by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.
In spite of much rhetoric on the subject, and the holy grail of the triple constraint, you cannot measure your entire worth as a project leader, or the success of your project, purely by whether they are on-time, on-budget, and feature-complete. In fact, to do so could create a negative spiral that further undermines your chances of success.
Marcus Buckingham, of First Break All the Rules fame, argues in The One Thing You Need to Know that people and teams do not perform at their best when they are realistic. Great managers get the best performance from people when they build their self-assurance to the point of helping them to become unrealistically optimistic. And great leaders achieve the best from their organizations when they rally people to a better future and get them to be unrealistically optimistic about the prospects that things will get better.
Optimism is a Strategy
Unrealistic optimism and high self-esteem are key factors in individual and team success. However the project management environment isn't exactly brimming with unbridled optimism and positive reinforcement. Quite the opposite. Many projects are highly challenging, some are carried out in unsupportive environments, and sometimes success is measured only by what percent of some impossible task was achieved. It can be tough to maintain a sunny outlook and glowing self-image when so much of the data coming from the outside world seems to be saying, at least on the worst days, "You've screwed up again! You're doomed! Run for your life!"
If you have only encountered effortless and wildly successful projects, you may not be able to relate to these rather extreme statements. This article is for those of you who feel awash in the morass of a project bouncing between inadequacy and disaster; those leading your first project; those feeling despair at repeated setbacks and inefficiencies; those of you who have seen many projects come and go, but have to admit with some chagrin that you haven't seen many good ones.
While research has proven that negative people appear smarter, Marcus Buckingham's work indicates that optimism must be part of the strategy of every project manager who intends to get the best performance from themselves and their teams. But how can we create and maintain optimism in ourselves and our teams when so many projects in so many organizations suffer from similar, recurrent, and entirely predictable problems like those represented in this cartoon?
Copyright Kimberly Wiefling 2007. All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com
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(Graphic from Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, 2007.)
This diagram is an amalgam of the worst aspects of projects that I've experienced over the past two decades. Upon seeing it, quite a few people have felt an irresistible urge to contact me to inquire how I knew so much about the way projects happen in their companies. Had I been watching them through some kind of clandestine video? Did I have inside information form a mole in their organization? Was I somehow tapping into their email? Although this graphic, as well as the book as a whole, is certainly based on real situations, most of these people were simply projecting their own situations onto some universal experiences in the project management world.
You Are Not Alone!
We all seem to think that we're the only ones having these kinds of problems. The project management literature can be a bit academic, and sometimes gives the impression that all projects will yield to the right tool, technique, or management approach. It's a little embarrassing to admit that we are having these kinds of problems if we believe the no one else is. But you would be stunned-stunned, I say-at the number of other people out there who feel exactly as you do about their current seemingly hopeless project, team, or executive.
A couple of months ago I published my first book, Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces. It's a humorous, although decidedly blunt, exposé of what really happens in real projects in the real world. The kinds of projects I've worked on always seemed a bit insane and drove me a bit crazy. That's why I wrote the book, after all. I wanted those of you leading similar projects to know that you weren't alone. But I may have underestimated just how many crazy project environments there are out there. I've been truly surprised at how many people just like you have approached me saying things like, "Thank you for letting me know that it's not just me! I thought that I was the only person experiencing these kinds of problems. Now when my boss rips me for some of the things going on in our project that are in your book I realize that I'm not a failure as a project manager or a bad person. I'm normal!"
The position of a project manager is weighty, and it is easy to succumb to the illusion that you are responsible for everything that happens in the project. People say, "Don't take it personally." But, when the people on a team are working their butts off and pulling all kinds of miracles out of various bodily orifices, believe me, it's personal. (No one does this kind of thing just for a paycheck!) New project managers are especially prone to thinking that the problems they encounter in their projects are the result of some inadequacy on their part. Oh, sure, that could be an explanation, as there are incompetent people everywhere. (I never rule out incompetence on my part as a possible cause of failure.) But some challenges are common to many projects regardless of the skill of the person at the helm. All around the planet customers demand the sun and the moon for the price of a peanut-sized meteorite, team members can't seem to complete action items without incessant reminders, and executives continue to display an enviable disconnection from the harsh realities of the business world. Sometimes it's not you.
