The Project Manager Trap

One of the most common things I see companies doing is asking their project managers, who are experienced and competent in one way of working, to lead complex, collaborative projects that require a very different approach. The outcome is stress and slow progress and a slide back to business as usual. It's a real trap.

I wonder if it is time to think differently about how and who we are recruiting and what we need to do to support them once they are in. To explore this question I’ve been looking at job ads for project managers in the water industry to see what skills they require of their candidates. Here are three, pulled verbatim off current job ads:

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;
  2. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;
  3. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

These are from the water sector, but job ads from many other sectors would look very similar. When working on well-defined, technical projects with clear objectives and limited scope, you want a manager to demonstrate these attributes in a traditional way. So if you want someone to build a pipe from A to B, all is well.

But many of my clients find themselves facing situations that aren’t so straightforward. For example, what if we need to work across a whole catchment to co-create a strategy for improving water quality? Applied, traditionally these very skills and attributes get in the way of progress.

To illustrate, let’s take each of them one by one.

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;

When applied to a traditional project management situation with a complicated technical project this attribute might look like:

I draw on my experience to understand the problems we are facing and identify the best technical expertise we will need to solve the problem. I get the right people in the room.

But applied in a complex collaborative project this attribute should look something more like:

I acknowledge that I don’t know what the problem is nor how it should be solved. I recognise the knowledge and experience others hold and value it just as much as my own. I value lived (non-technical) knowledge. I tap into the experience of those from outside the industry, recognising that diversity brings innovation. I don’t know who the ‘right’ people are.

See the difference? What about the second one:

  1. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;

Again, applied in a complicated, technical context this might look like:

I focus on the Gantt chart and critical path. Getting the job done on time drives my actions so I manage things closely to ensure milestones are met.

On a complex project this would look something like:

I constantly share the challenge of time and budget with my collaborators and look to them to find ways to move ahead efficiently together. I continually invest time in relationships and building trust, knowing that we deliver faster when we are more able to work together.

And thirdly:

  1. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

Traditionally applied: I use my skills to minimise risk through careful planning and implementation. Nothing happens without my say-so.

Yet we may need something more like: I recognise the risks inherent in this situation and apply a safe-to-fail approach to making progress, learning from ‘failure’ as much as from success. I reframe risk as inevitable uncertainty and build the confidence of my collaborators to work within this paradigm.

Looking over these three examples it is clear to me that our management skills can be applied in very different ways and are likely to have very different outcomes. If you are employing a project manager to lead a complicated technical task then go for someone who will take the traditional approach. But if you are seeking someone to lead a more collaborative approach in the face of greater complexity, you will need someone who thinks and acts quite differently. You will probably also need to redesign your performance management and reward system as well so that their different thinking is supported rather than stymied.

So which type of project manager do you need and have you trapped them or will you support them to work differently?


The Cost of Doing Things For Your Collaborators

If collaboration is about doing things with others, and command and control is doing things to others, what would you call doing things for others?

In my work helping leaders and teams collaborate, this question has emerged as a very important one, with real consequences for the practice. Collaborators know that they can’t do things to people and that working together means just that – doing things with. But what I see clients struggle with is the desire to help others, to do things for them.

That urge to summarise the discussion or to put together and circulate the agenda or to source the experts or find the next venue or to show them how to make decisions together or to stop them arguing or…. you name it. It’s a powerful inclination, but it comes with a risk.

Every parent knows that to rescue your child from any struggle is to limit their opportunity to learn and grow the skills they need. The learning comes from working it out, not from having Mum and Dad do it on your behalf, unless the learning is about how to be helpless.

It’s much the same with collaborative groups. The more they are rescued from their struggles the more they risk being denied the very opportunity they need to learn what this collaboration thing is all about and how to do it together. Every time we make a decision on their behalf or take an action to help them along, we may be undermining the very thing we seek to grow; the collective capability to solve problems together.

Watching clients struggle with this I have learned the power of stepping back. For when we step back we create the space for others to step forward. In stepping forward the group assumes control and the accountability and ownership control brings. They build their confidence and capability to do this work together. They may even decide they don’t need you anymore.

If you want your collaborators to learn to depend on you and to sit back and let you do it, just keep rescuing them. But if you want your collaborators to build their muscles and their mindset, let them work it out. Doing things for others feels right, but letting them do it can be much more empowering.


Struggling to Collaborate

One day a man was walking in the deep forest and he came upon a twig in the path. When he picked it up he saw that there was a cocoon hanging from it.

 He took it home, put the cocoon into a glass jar and placed it on the kitchen shelf. He watched it carefully for some time and one day saw the cocoon move ever so slightly. He was very anxious to see the unknown butterfly, so he watched it  for several hours as it struggled inside its cocoon. Eventually he made a slit in the side of the cocoon and a beautiful, brilliant blue wing popped out. Then the butterfly emerged and crawled along the edge of the table slowly flapping its wings.

 After several hours, it was still crawling around so he realised that something wasn't right.

The next door neighbour was a biology teacher so went and told his story.

 "Ah" said the teacher, "I know what the problem is. You see, it's in the process of struggling to get out of the cocoon that the butterfly gains the strength to fly."

 

I was reminded of this story recently when reflecting on some recent client work in Queensland – in particular as a group workshopped a collaborative approach in tackling a complex issue.

A couple of the senior staff expressed concern about the impact on their team members - they seemed very keen to protect their staff from some of the confronting revelations that the group were exploring together.

I had seen similar patterns play out in a number of interactions - a desire as a leader to:

  • keep their people safe,
  • to help them through the difficult patch,
  • to smooth out the speed humps,
  • to control the situation,
  • to reduce the tension,
  • to minimise the conflict,
  • to manage the dynamics,

While no doubt well intentioned, the risk is that in shielding staff from uncomfortable situations, we may block key insights and unknowingly prevent the uncomfortable practice that leads to new thinking and skills.

Like the butterfly, people need to struggle a bit to exercise their new “muscles” needed to tackle the uncertain and emergent environments.