Project Practitioners > Are you relevant and valued - or just making team members mad?

Are you relevant and valued - or just making team members mad?

By Cinda Voegtli

I have some friends who are manager-skeptical. They're individual contributor types in their organizations, working hard and getting stuff done.  And not particularly prone to think (or at least not prone to automatically *assume*) that those of us who manage as our main work are actually doing anything useful.  :-)   Therefore- these folks can provide very useful reality-checks for managers who DO want to make sure they're valued for what they do.

I talked to one of them a few days ago and, always on the lookout for good stories, asked "have you gotten mad at a manager lately?"    His answer.  "Yes!  I got *incredibly* mad at a project manager this week!" [very vehement statement.]  oHO.  Tell me more!

So here's why he got mad.  He's on a really stressful project, in its frantic endgame at a time when he has way too much to do; a project that has been rewarding but has him about over the edge getting through all the last details.  He just WANTS THIS TO BE OVER.  (Sound familiar?!)  The person managing the project made the mistake of coming at him one day asking for status thusly:  “So, are you almost done?”  

A reasonable question, you say?  Yes, on the surface, I'm sure he was trying to assess where my friend was with his critical work, trying to take responsibility for the thing finishing on time, thinking about dependencies and all that.    So why did my friend react so badly? 

His bottom line - He reacted badly because this project manager, in my friend's stressed-out, over-worked, focused-on-finishing state, was adding absolutely NO VALUE TO HIS WORK, or even to the project, by interrupting him to ask that question!      Now of course the PM has his reasons for asking but really, can much useful info truly result from that question, put that way?  Could it have been asked in a different way?  (both to yield more valuable info but also to just not tick my friend off)... We talked about that.    

Analyzing his own reaction, my friend came up with some thoughts about the root of his reaction.  And I think it's at the root of why some team members react negatively, or why some functional groups think project managers are just so much overhead while they're doing the “real work”.   What my friend realized he was really thinking is this:   "Compared to what I've had to pull on this project along with a few other folks, just what the heck ARE you doing that has a material impact on whether this project finishes?  Why should I answer your questions if you're not doing real work?"   Somehow the project manager had put himself in the position of a bystander who looked less and less relevant to the rest of the team especially in this frantic endgame.

WOW. Now I'm a project manager and so I know we do valuable things on projects.  But really, do we stop often enough to ask whether our team members get why our work at different points is valuable?  Are we even SURE we're adding value all the time? And is the way we're doing our work, asking our questions, actually undercutting our seeming relevance?   When the work is hot and heavy, does “coordination and status tracking” really cut it in everyone else's eyes as adding enough value? 

On some projects the detailed coordination aspects are critical because there are big teams, lots of moving parts, lots of things that get out of sync, lots of things that have to come together in the endgame.    But evidently for my friend as a team member on this project, coordination and status tracking did not equate to value.    He was working tightly with a few other people to get the last throes done.    He didn't need additional coordination.  Prodded a bit as to what the PM could have done to be seen as valuable, my friend said, "Well, I just didn't feel like he was really trying to HELP.   Why didn't he act like a true team member and offer to take on some of the documentation work?   Or the end-game QA testing? Or SOMETHING?  He could have instead asked “Is there any work I can personally do to help you and the others get through to the end?" 

Even on those big projects where more coordination is required, more facilitating of last decisions across various groups needed, I think there's the same perception danger.  The people doing the project work, especially in the grinding endgame where the details fly, the pressure to finish mounts, and any remaining problems are an especially big pain,  are just not going to automatically get that coordination and status tasks are valuable.  All they can see is  that they individually have a heck of a lot to get done and the project manager asking  them to attend status meetings or otherwise asking them for status could well be taken as the total OPPOSITE of helpful.

From this conversation, I took away and now offer up a caution (and an opportunity!) to all of us.  We project managers should make sure that we actually are, and are perceived to be, adding value to our project work all the way through.  We need to find creative ways to do so in the context of each specific project, taking into account the time and stress challenges our team members are facing.   Perhaps there ARE project tasks we can help with.   Certainly we can make sure to emphasize our desire to understand and remove roadblocks.  We can be "real" with our team members and frankly and directly check in with them and ask them if they think we ARE contributing value!   (If that thought scares any of us, well hmmm, perhaps that's an interesting indicator right there!)    And when we do need to do coordination, get status, we can take the time to explain why we need a particular piece of information and make sure we're asking for it in the best possible way.  I think the burden IS on us to be, and be perceived to be, directly relevant to the work at hand on each project.

In closing  – I'm curious as to whether this gets anyone's back up.  "Well, of course our work managing the schedule and details to completion is valuable!"  Let me just say that this is nowhere close to the first story I've heard about team members reacting against PM's "status gathering" requests, especially on stressful projects.  So I do think there's something here for us to all consider. 

But I'm also interested in anyone's reactions to this area of "value perception" and other thoughts on how we can be truly valuable and valued, all the way through our projects.  What things do  you that help people value your role?   And/or - what things do you see project managers do that is a "kiss of death" to their perceived relevance and value?

Related Links
Learn how leadership responsibilities evolve to match the work and typical issues that occur in each project phase in Leadership and the Project Lifecycle. Get a greater perspective of leadership in project management can be found in What does "Great PM" leadership look like? Learn through examples from actual projects to show how to make project management relevant to your technical teams.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

In my mind, the real value adding that a PM can do is to ensure a smooth project execution. So looking at the situation described, I would agree with the team member; if the situation is stressful and frantic, the PM had not added the expected value. Offering to take on various tasks to lighten the burden of the team is not the solution. The PM should pay attention to the obstacles that are currently hindering the team in achieving, and help to clear the path. But the PM must also look ahead and do what can be done to mitigate risks, avoid rework and keep promises. Hence the PM should not, as we often tend to do, focus on the status, but instead focus on what lies ahead when we talk to team members. Listening to their input and actually doing something about threats they see, that will be seen as adding value.

I think that in many cases, PM's place themselves outside of the team, and do not appear to add to the final product. When the team stays late to meet a deadline and the PM is headed out the door at 4:55, they are not doing the Project Management discipline as a whole any service. Integrate into the team and do whatever necessary to help meet the deadlines! Doing that will assure that your value is seen by the team, even if it's to stay to make copies, and run out for Pizza!

The project manager position is new for our department. I always did the work of a PM while I was doing the Analyst work...anyway, when I first took the PM position andleft my analyst position behind, information came back to me that one of the functional managers didn't see any value in meeting with me...I took that to heart and always try to be a part of the team offering help whenever I can and making sure my meetings result in measurable outcomes. Good article, thank you!

In my experience, if a project involves a small team and the individual contributors value technical skills above all else, it is a challenge for the project manager to add perceived value, unless he/she has a technical background.
On large projects, of necessity, the project manager adds value by virtue of the significant amount of coordination, organization, and value-add monitoring and measurement.
This is also a company culture issue to some extent, because if a company visibly and consistently values the process orientation of project management, it may well make all the difference!

I would say that our added value is:

- to explain upfront why reporting is necessary to keep the project under control (and maybe sometimes: why the project should be kept under control!),
- to build a reporting plan that is accepted by all,
- to make sure all stick to the plan, the PM included.

I can understand that if the PM starts bypassing his plan asking for spot unformal status requests then team members may wonder where his added value is.

Maybe this shows that the reporting plan is not adapted anymore and should be re-discussed...

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