CXO

First-time project managers need failures

One of the greatest impediments to a first-time project manager's success is their need to succeed. Paul Glen says there are three things they really need -- and early success isn't one of them.

Nothing succeeds like success, except in project management where nothing succeeds like failure.

Managing an IT project is very difficult, especially the first time you try it. The project manager's days and nights are filled with stress, worry, dreams, aspirations, and fear. Some first timers are overwhelmed by their newfound power, while some are weighed down by the responsibility. But for most, the overriding concern is to avoid both personal and project failure.

This fear is often instilled and/or reinforced by the project manager's supervisor. The new assignment is often initiated with comments like, "Don't screw this up." "This is your big chance to shine." Or, "don't make me look bad and regret giving you this opportunity." Trust me, those sorts of comments really help first timers succeed.

For the project manager, this sort of fear is not only counterproductive, but also misplaced. In fact, I think that every first time project manager desperately needs to fail. That's right. I'm not just saying that it's ok to fail; I'm saying that if they don't fail, they may never learn to be effective project managers. In fact, complete success may set their management careers back by years.

As a manager, consultant, trainer, and coach, I've had the opportunity to work with hundreds of first-time project managers, and I've become convinced that one of the greatest impediments to their success is their need to succeed. If against all odds they do manage to succeed, they fall prey to the twin career killers, arrogance and self-confidence, depriving them of the opportunity to grow and learn.

Project management is such a complex discipline that it is completely impossible for a first timer to have mastered all the subtleties of task, people, and risk management. In fact, it's impossible for anyone, no matter how experienced, to have mastered it all. The successful first timer is invariably lulled into a false sense of security that they know much more than they really do. They become convinced that they are now fully-fledged managers and can take on anything.

What's more dangerous is that they get brain freeze. They stop learning. Why learn when you have mastered a topic?

It can take two or three failed projects to undo the career damage inflicted by early success before a new project manager reclaims the humility and open-mindedness that they started with. Unfortunately, by that time, their careers have probably absorbed major damage. It is one thing to be seen as making a few mistakes as a first timer; it's another to have demonstrated a pattern of failure. Both the manager's image and self-image have been irretrievably damaged.

So what does the first timer need?

  • A few big mistakes
  • Permission to make those mistakes
  • Coaching and introspection to learn from them

If you are a first-time project manager, be prepared for some problems along the way. Relax and enjoy the ride. No one will lose respect for you.

If you are the manager of a first timer, give them permission to make mistakes. When they do, make sure that they learn from them and don't make the same ones again. Coach them about the sources of problems and the meaning of their failures. It's normal for them to have difficulties, but make sure that you view them as training investments and not as screw-ups. Your job is to ensure that you get the maximum return on investment for the training that mistakes offer.

Becoming a project manager is hard work, but a little failure will help make the transition from individual producer to manager more successful.

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