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A Project Manager’s Personal Playbook

By Robert Schulz BSc, PMP

The independent project management consultant is a unique career calling.   As independent consultants, we are often faced with new projects in new companies, with new teams, and new challenges.  For myself, this combination has occurred 31 times in the past 18 years.  I also love football.

A football coach would never take on a new opponent, in a new football season, with a new team without having a playbook.  The playbook is the plan for the game.  Very much like project plans don’t you think?  But what about the coach him/herself?  What is their personal playbook for leading the team to success?

Before they set foot on the field to execute the plan in a winning game, the coach would bring his/her personal playbook to all the planning meetings and on-field practices.   When you look in the mirror, do you ask yourself what do I bring to this project?  Do you intentionally follow a process for yourself as a Project Manager to ensure that your best effort is applied to the project?   We have methodologies that we follow for the Software Development Life Cycle, Agile, Front-End Loading, and the list goes on, but what about you as an individual?  Have you ever thought about it?  Have you ever written it down?  What can clients expect from you personally as a PM? This question goes beyond resume jargon about good communication, pleasant personality and can-do attitude; I’m referring to how you operate as a PM with a new team.   What do you do every day to intentionally lead your team to success?

The purpose of this article is to share my personal playbook with you.  I’ve written it down and I refer to it often.  My playbook works well for my personality, my experiences and the kinds of projects I find myself managing.  You may have a different approach that also works well but feel free to use mine if you like.  I encourage you to write your personal playbook and follow-it intentionally for every project.  Project Management is most effective if it is carried out with discipline and predictability.  We need to be the steady hand on the wheel in the wheelhouse amidst the project storms.

My personal playbook to leading project teams includes these three headings:

  • Earn Credibility
  • Foster Accountability
  • Lead by Serving

Earn Credibility

Credibility and credentials are two entirely different things.  Your credentials may have opened a door, but your credibility will keep you from being thrown out of the room.  Credibility is earned by

  • doing what you say you will do
  • being honest when no one is watching
  • defending your project team members
  • defending the project management profession by consistently executing sound project management techniques

Project Managers are called on to direct, coach, and mentor their project team members.  However, team members are open to this direction only if they know that you practice what you preach.  Do you ask your team members to provide deliverables by a due date and then miss your own dates?  Do you ask for order in meetings but tend to interrupt that difficult team member when they are speaking?  Are you organized, neat, and show an extraordinary amount of care for your team and the project?  Remember, everyone is following your lead.

I cannot stress enough how important honesty is to a project success.  It may not sound like a big deal, but once someone has been found to be dishonest, there is an immediate loss of trust and every future action is questioned and scrutinized by your team and sponsors.  Your credibility is likely doomed for the duration of the project if you are found to be dishonest.

Many times, project team members are new to projects.  Most people work in departments and may have never been exposed to a project environment, which is a whole new approach to work productivity.  It’s important that Project Managers recognize this stress and other factors that come along with projects and defend the efforts of your team members should management or other departments point out incomplete tasks or missed expectations.  Each project is unique. Even though it may seem old-hat to you, to many on your team, all of their tasks are being done for the first time.  This can be stressful to say the least.

A project manager must defend the project management profession by being disciplined in their project management methodology.  The Project Management Institute (pmi.org) lays out an excellent framework for a PM to follow when managing projects.  A PM must follow a methodology and be as constant and steady as a rock, so all team members will learn what to expect and eventually appreciate the steady hand on a project.

Project Management is a profession and must be treated with care and respect.  No cutting corners or casual attitude towards managing scope, budget and schedules, communicating status reports, managing risk, executing procurements, determining quality, and respecting stakeholders needs for change management.  Your discipline is essential from start to finish. Maintaining discipline can be difficult on long or difficult projects.  I’ve experienced projects that were drastically over budget and behind schedule; it’s hard to be that rock of consistency month after painful month when so much happens that is outside of your control.

A project manager will earn credibility when they insist on following these steps.  If a project sponsor wants to cut costs by not bothering with risk management, change management, team building, and other tasks, what do you do?  Let’s put it this way.  Have you ever gone to a doctor and asked for your appendix to be removed?  Would any doctor say, “Sure, let’s make an appointment and remove it”.  No, a doctor would not.  A doctor will insist on running tests to be sure that you need your appendix removed, even if you are in obvious pain and in your opinion, it should come out.  Why? because a doctor cares about your health much more than your personal opinion. What would happen if you disagreed with the doctor’s approach and went to another doctor?  The other doctor would insist on the same process.  A doctor’s profession requires that a process is followed to determine cause before diagnosis is given. 

