Managing People on Projects and Programs

Update 7/15: This is one of my favorite posts.  Maybe its because I wrote it while 30,000 feet over Topeka.  Or, I just like the way my early writing looks.  Either way, I added  #7 below. 

A few months back, somebody asked me what my favorite People Management Theory was. My first response: Is People Management Theory a thing?

Anyway, while I haven’t spent time on the academics of the subject, I assumed what they really meant to ask me was, “do you have any guiding principles when it comes to managing people?

So I went back through my Moleskine notebooks, reviewed some past consulting projects and, stared at the wall for a while.

My persistence paid off, and what follows are some strategies and tactics that have worked out well for me on more than one occasion.

A peer of mine would file these under what he refers to as “Parks Law”. That may be a bit dramatic, but there is some truth in that I tend to carry these principles with me to every engagement:

1. Make sure everybody understands where “we” are headed, and why

By “we”, I mean the entire project team. This includes client participants, consultants, contractors, project managers, etc. Everybody involved with the delivery.

This isn’t just about everybody understanding their role, but rather the team being in sync on vision, timelines and objectives. People like to be reminded why they are “here”.

My observations have been that team members who don’t feel they are “in the know” or “involved” are less productive. They feel the ship is rudderless with no destination in sight. Or, that their contributions are limited or not impactful.

Be a great communicator, and get ahead of changes. Set up some cadence with your team, and make a point to lead each meeting with any changes in directive (or direction).

When you put up some fences, most people will happily stay inside of them.

2. Create optimism while being open and honest

One of my favorite things about being a consultant is the belief that every time we start a project, we do so with the intention of making something better. We accomplish something.

You know what? Most people like that feeling too. So spread some enthusiasm. If the project is going well, tell everybody and express your gratitude.

But, here’s where it gets tricky: If you find yourself constantly preaching about how great things are, soon your message will fall on deaf ears. You simply cannot sugar coat everything, because every project has its problems.

My approach is to communicate issues, risks and gaps in a well-articulated manner and without blame. I’m careful about separating fact from opinion and the tone I deliver it with.

We then discuss as a team how to approach the problem(s) and how we will measure success in their resolution.

Most of the time, we fix everything. When we do, I lead our next meeting with the great news and commend everyone’s effort.

Do you see a pattern here?

3. Lead your teams with the intent of making each person more successful than yourself

I’m not threatened by people who are smarter than me. That’s because I’ve come to find out how many there really are.

Embrace talent. If you’ve got rising star, help them take the next step. Give them some autonomy along with opportunities to take leadership when the time is right.

Be a good mentor and don’t feel compelled to “own” everything. If your team is successful, then you will be, too.

4. Manage by results, together

I don’t have the time (or stamina) to track personal calls, lunch breaks or trips to the coffee machine. My project teams have always been staffed with adults, and I treat them accordingly.

When something has been committed to be delivered at a certain time, then I expect to see it.

If it hasn’t, we’ll review the reason(s) why and remedy, together.

If it’s been delivered but the quality is poor, we’ll review and remedy, together.

If what was asked for was unreasonable given the amount of work, somebody’s skill set or timeline, just tell me ahead of time and we’ll figure something out.

If after all of that we still have a problem, then… we need to make a change.

(P.S., My teams always deliver. That IS Parks Law.)

5. Treat everybody differently under the same set of rules

This should be self-explanatory.

I’ve encountered countless types of personalities, listened to thousands of personal situations and have been educated on a myriad of spiritual beliefs.

I wish I could give you some advice on how to handle all of these scenarios, but there is no template to re-use. Everybody is different.

If you hold everyone on your team accountable to the same standards of professionalism and quality, then you should have the guidance you need to remedy most issues.

6. Make changes quickly when group morale may be compromised

Negative, unproductive or combative people are like an anchor that will drag your whole team down.

Make a change unrepentantly, and reassure everybody that the goals remain the same: to enjoy your time together while growing professionally and accomplishing something of value.

Anything less would be waste of everybody’s time.

7. Get your hands dirty and lead, don’t just manage

Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and solve the problem yourself. Get involved. When your team sees that you are willing to make sacrifices and go the extra mile they will, too.

When there’s a problem, the first words out of your mouth should be, “How can I help?”.

Then hop to it.

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