Mar 102011

I’ve often liked the idea: “If it looks like I have nothing to do then I’m doing an extremely good job as a project manager”. To me this means I’ve got life under control, all the plates are spinning and life is good. This may come as a surprise though. After all, the corporate world of customer facing projects is driven by productivity right? If you’re not rushing to another meeting, to busy even to exchange pleasantries as you storm down the corridor, you’re wasting time, squandering a limited resource, failing in what’s expected of you. Could it be that by doing less, but by doing that less better, you end up with a better quality product or service?

You’ve seen them – the people who always seem to be rushing. They never seem to have time to relax, to have a deep, meaningful discussion about anything. They’re always rushing to the next meeting, task, appointment. It doesn’t matter what background or environment they come from. Just take a look at the freeway team in the mornings, or any time for that matter. Rush, Rush, Rush. Why? Do all the drivers you see on the motorway have such fulfilling lives and jobs that they desperately need to get there in such a hurry, at all costs, even at risk to life and limb?

In working with new Project Managers [PM’s] I often see them struggling to find their feet; desperately spinning their plates to run their projects, deal with difficult clients and situations, find time to update their project  plans and financial reporting, keep their teams on track. I see them concerned about “Are they doing the right thing?” There’s nothing wrong with this commitment and effort. It’s a good thing. The world doesn’t need people, even less Project Managers, who aren’t interesting in doing their best. But here’s the thing. Could one tone down the frantic action a little, create some space and time for personal thought, reflection and ineer peace while still meeting the expectations regarding one’s job and ones projects? How do you decide where to focus your energy and talents, what is the 20 in the 80/20 rule? How do you balance your desire to do a good job [a perfect job?] with the desire to also have a life outside your work and your projects?

There’s no denying that one benefits from a little bit of life under the belt before you actually begin develop a reliable ‘gut-feel’ for things but is there a way to speed up this experience thing? [That’s a little bit of the ‘I want it now’ attitude all too common in the world these days]. I look at my young PM peers and the way they approach their work. Its gratifying to see commitment, a willingness to do one’s best and yet sometimes I want to scream and say. “Stop, take it easy. It will all work itself out.”

I see a lot of myself in Jim [not his real name] when I was starting out in my PM career, as is he. Much of the same drive, perfectionism, ambition. It’s gratifying that he has chosen me as his mentor and he often taps on my door for a chat. Most times I know that deep down he is looking for the ‘one true answer’ to the problem, a quick fix for his dilemma. He denies that it’s that, but I know it is, I was there myself remember. “What’s the formula to fix this?” is the question. Also, I’ve got to the stage in my life where I know I don’t know everything and also am not afraid to tell him so. The best I can do is drag out past experiences of my own that somewhat relate to his challenges of the present. And you know what? It seems to help. I waffle endlessly. He returns again and again for more. That must be an indicator of something, a help for us both in some form or another. I get to exercise my mind, he get’s to see some options he may not have thought about.

So what are the important things? Is it possible to have a short checklist [because project managers love checklists right] that will clearly show the important 20? Here’s a stab in the dark:

  • The customer is No.1
      • Manage the client relationship at all costs. An unhappy client calling management will bring you stress, big time. It will cause you to be reactive, put you on the back foot and you’ll have to drop everything in a flurry of panic to sort out someone else’s priority at that moment. Sure, one can’t always foresee everything and there will be moments of true need where you should immediately stop what you’re doing and deal with the issues. But remember the thought; “Is someone dying?” Things are seldom as important as they are made out to be. Relax, breath, obtain all the facts and then act.
  • Risk Management
      • You don’t want to be paranoid or continually pessimistic, but think about what can go wrong and put plans in place to deal with it. Do some basic scenario planning, identify risk triggers. That way, when something happens to throw your life and your project off-track, you’ll have a plan which you can adapt and put into action right away.
  • Know your team.
      • In theory you should have hand-picked your own team but we all know that in real life you get what you’re given and you need to make it fly. Some team members can be left on their own. Others need to be micro-managed [unfortunately]. Know who is closest to the problem and take appropriate steps to support them in dealing with unexpected issues. Leaving inexperienced team members on their own for too long is a sure-fire way of picking up issues and crises down the line.
  • Know your internal stakeholders
      • Besides the client and the project team there will be certain individuals in your organisation who are interested in you project and what’s happening around it. Departmental managers have a need to know about key issues and staffing requirements. Finance, at certain key times, want updated project finances. Executive management may want regular communications sessions depending on the strategic importance of your project. There may be others interests, but identify the important ones, proactively prepare the data before it’s needed and you’ll give the perception of being in control, no matter what is happening at grass-roots level.

 So, my sincere hope is that you will look at me and think – why isn’t he stressed out? Why isn’t he rushing? Why isn’t he concerned with the size of his To-Do List? For me, this is a part of what makes me successful. Life is about more than just productivity. Focus on the really important stuff and you’ll have time to immerse yourself into meaningful growth and development activities. It’s not about looking or feeling busy. Consider the Effort vs Perfection Graph in everything you do. How much is enough? Every single thing doesn’t have to be perfect, it really only needs to be ‘Good Enough’. It’s not about filling every waking hour with buzz and activity. It is about doing an outstanding job on the few items that will really make a difference.

Good luck in your search to hone in on the important few!

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