Q&A with The Project Whisperer, part one

What a thrill and honor it was on December 14th to present a Project Whisperer webinar to 660 attendees! Many thanks to the wonderful team at The Project Management Bookstore for sponsoring this great event.

We spent about 15 minutes on Q&A, and some good questions were emailed afterward. In this Q&A series, I’ll recap questions that were asked during and after the webinar.  My grateful thanks to all who attended and sent in rave reviews. It was truly my pleasure! Stay tuned for announcements of future webinars, which are eligible for PDU credit to maintain PMI certifications.

Q: How do you change the Firefighter approach people take to projects?

A: As with most behavior of teams or individuals, I look for the underlying cause or driver. I define “firefighters” as those types who thrive in situations of great urgency and visibility requiring quick thinking and sometimes heroics. With that said, firefighting is an extremely useful quality when the circumstances truly call for it.However,  we too often encounter adrenaline junkies who aren’t motivated UNLESS there’s a fire. There may even be arsonists who deliberately set fires to create the excitement they crave.

It’s really important to understand what is behind the behavior. Some questions I would ask myself (and perhaps even the team member) are:

–       Is this person not engaged or invested in the goal of the project? Are they in need of some “justification” for their participation? Is this project truly considered important by all stakeholders?

–       Does our organizational culture tend to inadvertently encourage this behavior by rewarding it?

–       Does the team member need more hands-on oversight in order to plan more effectively—thus avoiding the last-minute firedrills?

–       Is the team member procrastinating for some other reason—workload? Bandwidth? Lack of skills necessary for the project role?

There are no simple answers when it comes to the spectrum of human behavior. The important thing is to recognize behavior as a symptom, and dig for what’s causing it.

Q: What tips do you have for pulling people out of the “Valley of Despair” on their projects?”

A: I address this more fully in my book The Project Whisperer. Here are a few quick tips for pulling the team out of this stage where reality hits and the team becomes overwhelmed by magnitude and complexity.

–       Acknowledge to the team that this is a normal part of the project curve, not a sign of something wrong.

–       Roll up your own sleeves as project manager and become immersed in the details of requirements gathering, data collection, analysis, or whatever is needed to get through.

–       Provide for creature comforts so that the team is not distracted by poor environmental conditions (e.g., confined space, poor access to refreshments, bad lighting, room temperatures chronically too hot or cold, malfunctioning speakerphones, etc.)

–       Have fun. Take some time to lighten up. Hold a Friday afternoon meeting off-site at a pub. Create a trivia contest with silly prizes. Laugh together—it makes a big difference.

Q: How do you handle individuals who are very emotional or sensitive in nature?

A: Most of us have been Myers-Brigg’ed or DISC-ed or assessed by some other personality typing tool—so we realize that people perceive and judge situations through different filters. A discussion that will seem stimulating to one person could be totally threatening to another. When facing off with someone who seems to be very emotional or sensitive, try to discern whether it’s a stylistic difference, or there’s something else underlying that’s making this person feel threatened or defensive. I’m a big fan of approaching someone privately, acknowledging what I think I’m observing, and asking if I can help in any way. That may uncover what’s bothering this person.

Another really valuable technique is “flexing” to someone else’s personality profile, as detailed in the book People Styles At Work by Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton. These techniques bridge gaps or misunderstandings created by stylistic differences. Someone you perceive as “too sensitive” may simply be deeply analytical and needing to create space for thought before response.

Q: Do you have an approach of how to address disrespect on a team?

A: Depends on what you mean by disrespect. Let’s assume that you’re dealing with someone who is rude, offensive, or degrading to others on the team. In that case, I address this head-on in a private discussion with the “offender”, talking about team norms and how we will treat each other. You may find out that there’s something else going on—perhaps a long-standing feud between two people, or a grudge someone is holding. It is also possible that the offender is not aware of the effect of their behavior, which they may think is just being funny or sarcastic.

Building “Team Norms” up front with the group can go a long way to heading off behavior that can be considered disrespectful. For example, I personally find tardiness to be very disrespectful of everyone’s time. My team norms always include a rule that a person notifies the PM if they expect to be more than 5 minutes late to a meeting. Another good norm is determining the decision-making framework for issues. Is it doing to be a democratic vote, or advisory input with the PM making the final decision?

Q: Any suggestions on how to find a balance between accepting change (new technology, methodology or any new process) versus deciding how much Risk can we take for a certain project?  As a project manager we often find ourselves refereeing between people on either side because going too heavy either way could be detrimental to the project and individual’s career.

A: Managing change is one of the most important things we do as project managers. We tend to view change as “bad” or “risky” because it throws uncertainty into our well-structured plan… and we worry that the blame will boomerang back on us if things go “boom.”

While I agree with you that serving as “referee” is a dangerous move, I am in favor of project managers serving as decision-drivers. When a change is imposed, it is our role to assess the benefits vs. the risks, and present those to decision-makers in a clear and compelling manner. There’s nothing wrong with taking on high risk, as long as the key stakeholders fully understand and embrace the trade-off they are making. It can be the hardest part of our jobs to insist on alignment from the right people, and to refuse to move forward until it is addressed. With full alignment, the project manager is in a strong position to move forward without bearing the full burden of the risk themselves.

(COME BACK for PART 2 of the “Q&A Series” next week!)

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