Creating The Path of Least Resistance

Project Managers face a tough leadership challenge. Typically, the people assigned to your project team are not direct reports, and yours is just one of several projects they’re doing simultaneously.  It can be hard getting them to focus on your project–to submit regular status updates, to attend meetings, and so on.

As a Project Manager, you have to dig deep into your tool bag for ways to exert influence without authority.  Of course, using incentives can help—so long as you have something to offer. Generally, a Project Manager won’t have any great reward to bestow for submitting dashboard metrics on time. And then there’s the evil twin of incentive, the “punitive” approach, where something bad happens if someone fails to comply. You probably don’t have that power, either, and negative reinforcement only works in very small doses as a last resort.

There’s another option. You can create a Path of Least Resistance for your team to perform. Remove as many hassles and obstacles as possible. Make it easy for the team to meet your request. Give an alternative option that is as inviting as possible.

For example, if you want weekly status updates, provide a really simple template that is accessible centrally for team members to populate. Then send out a reminder email once a week with a link to the template.  If they are already providing project status in some other format (say, to their own boss) then consider accepting their format instead.

You can find Paths of Least Resistance by asking or observing what keeps team members from fulfilling your requests.  Let’s say you’re not receiving the budget numbers you asked for. By checking around, you discover that folks need to meet with a Finance rep before they can give you the numbers… and scheduling meetings with the Finance team takes a lot of effort. Well, maybe you can schedule a Finance person to be available for one full day, and have team members cycle through. Or you could set up a daily “open house” with a Finance rep for each day at 3:00 p.m. for a week, so team members can drop in.

I once managed Facilities at a small non-profit back in the days when everything was printed on paper. Many people would use the manual hole-puncher in the mail room. Those little paper circles would end up on the floor, and then get tracked throughout the office. The cleaning service came only on the weekends, so by Friday the place would look really ratty.  Our President was a perfectionist who would get extremely incensed about the “confetti” everywhere. My first move was to post a sign asking folks to sweep up their mess. Nothing happened–because walking across the hall to the broom closet took time and energy away from someone in a rush. But when I mounted a rechargeable Dust Buster on the wall right next to the puncher, nearly 100% of the holes were cleaned up. Voila! A Path of Least Resistance created, and a lesson learned.

Look for ways you can create Paths of Least Resistance for your project team and you’ll discover how much of a difference it can make.


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