PM Articles > Kent McDonald > What Makes an Effective Project Manager?

What Makes an Effective Project Manager?

by Kent McDonald

In a previous article, I described the difference between effectiveness and efficiency and provided three steps you can follow for more effective projects. These three steps help you know when you're building the right thing.

Those techniques focus on a single project, and it's certainly important to apply them at that level, but a bigger issue -- and an opportunity for a bigger impact -- occurs at the portfolio level.

As a project manager you may not have control over the entire portfolio, but you certainly have the opportunity to influence what stays in the portfolio and what gets removed. Exerting that influence is a key sign of an effective project manager.

Most Project Portfolios Are Overloaded

An article in the Harvard Business Review by Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins explored the problem of overloaded portfolios:

If "the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do," as Michael Porter famously said in a seminal HBR article, then the essence of execution is truly not doing it. That sounds simple, but it's surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives, even when they don't align with new strategies. Instead, leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team.

Organizations take on annual planning exercises where they poll their various business units to find out what work needs to happen and then pull all of those initiatives together and "prioritize" them. Unfortunately they look to priority as a set of buckets rather than a set of filters, which results in several projects finding their way to the high-priority bucket. The people responsible for implementing projects then find themselves facing more projects than they can realistically complete.

Hollister and Watkins described seven causes of project overload. Hopefully none of these sound familiar, but something tells me you've probably experienced more than one in your career.

  • Impact blindness. Leadership teams don't grasp the number of projects they have in flight and the cumulative impact of all those projects on the people implementing them.
  • Multiplier effects. Leaders may understand the projects in their area, but don't have insight into the projects in other areas. As a result they don't understand the impact of dependencies.
  • Political logrolling. This a metaphor coined by Davy Crockett which basically means, "If you help me with my pet project, I'll help you with yours." Staff get inundated with their own area's projects plus side assignments on another area's project(s).
  • Unfunded mandates. Leaders ask their staff to accomplish objectives without providing sufficient budget or time to accomplish those objectives.
  • Band-aid projects. An organization launches a project intended to address a specific issue, but with insufficient scope to effectively resolve the root problem. These types of projects address -- or merely mask -- symptoms, and result in a lot of effort with no real impact.
  • Cost myopia. An organization attempts to cut costs by across the board reduction in staff, but maintains the same expectations for work that will get done. This can be especially problematic when the cuts are indiscriminate instead of protecting projects that are truly key.
  • Initiative inertia. An organization lacks the means and the will to stop existing projects, even those that are not producing the expected results. This is often expressed as the sunk cost fallacy and other similar cognitive biases.

Effective Leaders Know When to Say "No" and When to Say "When"

As you can tell, there are a lot of things working in favor of ever-growing portfolios. How can an organization get its portfolio under control in face of these seven causes and general human nature?

It comes down to leaders having the hard conversations and making the difficult decisions.

When considering a new project, you want the decision makers to examine whether a project is worth it based on the outcome it aims to deliver. You want decision makers to consider what impact the project will have on other projects currently going on. You want decision makers to focus on what the project allows your organization to do for its customers, not what the project does for someone's career. You want decision makers to know when to say "no."

While a project is in progress you want decision makers to evaluate it on a regular basis to determine if it is still going to achieve the outcome it was intended to deliver. You want decision makers to determine if the outcome the project aims to deliver is still relevant and important to the organization overall. You want decision makers to stop projects that are no longer worth it. You want decision makers to know when to say "when."

When thinking about projects underway, you want decision makers to know how many projects are currently underway. You want decision makers to understand all those projects and know whether they are delivering the expected outcome in the established constraints. You want decision makers to work together to prioritize those projects against each other. You want to have definitive ends for all those projects. You want all those projects to be reevaluated on a regular basis. You want your leaders to remind everyone that stopping a project is not a failure. You want decision makers to know when to say "when."

Effective Project Managers Help Leaders Know "When"

To be effective, you need to help your decision makers and your organization be effective.

So what does all of that have to do with you as a project manager? To be effective, you need to help your decision makers and your organization be effective.

If you're involved in the work to determine whether to start a project, make sure decision makers have the appropriate information they need to determine if the project is truly worth it. One way to do that is to use an opportunity assessment to guide a conversation with your team, stakeholders, and sponsors.

Focus on understanding the outcome the project is intended to deliver. If that outcome is not clear, do a problem statement exercise with your team, stakeholders, and sponsor.

Establish some decision filters to determine what aspects of a project you should and should not do. Make sure your team understands those decision filters and knows how to use them during their day-to-day work.

Define an outcome-based metric you can use to gauge if the project is heading in the right direction.

If after doing those exercises the project doesn't make sense, say so. Any truly effective leader will appreciate knowing the project is not worth it and will stop it before it starts rather than expend energy on a project that doesn't make sense.

Once your project is underway, assess your project regularly. You certainly want to keep an eye on time, budget, and scope, but the true measure of whether your project is still worth it is whether it delivers the expected outcome established at the start of the project.

Make sure your team is using the decision filters when they make their day-to-day decisions. Whenever you deliver something, look at the impact on the outcome-based metric.

If you're not making progress toward your target, or things are moving in the opposite direction, raise that concern. It does your organization absolutely no good to deliver the identified scope of the project on time and on budget if the project does not result in the outcome you desired. Continuing to expend effort on a project heading in the wrong direction may feel right in the moment, but it's not the right thing for your organization.

Give the decision makers in your organization the information they need to have the hard conversations and make the tough decisions, so they can keep your organization's portfolio in control and keep your workload reasonable.

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