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The Modern Project Manager


This expands upon thoughts expressed in a post November 30, 2010 at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com


              We have sufficient reason to do everything we do. That includes our automated behavior, the things we’ve been doing every day for years. The ones we don’t even think about any more.

               The comfort of habit, a dear, treasured old friend, provides enough incentive for the routine actions that may absorb 90 percent of our time, or more, on a typical day.

              We find out, as a cold, hard fact, how much we treasure those familiar rituals when they get disrupted by some outside imperative. Or, worse, when we mess with them ourselves. It's really, really hard to try to get ourselves to do something new, something that elbows aside some comfortable habit. We never knew how important that habit was to us until we’re confronted with the prospect of losing it. Or even the temporary suspension or replacement of it.

              And what if this intrusive new thing is unfamiliar, maybe even scary? We’re not sure we can do it, and we might suffer embarrassment or humiliation on top of the initial discomfort. What if it seriously disrupts our way of life and throws us into an alien value system? How about if it also subjects us to the authority of someone we don’t know, have no reason to trust? And the whole circumstance is one that offers us no personal value?

              That syndrome is not at all unusual for the person assigned to a project team.


              Well, Mr./Ms. Project Manager, now you know how the typical dentist feels. The dentist spends all day peering closely into some of the unloveliest sights known to mankind, doing something difficult that is vitally necessary involving people whose dearest wish is to not be there.

              There is an important difference that adds to the project manager’s burden. While the dentist needs little more than open mouths and peaceful compliance to get the job done, the project manager needs constructive involvement by those other parties. The team members have to do stuff, maybe hard stuff, over periods of time.

               Getting such involvement often is tough. If the project is a serious one, it will require that the project team members assertively engage with real demands. They must personally invest imaginative extra effort in carrying out assignments – some of them unfamiliar. They must work to build relationships with strangers and doggedly pursue results amid unexpected reversals.


              Commitment as a project team member is the deeply personal decision to take responsibility for achieving results in situations that can be entirely unpredictable. How’s that for disturbing the serenity of a comfortable daily routine?

              And the project manager, to be successful, must “motivate” project team members to make that seriously inconvenient commitment. So motivation becomes the senior partner to commitment, and the project manager is tasked with making the motivation happen.

              A drill sergeant addressed this issue quite graphically once when I was an Army trainee. “They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” the noncom said in a menacing tone. “But, you know, I can (do something to draw water into the horse without its cooperation).” I don’t think the sergeant’s procedure was actually physically possible, but he accomplished his purpose. He convinced us all of his ferocity and thereby secured compliance.

               Despite that colorful example, students of psychology tend to suggest that motivation most often arises from within the individual, and not from someone else.


               Without dithering too much about who provides the motor in motivation, there’s no question the project manager must create the circumstances in which a number of autonomous individuals will bend their efforts over a period of time to producing a set of outcomes for which the project manager is ultimately responsible.

               And they must do so reliably, without the need for excessive supervision. If that

doesn’t happen, the project manager has nothing. Sine qua non.

              On to the how-to. Back at the project launch meeting, here is the project manager, walking in to a conference room to initiate a project with, say, eight people he/she has never met. Motivation starts here.

              Whether these eight people expect much of anything or not, you can bet they’ll be eyeing their prospective leader. Remember, leadership is bestowed as a free-will act by the led. The organization can name you “manager.” The troops name you “leader.” Or not.

              The establishment of leadership is accomplished by actions and communication. From the first impression created by the project manager’s gait, manner, greeting, eye contact and introduction, the group is convinced to take this seriously.

              The project manager has done the homework – lining up clear support from those who have authority over the worklives of the new team members as well as over this project. The project manager knows exactly what is going to happen during this startup session . . . and who’s going to do it: Everybody.

              The team members are presented with the situation, but they’re not told what to do. They are offered the opportunity for input. No, they are required to provide input, openly, individually . The project manager establishes his/her status as a thoroughly prepared guide and resource. Head planner and problem-solver-in-chief. Responsible and authoritative. The team members establish their intent to get their shares done.

              The meeting doesn’t last that long, but it becomes unmistakably clear that not carrying out assignments is not an option. The participants also get something else: A full set of attractive reasons why they are going to really enjoy and benefit from their participation in this project.


              Then, just before the session adjourns, the project manager invites each person to express personal and concrete intentions regarding the project. This invitation should not be misconstrued. You are not free to decline the invitation, nor is a tepid, generalized response acceptable. If you somehow succeed in resisting the pressure to jump on board, you can expect very shortly a candid private discussion with the project manager – and your functional manager.

              So that’s the initial meeting. Feel committed? Motivated? Good. You won’t have to wait long before you and your teammates start sharing celebration of the first early victories.


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