Ten Ways To Make Leading Project Teams Less Unbearable
by John Foster, a management
consultant who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I met this guy once who'd just been made team leader. He was a veteran of
all kinds of projects. He'd been on dog projects and sucker projects, but
he'd also been a star a couple times. All this made him determined to run
this project right. He opened our first meeting by saying he hated long
meetings. He smiled and said, "we've got a lot of work to do here, but we'll
all be out of here in 45 minutes, and we're not going to miss anything."
Everyone laughed sympathetically. The meeting went 2 hours. His next one
did, too. Later they got a little shorter, but I'm not sure he noticed. He
was too busy trying to run an adequate meeting to worry any more about
running a perfect meeting. You canít create a perfect meeting by decree.
Here are 10 tips for running better project teams.
1. Forget about running a meeting as though you rule it. Generally, the
people on your team are at the same level as you. Nobody likes being
lectured to about obvious things, furthermore lecturing that way reveals you
as stupid. If something is obvious to you, it is obvious to other people,
meaning simple solutions were tried a long time ago, and have failed.
2. Take note of the age of everyone in the room, relative to your own age.
This is going to affect how each person listens to you. Take note of
everyone's work experience the same way. If you're a younger manager, your
plan may come off as arrogant before anyone notices it is brilliant.
Managers who've worked at a number of different companies will be more
receptive to "not invented here" solutions than company lifers.
3. Don't go by appearances. Don't let either straightforward cooperation or
straightforward hostility fool you, as both can be used for effect. Business
is a game of reality, but it uses appearances. That report you got right on
time is not necessarily any good. That woman who won't do a damned thing,
may be holding back for a reason. Could be she's just lazy. Could be she's
about to retire. Could also be there's a new IS platform in the works, that
you don't know about, and she doesn't want to do the same work twice.
4. Remember that upper level buy-in and signed forms from all departments
don't always do the job. It is all too easy to find that out. If you've run
out of signatures to get to coax people into work, think horizontal. Maybe
someone's departmental colleague at your meeting can bring perspective, and
change a team member's tune. Maybe referencing some other team's work can
get your team cooperating. If desperate, think diagonal. There may be
semi-upper managers not well-served by the status quo. If you can get these
people talking to each other across departments, they may decide to scratch
each other's back, and get your job done.
5. The higher the management level, the more political speech becomes. When
people are trying to climb in management, they speak for effect as much as
to inform. When someone in business says something incredibly stupid, or
acts like Joe Hero, there are always reasons why he's doing that. It's not
just him, it's his group and its interests and rules, that have him talking
that way. That's why the union president on TV always sounds like such a
jerk. A president's position essentially precludes him from ever "talking."
Presidents propagandize to meet their organization's objectives. VPs above
all would like to be president, and a CEO wants to stay safely where he is.
Consider what upper management says skeptically, with awareness of the
political interests that attach to different management levels. Saps who
listen to a president or CEO like he was their Dad, get used.
6. If win-win negotiations solved everything, we already wouldn't have any
problems. Setting up win-win negotiations is not an especially brilliant or
original means of getting things done, despite what many expensive
consultants will tell you. There are real costs to any progress in business,
and they are never distributed equally. Try to determine early on who'll be
worse off if your project succeeds. Then you'll know where to anticipate
7. Use business stereotypes to your advantage. There's a reason Dilbert runs
in about 300 papers, and you yourself probably think it's funny. There are
reliable truisms about how managers act when they are customers, clients,
entrepreneurs or attached to certain departments. Do not expect Sales to be
especially heroic about costs. If you are working on a new project, IT
Security already resents you. New projects aren't yet secure. Bring a
present whenever you visit Accounting. Accounting trolls are lonely. No one
ever drops by Accounting.
8. Anticipate misbehavior as the natural consequence of all work, and look
for it where it's structurally likely to occur. It's unlikely in
professional life that you'll find your software developer hijacking a TV
set out a broken window, but you may not have her full attention on your
project. Software developers are hirable. If cranky or bored, they have
options. A sad fact of life is that sales guys will poach even themselves.
They'll switch a customer to a cheaper company product, if that works for
them. Your colleague consulting on the big IT sale with you, checking out
the customer's every need for 6 months, may know enough to jump ship over to
them. In which case, no sale.
9. When you've got the job done, and are basking in glory, thank your VP
last. Whether or not you've ever met her. Thank the people under your
team members first, which will throw off any of their expectations about how
you ought to praise them. Then flatter each person's contribution according
to the happiest they ever could've been talking to you. The anal-retentive
whiner? "We got this thing done right before we got it done on time. Tom's the guy kept me from screwing that up."
The skeptical, capital-focused engineer? "I started out convinced our
project's capital requirements spoke for themselves. Would you believe
there's such a thing as a capital budget? It takes some cold water splashed
on you to see the cost of capital badly spent. I'm glad to have worked with
Mike, and to present you with a capital outlay that's earned Engineering's
respect." Then thank your VP. Stop there, because thanking anyone who
couldn't have known specifically about your work is toadyism, and
recognizable as such. No attempt to climb should ever be seen. But a big win
for you in business means you're an idiot if you're not Santa Claus; thank
everyone you can. It never makes you look bad. Plus it's the single most
common thing people forget to do with their own success: acknowledge who
helped them. Any really bright senior managers watching will expect you to
miss this, and be pleasantly impressed if you don't.
10. Recognize that the team's success is different from the success of
individual managers. Even a huge sale to a happy customer can mean new
responsibilities for some departments without any "attaboys" attached. In
meetings, try to periodically acknowledge out loud the new work some groups
may have to take on, and express your interest in making that work easier
for them and something to be proud of. Emphasize that departments taking on
new work deserve public credit for it.
11. Did I say 10 tips, or is that just you? Haven't you been paying
attention? My 11th tip references some if not all of the first 10. As creepy
as it may seem, some people do want to fail. They may want to fail
personally, or they may just want your project to fail. Learn to recognize
these people, and try to understand what's driving them in that direction.
That'll allow you to manage their participation.
All these points really add up to one thing: never consider anything
managers do or say as simple. This does not mean you have to worry about it
when you win, or kick your own ass for being stupid when you lose. Respect
for and consideration of even the dumbest guy's complexities, or the most
irritating guy's complexities, just helps you to avoid problems. Considering
other people's organizational behavior with care will give you new
perspective on your own, which can help you identify the projects where you
can make the best use of your abilities and your understanding of the
effective use of appearances in management. Itís consideration of your own
abilities within the framework of other people making use of theirs that
leads to business insight, and to effective management. And effective
management occasionally even leads to shorter meetings.