Let’s start with the opposite: when do we dislike our jobs the most? I can give you some examples of my practice: I wouldn’t say I like dead ends, and sure I don’t want to be micro-managed. Also, I wouldn’t say I like the lack of leadership and not being equipped with the tools or authority to succeed. I’ve had one or more positions where all of this happened. Not all in one job, though I can think of one specific position that encompassed most of these. Anyway, I’m sure we all can think of a job where we were pushed down, and we were unhappy. We tend to not be at our most productive selves in these types of jobs and under these types of conditions.
Believe it or not, but I have always found that I am most productive when the work is fun, and I have a great deal of control over that work. The same goes for the projects that I lead. If I have executive management with a great deal of confidence in my skills and let me run the show with the understanding I will shout out when there are needs and keep them up-to-date on status, then I usually genuinely enjoy it. Managing projects with some or all of the following characteristics end up being the most ‘fun’ for me to manage are, obviously amongst others, these are the important ones:
Sense of accomplishment: There is a definite sense of accomplishment when a deliverable is completed, a milestone is achieved, or a project is closed. When a project is closed, you can observe its benefits due to the team’s efforts. When a milestone is achieved, you move on to a new phase in the project. In contrast, when you complete operational work, another “stack” of the same work type is right behind it, with no apparent end in sight.
Something Different: Projects provide opportunities for team members to be exposed to new technologies, business processes, and problems to solve. Exposure to new areas represents huge opportunities for team members to learn and develop both personally and professionally. There is nothing better than being assigned to a new client or project for those of us that thrive on continuous learning.
Involves People: An individual can deliver small projects, but the vast majority of projects involve a team of people assigned to accomplish a common goal. The people assigned to the project bring with them a diverse range of talents, experiences, and perspectives/ideas. This diversity ensures that the team’s unified efforts are much greater than the sum of its individual contributions. Assembling a diverse group of people as a new project team can be challenging (forming and storming). Still, it is ultimately very rewarding as the team starts to work well together (norming and performing). I personally find the broad spectrum of people I meet and work with during projects to be the most amazing element of being a project leader.
Recognition: All projects have a certain amount of visibility in the organization. Otherwise, the resources would not be assigned to it. With visibility comes recognition and potential rewards when milestones are achieved and projects are completed. Visibility can also result in negative consequences when projects are challenged or fail. Based on my experiences, there is far more upside potential associated with positive project outcomes than the risk of negative consequences associated with challenges or failures.
Projects End – By definition, projects have a beginning and end. Admittedly, some projects are not as enjoyable as others, but at some point, they all will come to an end (some more naturally than others). With the knowledge that the project will end, even the worst of projects can have their moments.
And what about the team, what about the people working with you? There are several things that you can do to establish a positive project environment. An environment that team members actually enjoy being a part of. The following suggestions combine applying effective leadership skills and implementing practical techniques to enhance the project environment. My own experience has led me to the conclusion that, in most cases creating a positive project environment translates into building a more productive and effective project team!
Focus on Teamwork: I spend a lot of time making sure the project team understands they are a team working towards a common objective. Establishing a group that works as a team starts with ensuring the team understands what we are trying to accomplish and what success looks like. It also includes ensuring that everyone understands what their role is on the team and how their role connects with the overall project’s success. There are things you can do to make sure the group feels like a team. Schedule regular team interactions, provide meaningful project updates, and promote collaboration and interaction. Unless this group has worked together before, it takes some real work and focus on your part to make the group feel and interact like a team. Do not be discourage or give up as the team traverses through the forming and storming phases of creating a team. Your leadership can make a significant difference in terms of how the team works together.
Be Enthusiastic: Assuming you are like me and really enjoy project work, make sure the team knows it. You need to consistently model the attitude and enthusiasm you want the team to feel throughout the project. If the project manager does not believe the team can be successful, who does? It is amazing how quickly the team will get discouraged when you display negative vibes about the project, either verbally or non-verbally. The easiest way for me to model a positive and enthusiastic attitude during team interactions is to make sure I really feel that way. When faced with difficult tasks or people, I remind myself what I enjoy about the challenge the project is providing, the team I am working with, and the opportunity to learn something new.
Communicate and Track Priorities: This one sounds pretty straightforward, but it is amazing how quickly team members can get “lost in the weeds” or “in a funk” without timely and relevant information about the project. Team members must understand the team’s top priorities and how they tie to their individual work assignments. Priorities include upcoming milestones, task assignments, action items from team meetings, and high-impact issues and risks. I try to keep this information simple and easy to consume: What did we accomplish last week? Where should we focus next week? What roadblocks need to be removed?
Manage and ‘Stretch’ the Talent: As the team is forming, it is important to know the individual team members. Not only do you need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, but also what are the things that motivate and energize them. If you have insights into team member’s professional development path, you can help align work with the areas where they have talents, are excited about, and/or desire to learn. Aligning work and responsibilities to give people a chance to “step up” on the team goes on a long way towards building a highly motivated team that delivers positive results. The team’s opportunities can be both in the form of specific work assignments, as well as roles (e.g., facilitation of team meetings, coordination of team events).
Purposeful Recognition – It is essential to recognize people’s contributions to the team. I recognize two categories of contributions to the team – (1) efforts that help the team achieve its goals and (2) efforts that demonstrate or promote teamwork. As the project manager, you recognize contributions that helped drive positive project outcomes based upon either the work performed or how it was performed. A significant amount of positive energy can be created on the team by recognizing the right efforts at the right time. The recognition does not need to be elaborate, but it must be sincere, and a bit of creativity helps generate a fun atmosphere on the team. When given the choice of recognizing an individual or a group effort, I generally opt for recognizing the group (sends the right message as a team and ensures you do not unintentionally leave someone “off the list”).
Close the Project: When you have come this far with the team, do not forget to bring appropriate closure to the effort. Effectively facilitating the lessons learned process helps the team reflect on what was accomplished, how it was accomplished, and what the team would do differently on the next project. This is the team’s opportunity to have a real impact on how projects are completed within your organization in the form of implementing continuous improvement actions. The other important element of project closure is celebrating success. Facilitate a project celebration that helps team members feel good about what was accomplished before they rush off to their next assignment.
There are projects out there that are cool and fun and cutting edge, and there are others that are as dull as burnt toast. The best we can hope for is that we get a decent mix of both. We need some easy ones once in a while – especially if our load is usually heavy. But the really challenging projects involving some and cool technology can help keep us fresh and having fun in our Project Management positions that, let’s face it, can be somewhat dry at times….and it can be fun too!