The nature of project management puts the project manager in a precarious situation. PMs can sometimes feel trapped between the demands of senior management and the requirements of the development process. As a project manager, you are expected to serve as the point person, leading your troops through the development battlefield. Unfortunately, serving as the lead also means you may be the first person who is wounded in battle.
Where do you turn for reinforcements? Senior managers may not be an option if they are not accessible. Some PMs may be reluctant to seek advice from above because to do so gives the appearance of sucking up. And you can’t easily look to your reports for support because your job requires that you appear strong and confident, not uncertain or weary.
Turning to your lateral peers may be the answer. Are there those at your level of management to whom you can turn for advice and support?
Develop camaraderie among competitors
One reason we seldom look to our peers for support in times of difficulty is that most of our lateral peers are competitors. Within your department, if you are a line manager rather than a department head, you are probably one of several. Beyond your department, the problem may be that you don't often work with other line managers, except as information providers in the planning of IT projects. Some of these peers may even consider you a service provider (that is to say, with a touch of condescension), even if they are equal to or below you in rank.
You may compete for project and personnel resources. Sometimes this competition can be purely professional, of no lasting consequence. Sometimes it can be petty and even personal. This type of competition may make it difficult to seek council or assistance.
Consider now that it may be time to put a new spin on these types of peer relationships. In order to build a future alliance, perhaps you can consider forging a partnership. If, for instance, you and a peer manager or managers are going to receive pieces of some upcoming large-scale implementation, you may wish to suggest a preemptive meeting and game out some possible sharing of resources. You can then present your ideas to higher-level program planners among more senior managers; you’ll win some points for this strategy, but more importantly, you’ll have taken a first step in developing good relations with your peer managers.
Share tricks of the trade
I once shared an office with a peer manager with whom I professionally had little in common. He was old guard; he had even worked on the Apollo space program. He was a rough, impatient, by-the-book kind of guy. I'm more "touchy feely" and prefer to focus more on people and empowerment. We competed for resources and personnel and were set up by senior management to be mutual antagonists in every way.
Yet when I approached him about his highly efficient and clever use of Microsoft Project, he opened up instantly and was very pleased to share his Project secrets and shortcuts. His tips helped me stay centered on hitting my marks and allowed me to compensate when development glitches arose. I learned a great deal from him because he always had a perfect grasp of available resource hours, reallocation, and schedule. His shortcoming was that he couldn’t motivate and inspire his charges. It wasn't long before he turned to me to help him smooth the way with some team members with whom he didn’t get along.
Although sharing office space could have been a very uncomfortable situation, we instead traded valuable skills and, as a result, formed a positive and productive alliance.
In many cases, however, you may encounter line managers who fiercely protect their individualism and may be unwilling to share their hard-earned expertise.
One of the best ways to develop a relationship is to inquire about those tricks of the trade. If asked, these managers may be pleased and even proud to share their trade secrets. When they do, you will not only gain valuable knowledge, but you will also be on the road to developing a more productive working relationship.
Seek help on how to guide your troops
Dealing with personnel matters is one area where consulting with peers may provide the most benefit. The one thing you most likely have in common is day-to-day oversight of hands-on personnel. Whether in the same department or across departments, it is likely that managers share a common bond in dealing with similar personnel issues. You’ve certainly seen the same productivity issues, personality conflicts, politics, and other headaches.
Why not turn to such a peer manager the next time one of your people gives you grief? You may discover a completely new perspective and a new approach for coping with the problem if you take the problem to someone who knows something about what you’re going through.
Practice the art of compromise
In forming lateral alliances, there’s a step you can take that will not only make your life easier but will also help you build a more solid reputation with your department heads and even senior management. Do you sit down at program management meetings ready to fight and argue for increased budget and resource hours? If so, consider another approach.
Success in building bridges with peer managers will allow you to try a new scenario. Try putting yourself, your team, and your planning process on a cooperative, rather than a competitive, platform. The benefit you can reap from building a consulting relationship with your peers comes in a change to the way you conduct business. Instead of sitting at the planning table and fighting over resources, you may be able to plan ways to share them, build synergy, and adopt a less territorial team spirit. It won’t happen overnight and it may never happen to the degree you seek. But you can make it happen by breaking down barriers, practicing a new openness, and seeking a new point of view.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.