment, getting the resources the Project needs, leading the resolution of problems and skillfully managing the relationships with Team Members.
Stop for a moment and review the prelaunch and startup events and actions in a few major Projects of your experience. How seriously did the Project Manager – however empowered or constrained – take the practice of persuasive communication? Where it happened, did it get the requisite investment of planning and effort? When that happened, was it worth it? Where it didn't happen, could a reasonable dose of it have made a positive difference?
There's still too much punching going on nowadays in these matters. It's rarely the Project Manager who's getting in the licks, and that's a good thing. The answer to better Projects is not just better a better brand of conflict (“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” worked quite well for Muhammad Ali for a while), although handling that consistent reality is an important Project Management skill.
Instead, visualize the Project Manager as the master craftsman/woman winning not just cooperation but a spreading culture of imitation. Success is a great sales tool.