I was watching a movie the other day, and one of the lines of dialogue was "this is the Military, nothing ever goes as planned". It hit me that for us, changing "the Military" to "a Project", rings just as true. It has also come to my attention recently that the single most important training and education that I have had to prepare me for the role of Project Manager has been that of parenting twin six year old boys. It's something like 'All I ever needed to know I learned in Kindergarten", well, I've come to the realization that what defines our successes, are the rules that we live by and therefore value enough to teach others by example. How we react when the train goes off of the rails tests our true leadership ability – after all, anyone can manage the status quo and keep the boat on the current path, but good leaders are defined in times of uncertainty and crisis, something that as a mother of twin first graders I know very, very well.
I've learned that these few simple, basic rules go far in Project Management:
1 – Try to foster "fairness" in dealings with your team. I get grief from my boys all the time about what is and isn't fair, and it forces me to explain my rationale when enforcing the rules. This has also served me well in dealing with difficult clients – if you explain WHY you want to take a certain path, and frame it in terms of balance on both sides of the equation, you get a lot more understanding. Let's face it, one of the hardest parts of this job is being the one who always has to deliver the bad news, but if done in a way that helps to explain your reasoning and your commitment to fairness, the opposition in many cases, respects the sentiment and accepts that when being fair lands on their side of the line, that you will be just as passionate about them, and fight just as hard. Now I have put this to the six-year-old test and it does work. Even though the world as a whole isn't always fair, YOUR world can be whenever possible. Of course with that said, it remains impossible to reason with unreasonable people!
2 – Remain calm. I have worked in a few "management by chaos" environments, and am amazed at the bizarre solutions that some people come up with and try to implement to put out fires. I KNOW that when you are panicked that you are not rational – I love my kids, but there have been times when I have walked into a room and based on what I saw before me I was quite prepared to go truly ballistic and possibly commit murder! If the situation has indeed exploded, then not taking the time to become (or focus on maintaining) rationality only endures chaos and threatens a successful outcome. As we all know, it's better to stop and count to ten, than to make a bad (and quick) call that isn't the best solution.
3 – Take the actions required to ensure that you are heard. Yup, maybe a loud voice is indeed needed in some cases. Another way to be heard is to fully explain what you mean and why, thoroughly, so that people can see your point even if they don't agree. I have actually asked people during meetings if they understand what my point is, and if they say they do I'll ask them to reiterate it to me. Of course this can be a dangerous way to deal with it, but if you are using the right tone, and have the right authority and relationship with the group you can get away with it. I have found that if someone is just trying to placate you that this will stop them dead. After that, they tend to listen a bit better.
4 – Make sure you understand the true problem. Truth be told, we would all be rich if we each had a dollar for every time that a company spent money trying to fix a problem, only to find that what they put in motion didn't put a dent in the issue as they didn't do the research required to determine the true root cause. I get this from my kids all the time, almost as though they were "objections" to a sales process. I went through some drama with one of my boys when they were much younger with eating. The kid would be so excited about the meal (as we always made such a big deal out of what they were getting to try to head off the problem) and then he would start eating and he would be "full" after one bite. If we didn't accept "full" as an excuse, he would complain about it being: too hot, too cold, too brown, to wet….and the list went on. Of course that didn't happen at ALL meals, so we had a mystery on our hands. I started keeping a journal (research the problem) as to what he ate, and what he had problems with and after about 2 weeks of data we took a look at it and it turned out it was actually the texture of the food! Anything that had meat in it that he had to chew stopped him dead. Once we came up with this epiphany, we tested the assumption and after proving the hypothesis we were able to avoid that problem until we were able to gently introduce texture to him. It is a simplistic example, but without really having done the research to uncover the true root of the problem, we would not have been able to properly introduce him to textured foods, and may have allowed him to live on macaroni and cheese forever!
So as Project Managers and leaders of teams, sometimes sticking to a few simple rules can help us in times of chaos and uncertainty. I know that we don't really get a "manual" for every situation in Project Management, but the four rules above I have stuck to when I have found myself in crisis, and so far things have most often turned out successfully. Remember, "This is a Project, nothing ever goes as planned"