A very recent and popular book, Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (also the author of an even more popular book, The Black Swan), explores the tendency of humans to mistake luck for skill. These books may be just the light reading that you're seeking for the new year. If you are in danger of growing an over-inflated ego due to a recent project win, or plunged into despair from a recent disaster, you'll gain a new perspective from Taleb's argument that both outcomes are more than likely due to random chance. Yes, there are always ways that you can make the outcome of a project better or worse. But there are places where projects sail on a ship of fools, and it's often only by some fortuitous combination of diligence and luck that anything whatsoever gets done. The many uncontrollable circumstances surrounding a project contribute to the occasional lucky success in some poorly run projects, and a few unfortunate failures even in some well led projects.
Imagine that you flip a coin in the air. While it is spinning through the air you call out heads or tails to predict how it will land. If you choose heads but the coin lands tail up, did you make a bad choice? Not really. There was a 50% chance that you would be successful-better than the odds in many projects according to the statistics. Heads was an excellent choice. Unfortunately, the outcome was unfavorable.
While projects aren't exactly coin tosses, I want those of you who apply some reasonable rigor to your project management process to know that a good choice does not necessarily result in a good outcome. It's not you! Even the most savvy project leaders with hundreds of projects to their credit experience nasty surprises and agonizing chronic ills in their projects. Even the most inept hit a home run once in a while.
I hope that this comes as a relief to those of you who are either new to the project leader role, or those of you who are laboring alone in organizations where you are the sole lantern bearer of sensible project management process discipline. Project leaders bear a huge amount of responsibility for project success while frequently having little direct control over the circumstances in which their teams operate. Give yourself a break! (I make it a rule never to care more about the project than the executives responsible for the results.)
Sure Projects Are Risky, but At Least They're Not Deadly
Recently there was a special on Animal Planet called "Grizzly Man" about this guy, Timothy Treadwell, who lived among the bears in Alaska every summer for over a dozen years. He camped in a tent right in the midst of their territory, a place called "The Grizzly Maze," and even managed to touch a few of the bears who got to know him. He loved those bears.
Eventually, some people might say inevitably, a bear killed and ate most of him and his girlfriend. It was awful, regrettable, and yet unsurprising to those who know grizzlies. Grizzly bears can weigh over 500 kilograms, some stand over 2 meters tall, and they run over 50 kilometers/hour. Bears are wild animals. Left to themselves they don't bother humans, but over the decades bears have killed dozens of people in the US alone. Some were attacked along a trail or in the bush, but others were pulled from their tents, or even attacked inside of campers and houses where the bear trespassers broke in. No matter how cute they are, or how many teddy bears you had as a kid, they can be dangerous! Anyone who repeatedly rubs elbows with a grizzly bear shouldn't be surprised if they get injured in the process. Too bad bears don't have warning signs on them that say "I may be cute, but make no mistake; I can rip your guts out with one swipe of my claw." But lest we lose our grip on the wispy fabric of optimism, let's remember that he did manage to live closely among the bears for 12 years without being harmed-no small feat.
Here's to Courageous Project Leaders!
Leading projects is risky business, too, and maybe there should be warning signs here too. Perhaps each project should bear (no pun intended!) a sign like those at amusement parks: "People with a history of recent surgery, heart trouble/high blood pressure, neck trouble, back trouble, or any other condition that may be aggravated by stress, should carefully heed all warning signs at the project kick-off. If you are in doubt about your ability to safely experience a project, please refrain from taking the ride in the first place."
No matter how dangerous, there will still be people who try to pet bears, and there will still be people who lead and manage projects, and fortunately so! Imagine if suddenly there were no people willing to take on the seemingly impossible challenges of leading a project. A whole lot of things suddenly wouldn't get done. A lot less mistakes would be made, but a lot less progress too.
Those of you who are leading teams against tough odds need to remember that you are not alone in the challenges that you face. Project management can be rough, sometimes it's tough, and a lot of what you are experiencing is perfectly normal in projects all around the world. That's no reason to give up and run screaming into the night. Measure your worth by the strength of your commitment to the team and to the results, and stop beating yourself up because you're not super-human. And don't let anyone talk you out of your optimistic attitude and your belief in yourself. You're going to need them, because they're your edge in achieving the results that mean so much to you, your team, and your company. Congratulations on having the courage to lead where others fear to even tip-toe!
For another perspective on how we confuse new project managers (by not telling them what's actually expected of them) see Cinda Voegtli's article this week: Evolution of a Project Manager