Similarly, a project manager must practice ALL 10 knowledge areas of project management through ALL five process groups of a project. (Source: http://www.pmi.org/pmbok-guide-standards/foundational/pmbok).  This is your duty as a PM.  Insisting upon this will earn you credibility (although, you may have to do a lot of educating with your team and sponsors on the importance of these items to get there!).

Fostering Accountability

Accountability doesn’t come naturally to some of your project team members.  At the very least, they may have a different understanding of accountability than you.  Company culture plays a big role.    Thus, accountability must be fostered to ensure it gets to your level of expectation.  In my experience, 19 out of 20 people want to a good job on a project and are looking for expectations that they can strive to meet.  However, people aren’t easy to change.  To be effective team members, we all must do our best to be more accountable to ensure project success.

Fostering Accountability has a start-to-start dependency with your credibility (start both right away!), but there is a lag.  It is easier to foster accountability in others, when you have taken the first steps to earn credibility.   Accountable team members are able to estimate task durations and deliver on their deadlines, communicate clearly and completely about the state of project tasks.  Notice, I say ‘their deadlines’, not yours.  Fostering accountability begins by teaching team members that they own their tasks and are responsible for delivering them on time and correctly.  Quickly we will refer to earlier statements that project tasks are new and unique and thus very difficult to estimate accurate completion dates.  

This is especially true in software development where every couple of years, technology improvements and business challenges contribute to the uniqueness of IT projects and the difficulty to manage deadlines.   Project managers must insist that a completion date is set, but we don’t crucify the individual if they fail to meet the deadline.  We continue to foster the process.  I have witnessed this process dozens of times and in most cases, I am happy to report accountability does get better, provided that the PM supports the process and insists upon it.

In my experience, it is more productive to pull accountability out of someone, rather than to push it into them.  In other words; work closely with your team and expect them to lead and improve their accountability, rather than impose your standard upon them.

Accountability also has an honesty component.  Being accountable to the project, also carries the responsibility for team members, including the Project Manager, to know his or her own weaknesses and ensure that these weaknesses do not jeopardize the project.  We all have strengths, but I can assure you that we all have weaknesses too; might as well come right out and admit it.  A project manager’s job is to observe and understand when a weakness isn’t being addressed, and provide the support to strengthen the weakness either through training, or bringing in additional specialized resources to assist.  Failing to address weaknesses will yield project disappointments.  Address weaknesses promptly.

Lead by Serving

Servant leadership; it’s another term that has been bantered about recently.  As project managers, our role is to direct, coach, and lead a team to project success.  How do we incorporate servant leadership into a role which primarily tells people what to do?

A project as we all know has many tasks, some of these tasks don’t thrill anyone.  If these tasks are outside of the critical path (more on that in a moment), consider taking those tasks on yourself.  A project manager who isn’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and take on any task that supports project success, is on the right track to leading by serving.

A project manager must not take on tasks that are on the critical path, no matter how mundane or unattractive they are.  A PM cannot be the resource holding up the project and causing delay.  A PM must be focused on managing critical path tasks , and this cannot be done if the PM is engaged in completing these tasks.

Is there a battery of re-testing unit tests that needs to be done?  Is your tester taking a week of vacation?  Go-ahead, step into the role and keep the project moving along.  This kind of example was one where I received the oddest look from an aerospace structures engineer on a project I was managing several years ago.  He was about to go on vacation for a week, but was stuck with processing a bunch of figures into tables for loads and stress analysis.  The work was mundane (simply loading several dozen spreadsheets with built-in calcs) but it had to be done.  So I offered to take it on in his absence.  He said that no one had ever offered to continue his work while he was away; he very much appreciated that another 25 hours of work was being done while he was away.  It took several early mornings and later afternoons, but I was able to get the work done and keep the project moving.

If you’re willing to put in the extra time to see a project to success; then you understand how to lead by serving.

My personal playbook has three headings.  Earn Credibility, Foster Accountability, Lead by Serving.  What does your playbook look like?  I encourage you to prepare a playbook prior to your next project and bring your best game to ensure project success.  For if at the end of every project we can look back and say that we were successful because we brought 100% of our effort into the project, or we look back and say that we failed even though we brought 100% of our effort into the project; either way, we can be proud of our achievement and will have learned many lessons to carry us into our next project.

 

About the Author

Robert Schulz BSc, PMP is an independent project management professional and business analyst serving the forest industry in BC, Alberta, and the US Pacific Northwest.  Robert delivers primarily IT projects helping forest companies improve their bottom line whether in pulp & paper, sawmills, or timberlands management.  Robert has been a member of the Annex Alliance since 2004, and is past president (2007) and current registrar (2016-2017) of the Society of PM Professionals of Greater Vancouver (www.vcn.bc.ca/pmprof).  More information about Robert may be found at www.ajae.ca.

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