April 7, 2016

How to manage project managers

By Jim Annis


This is a cautionary tale of The Project Manager (external) and The Sponsor (internal). Imagine for a moment both taking the Shakespearean stage, then bowing, encouraging audience members who are cheering, while holding their noses at those who relentlessly "boo." Neither role is an easy one. Each requires a range of management skills and talents not often possessed at once in a single person. Alas, we need them both. Here is some guidance to prevent a comedic tragedy at your workplace.

The project manager

This protagonist has a job to do: 1) manage the project, 2) manage their time, 3) manage the budget, 4) manage you - his client, and 5) manage the team. Outside vendor partners may be better at selling their abilities than implementing your purchase effectively, so you need an accountability partner.

The sponsor

This dashing and daring internal champion should be allowed to set aside the time and to invest in the learning capacity of the technology that you are implementing. They essentially need to become a "mini expert," at least in concept. Adding a project to an employee's plate and not giving away something else that was already there is dangerous. Result - the project never gets enough energy and focus.

Managing projects you don’t understand

Example: IT-related software. You purchased something and you were also "sold" something ... it all starts at that point, correct? We hope not. Research deliverables up front. Seek out industry associations and peer groups, including who's posting about the process, recommended best practices and pitfalls to avoid. These are also great reference sources for the specific company trying to "sell you." Make no assumptions about anything, including what is included in the scope of work and what you have to pay extra for. Your questions might provoke a response like, "You're making much ado about nothing." Beg to differ and have the courage to slow technical or other experts down with, "Please do not go to page four until we know everything on page three."

Avoid the freeze

Screeeeeeeech! That's the sound of your project coming to a sudden halt. Over $50,000 invested and now it is languishing in the management meeting "parking lot." Start from square one, clearly convey the value of the project and how it will consistently affect stakeholders. Pay attention to it systematically. Whatever your timelines and deliverables turn out to be, working in the "wins" is a must. Recognizing that milestones are met, budgets are at or under estimates, reporting is like clockwork and communications are going smoothly will keep everyone motivated to press on.

When to pull the plug

Projects fail. Project managers fail. Ask yourself, “If I took over this job for the first time today and found this project going on, would I support it or get rid of it?” Ask the team, "If money was not an issue, what would you do and how would you do it?" That should remove any over commitment, inertia, and fear.

The end

There will always be new "acts" in your project management drama, from bright shiny object syndrome, to complete shifts in business practices like the cloud, leadership should constantly be selling and reselling the importance of the change in the workplace. A happy ending to your serious project is possible.

Jim Annis is president/CEO of The Applied Companies, which provide HR solutions for today’s workplace. Celeste Johnson, Applied's COO, contributed to this article.

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