Uncomfortable Truths for Project Managers

Project managers are often optimistic and confident in their abilities to deliver successful projects. Armed with our methods and tools, boundless optimism, and can-do attitude, it sometimes feels like we can do anything. However, we must also acknowledge and address the potential limitations and challenges because there are quite a few. Just keep in mind these observations are mine, and there are many other examples out there. 

1. Stakeholders decide if your Project is successful or if your Project failed

No matter how well you manage your Project, ultimately, success is not down to you. It will be your stakeholders who decide whether to:

  1. Adopt the processes you build
  2. Use the systems you create
  3. Use the assets you deliver

Of all the project management processes and disciplines, stakeholder engagement is paramount. Tim Lister and Tom DeMarco said, “Risk management is how adults manage projects.” The effective management of risks is all about being proactive; you need to identify and tackle potential concerns before they become problems. I would respond, ‘ Stakeholder Engagement is how sophisticated adults manage projects.’ The only way to regain control of your outcomes from your stakeholders is to invest your time in them. Understand their perspectives and needs, and work to meet them. 

2. It’s all about communication

Poor communication is cited as the second most important factor for project failure, behind the lack of clearly defined and/or achievable milestones. And — just between us — failure to establish clearly defined and/or achievable milestones sounds like a communication problem more than anything else. So you could say that ineffective communication is the biggest contributing factor to project failure. Project management is all about communication. In itself, it this is an uncomfortable truth for me. Up to a point, I had always assumed that two things were enough to make me a good project manager:

  1. I was a cool, calm, rational and logical thinker. I could see the big picture and also drill into the detail.
  2. I was an assertive and achievement-focused professional. I knew the value of hard work and perseverance.

These two together were enough to succeed as a project manager. Well, that’s what I thought. Truth be told, they are for some projects. But as the stakes for individuals grow and the political dimension gets more important, they no longer suffice. In fact, they can be a blocker to real success. You need the willingness and talent to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders. Your job is not to be political in your approach, but you absolutely must engage with the game of project politics.

3. You will get the Project Team you deserve

Stakeholder engagement is all about communication. But my discomfort grew when I realized that so is project delivery. Because the uncomfortable truth here is that you get the team that you deserve. This isn’t to say that, if you’re a good person, the universe will reward you with a good team. And if you are bad, then the universe will punish you. If only that were true! Here’s what it means: the investment you put into developing and nurturing your team will dictate the quality of teamwork and individual commitment you will get out.

Communication Again

So, how do you invest in your team? You guessed it—communication. I only recently concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that project management is 80 percent communication. Something I have noticed in myself and in almost every project manager I have known is this: what project managers crave, above all else, is control. We are not control freaks. But our job is simple. It’s to bring control to uncertain, complex, shifting, and sometimes confusing environments. And we have designed many of our methods and tools to help us do just that.

4. The universe is not on your side

The uncomfortable truth here is that the universe doesn’t take sides. And it certainly won’t respect your plan. For many project managers, a favorite quote comes from a Prussian General. Helmuth von Moltke said: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” But, as the eternal optimist, I find myself more drawn to a quote from US General and President Dwight D Eisenhower: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” What I take from this is that we cannot control the outcomes. But we can control our preparation and readiness for the unexpected.

5. You can’t please all your stakeholders all of the time

I’ve paraphrased the classic quote that’s often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It reflects my experience. In any complex project, you’ll have many stakeholders. You’ll have different agendas, power bases, and styles to deal with. And each will have different wants and needs from their colleagues. This is why Project scoping is the hardest part of project management. This is where you need to reconcile all the different points of view. But the uncomfortable truth is that you can rarely do so completely. No matter how hard you work and how ingeniously you negotiate, there will often be some stakeholders you leave unsatisfied with.

Projects Are Political

This takes us back to the point I made with my first uncomfortable truth. Project managers cannot avoid politics. Scoping is only partly about negotiating the best mix of functionality, specification and quality. It is largely about finding the right political compromise. This is one that respects the relative power of competing stakeholders.

6. An absentee Project Manager is a contradiction in terms

There was a time when I went from being seen as a competent project manager to being regarded as a good one. “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is what can you make people believe you have done.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet. I went to give advice and support less-experienced project managers. And at that point, my firm would sometimes ask me to visit other projects. For some reason, those were the days when things went wrong, back on my own Project.

The Monitor and Control Cycle

The more frequently you monitor what’s happening on your Project, the sooner you pick up problems. The sooner you pick them up, the smaller they are. Consequently, they are easier to resolve. And, because you are often monitoring, you can check on the effect of the intervention and tweak it quickly if you need to. But, if you fail to monitor often enough, the first you’ll sometimes learn of a problem is when it’s already big. So, you’ll need a sizeable intervention to fix it. But then, if it’s a while before you can check it, any residual issues can quickly blow up out of control. A project manager must be present to monitor and control your Project. If you are not, you aren’t managing your Project.

7. Shift happens!

I’ve already implied the universe carries no candle for your Project. Indeed, the reality is worse than that. Your Project exists within a wider context of:

  1. Shifting politics
  2. Evolving technology
  3. Unstable economics
  4. Commercial disruption
  5. Legislative and regulatory churn
  6. Threats to security

Is it any wonder that your plan is out of date on day two?

It’s what I came here for… As someone who likes predictability, that’s an uncomfortable truth. But I found that I am also someone who relishes the challenge of constant problem-solving. There’s a sense of achievement when you do something. And there’s even more when you do something against the odds. The reality is that sometimes, a little bit of scary last-minute-man-ship is exciting. And that’s what a lot of us, me included, love about projects.

8. Attention to detail makes the difference between success and failure

Project managers are mostly can-do people. So, when it comes down to the last stage of a project or sorting through the final details, we’d rather be off, starting something new and more exciting. For us, JDI (short for “Just Do It,” the Nike tagline) is one adjective short of our favorite mantra (JFDI). So, the uncomfortable truth here is that we can’t just ignore the project closure process. Or, more accurately, we mustn’t. And it hurts. Because your team will want to be off, part of your role will be to manage their exits from your Project and into new placements. You will be no less impatient than them. But the devil is in the details, to use a cliché. If you abandon your Project before it is finished, or ignore the details because they bore you, there’s a price to pay. And it will be a big one. You’ll have put in 80 percent of the effort. But your Project could be only 20 percent of the success it should have been. Attention to detail is crucial. Without it, you could turn a successful project into a sad failure. Truths don’t get more uncomfortable than that.