Project Management

Three ways project managers give in to threats


We live in a corporate environment (and indeed a social one) where the fear of personal, financial, or political harm counts for more than the honest calculation of risk. Economists are slowly starting to key onto this with their calculations of “perceived risk”; priests, theologians, and mothers everywhere probably realized this somewhere around the time humans started to speak. As project managers, we have to deal not only with the threats we face ourselves, but also the threats an organization's management react to and the threats which press down upon our project resources.

All of these threats wear down our enthusiasm and determination. They also prevent us from doing what's right rather than what will shield us from fear. We worry more about doing what our bosses want, what our executives might want, and what ever will keep people's eyes off of our project than honestly trying to get the job done on time, under budget, and within the requirements.

In our role as project managers we give in to threats in a variety of ways. The most prominent of these is to misreport data about misalignments in resources, time, or function requests from the project. We can also obscure the work we do behind layers and layers of data, hide issues as they occur, and place ourselves in a situation where we control all of the inflowing information, thereby shaping our perception of reality so that it no longer matches with what is really going on.

Misreporting happens all the time. Most of us can do simple calculations or look at a calendar and tell when things fall behind. We know from personal experience that we do not have enough time or that our resources are stretched too thin. Yet we say nothing. We become afraid that the project will be canceled or our contracts terminated if we do not do exactly what we are told when we are told it. It happens often enough, in fact, that the threat has some teeth in it.

Another failure, one that I've fallen into from time to time myself, involves generating too much reporting data. On one hand it looks like we've accomplished something. Hundreds of reports showing that we've done something with our time, certainly look better than an entire day spent on the phone talking with people and having nothing tangible to show for it. Just as important, the volume of the information shared insures that we can control the conversations around it. We direct people to the “important” parts, and subtly shade the rest to support what we want to say.

Hiding issues is another favorite failing of mine. It's easy to talk about how all issues should be escalated to management. It's simple to say “Why yes, we should have talked about this earlier.” But we also know that people want projects to be quiet and perfect. Perturbations along the project path do nothing to endear a project manager to his managers. Indeed, they are usually seen as failures on the part of the project manager, and can become grounds for dismissal when the inevitable witch-hunt begins.

The last failing is probably the most insidious. As project managers it is our responsibility to report project status. When people want answers about a project, they come to us. It's easy to make all information flow up to us first, for vetting and perception management, before it reaches anyone else. Logical, even. Unfortunately this kind of activity actively leads those who report to us to taint the truth. They tell us what we want to hear or what they think will make us happy rather than what we really need to know. We then pass on the bad information in total confidence, now unaware of events in our own project environment.

I don't have any easy answers for dealing with threats. We don't talk much about the importance of feelings in business or how vital a role our emotions play in our decision making processes.

2 comments
gpellett
gpellett

"fear of personal, financial, or political harm" -- realize that even in today's poor economy, it is not the end of the world if you lose your current job. Aggravating yes, but you shouldn't become instantly homeless. If a threat is personal, take it straight to your HR department and make them understand that there can be repercussions. If it is financial, get your ducks in a row. Live below your means, pay down debt and accumulate some savings. Eventually those unveiled job threats won't work very well. If it is political, start finding your new job because once you're marked (at most companies) you're already dead meat. None of this can happen overnight, but if you work on it you will be much better off -- and sooner then you might expect. "misreport data" -- do your very best to avoid this. Those people you think you're protecting will not return the favor, and once your credibility is tarnished you're dead meat again. Tell managers and customers the truth despite what they want to hear. Losing some face as a project manager is better than the humility of being slaughtered when the **** hits the fan. And document everything you report, including what was said by whom and when. It may not save your job but it casts doubt on your accusers. "too much reporting data" and "Hiding issues" -- be honest with the facts that count. Burying problems within clutter is just as bad as leaving it out or lying about it. You're a professional adult. Be responsible. "all information flow up to us first, for vetting and perception management" -- agreed, this is standard project manager behavior that is hard to self discipline. Have group status meetings (at least with key players on issues) and ask each member to present and discuss his part. You?ll get better teamwork and less result coloring because you will document the results and use that document as part of your presentation to other managers and customers. If you have time, pass your document by your team to make sure it does represent what they said -- but don't let them waffle or change stances. That's an indication of trouble and time for another reckoning. It's hard to "talk much about the importance of feelings in business or how vital a role our emotions play in our decision making processes" but it is reasonable to keep these goals in sight: ethics, candor, professionalism, and positive working environment. Lead by example and you should get similar treatment from the reasonable folks. Distance yourself from the unreasonable folks as best you can, otherwise they will rub off on you.

imhorwood
imhorwood

The role of a Project Manager is not an easy one but then again that is why we do it! As mentioned in the excellent response we are professionals and as long as we maintain that professionalism and remember what we are trying to achieve we will win. Bottom line is do not lower your standards and ethics to meet the needs of others. Stand up and demand that they raise their game for the good of the project, the team and the business. A good project manager will not just deliver projects on time, to budget and to the required quality. They should also be a driver of standards and attitude by ensuring that in all instances they exhibit and demand a professional and courteous manner. In the 'real world' this is not as easy to do as type, and it is much easier to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator. Always insist on being treated, and treat others, professionally. If this is not forth coming then the only choice is find an organisation that has the same approach and ethical standards as yourself.

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