By John Sullivan

While assigning me to a politically challenging task, my boss told me I would be serving as point man, meaning I would be the one leading people on the new assignment. In military terms, the point man is the person in front on a patrol, the first one to see trouble, and, often, the first to step on a land mine.

Project managers frequently have to negotiate around figurative land mines. We sometimes have to redirect the team in order to deal with project evolution and deadline issues. This scenario can lead to isolation from the rest of the team, even though making difficult decisions is an important part of good project management.

“The most important quality in a business person for at least the next decade will be…a character trait,” Geoffrey Colvin wrote in the Dec. 29, 1997, issue of Fortune magazine, “a willingness, even an eagerness, to make large, painful decisions.”

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Project management people need to make difficult decisions, but they also need to be part of the team. Being excluded as a “problem person” can mean being shut out of those informal exchanges at lunch or at the coffee machine where the more genuine information is shared. This doesn’t mean people are untruthful in formal project management meetings, but you’re likely to get better information during these informal gatherings.

How to announce project changes
How you deliver news to a group affects their sense of value,” said Katherine Lewis, who holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and is a therapist in Dayton, OH. When delivering a mandated change (like requiring overtime to meet a delivery date), Dr. Lewis suggests building in time between the delivery of the news and the reactions to it.

“It’s important to have a forum for people to respond to mandated change,” she says. “When you announce a change, announce a subsequent meeting to solicit reaction to that change. It acknowledges that you understand the effects this change may have.”

Once you announce a difficult decision, don’t be drawn into private conversations with friendly colleagues who want to know “what you really think.” Keep your opinions to yourself and your behaviors consistent with your words. If you profess even the slightest disagreement, the team will discover it and probably find a way to use it against you. That will make the next unpleasant decision even more difficult to announce.

Engage team members
An obvious way to avoid becoming alienated from team members is to involve them. When you can, solicit them for possible solutions to a problem before making an announcement. In this way, project management professionals are acting like psychologists by performing an assessment. “Don’t define things for your team,” Dr. Lewis said. “Elicit responses from them—then say if it will or will not work.”

If you’re developing alternatives for meeting schedules, ask the team for input before recommending a solution. Soliciting input “makes a person feel valued,” Dr. Lewis said.

Dr. Lewis warns that members of your team may feel “disempowered” after they hear bad news. “To make them feel empowered, ask them what they need. If you can meet even part of their needs, it can help them save face and feel empowered again.” You don’t have to do everything they suggest. “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing,” Dr. Lewis said. “You can accept part of what they say. Even if you reject their ideas, they already know you value them because you asked for their input.”

Dr. Lewis is quick to note that you must have good intentions and be sincere when seeking your team’s ideas. “You can’t reject them 100 percent of the time—they’ll realize it’s a game you’re playing.”

Don’t forget to build personal relationships, or network, with your teammates.

Team lunches, parties after work, and softball games are not only social activities but can also serve as team-building exercises. Getting to know your team members is important because you’ll have a better idea of what motivates them and what they value. You may also gain insight into how team members will react to unexpected changes, such as requiring overtime to complete a project.

Since project management adds no revenue, it must add value by making sure assignments are completed on time, on budget, and of good quality. Any difficult decision that leads to those kinds of results will help you finish a point man assignment not only in one piece but also as a part of the team.

This article was originally published on gantthead on April 1, 2002.

John Sullivan is a technical manager for a Fortune 1000 IT company and has written extensively on project and career management issues. He is a contributing editor to PM Network, the official magazine of the Project Management Institute, where he writes “The Middle Ground” column.