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In my last three blogs (the links are listed at the end of this post), I have focused was on how a schedule of availability is used at a macro level.  I discussed its value to an organization that wants to assess capacity. It’s worth understanding that the schedule has more of a micro use too. Project managers use it, to some extent, to control project teams. The requirement that people on your team tell you when they plan to work on your project activities (often for months into the future) is just another effort to control your project teams.

When people talk about managing projects, the conversations center on how to manage or control project teams. The traditional project management approach involves a fair amount of control. We must control the team, the schedule, the costs, and the scope, to ensure the triple constraint is met. But, do you really need to control your project teams? Is there a better way?

Many of the great management thinkers distinguish between management and leadership – with most believing that leadership is far more important. Simon Sinek, in his book, Leaders Eat Last Deluxe: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, tells the story of the transformation of a company that Bob Chapman purchased.

On Chapman’s first day, after talking with a leader in one of the plants, he removed the time clocks and abolished the pay phones that plant workers were required to use. He then took the locks off of the supply cage that housed spare parts and began to show trust in the plant employees. Almost immediately, the enthusiasm for coming into work skyrocketed. Ultimately, Chapman led that company out of a crisis. Sinek says that no one has managed a company out of a crisis.

So, why are you hiring people and making them think they should control your project teams? Why aren’t your project managers serving your project teams? Can we let go of the need to control the schedule, control the scope, control the costs, and control the team?

Can we let go of the need to control the schedule, control the scope, control the costs, and control the team? Click To Tweet

Let me be crystal clear. I am NOT saying that meeting deadlines is unimportant, or that scope control is unnecessary. Cost management can be incredibly important. And, we can’t forget the importance of managing risks, issues, communications, contracts, and quality.

I’m saying that if we place the focus on delivering real value regularly, build a culture of trust, empower our teams, and emphasize improvement, the rest will fall into place (with a little attention). Here are some suggestions.

Build a team that is focused on the why.

I’ve written before about the importance on focusing the team on a compelling why. A team that is excited about what it is doing is hard to beat. But some projects are more exciting than others. If you are having a hard time developing that compelling cause, think about the people – more than the numbers.

Deliver value regularly. Assess. Learn. Improve.

We need to stop thinking about checking off the activities after they are done, and focus on delivering value to the client, or to your management team. The goal is not the completion of the activity. It is delivering that activity to the client (or to management) and getting their feedback. Feedback gives us valuable insights about what works, what doesn’t work, what is needed, and what is wanted. (And want and need are not the same thing. Know the difference.)

Let me add a comment here about the impact of gender on this task. I recently read Joanne Lipman’s book, That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working TogetherAccording to informal research done by one of the author’s friends – Matt Krentz at Boston Consulting Group – women process negative feedback differently than men.

Women put greater weight on the negative and they can take it more personally. We need to center the feedback conversations on what has been learned about the product or service, and not the people. Typically, I recommend conducting these conversations as a group, with the key people present, but if it’s a conversation about a personality conflict or performance weakness, do that in private.

Distinguish between fixed deadlines and target deadlines

I’ve said this before. Not all deadlines are equal. Your job is to know which deadlines are critical. It may be driven by a legal requirement, or management, or the client.

I’ve worked with people who need a deadline on everything. They are often very busy people, juggling a lot of balls. They just don’t seem to want to work on your project activities until the night before (or the weekend before) the deadline. For those people, I try to use the end of the sprint (or time block) as the deadline – to give them something to work towards. It’s motivating to finish a sprint and declare victory on all of the activities that were in progress. You may not finish everything, but when you do, it’s quite a celebration.

But apart from using sprints as a way to manage work, there are going to be some super important deadlines that you can’t miss. Know what they are. Watch them like a hawk. It’s like filing your taxes on 4/15. I call these – fixed deadlines. I call the other deadlines – target deadlines. And I use them as guides, or targets.

Set high expectations when appropriate.

One of my earliest exposures to Scrum was from a guy who didn’t explain it very well. What I took away from our conversations was that he was always working at 120%, he was always stressed, and he never had time for his family. This is no way to live.

One of the roles of the project manager is to understand when to push the team a little, and when to relax. In my experience, if you can focus the team on the importance of the project, they will give it their all – most of the time. And that should be enough. No one can or should work at 120% every day. If you can relax and let the work be fun, people will be motivated, and they will come into work happier.

If you can relax and let the work be fun, people will be motivated, and they will come into work happier. Click To Tweet

Pick your battles

One of the most important project management lessons I learned came from raising five children – not from PMBOK. Projects are busy endeavors. People can get overwhelmed by the details. And we’ve all heard the saying: the devil is in the details.

But not all details are equally important. Some deadlines are critical; others are just guidelines. Some problems are small; others are much more serious. One of the jobs of the project manager is to be able to prioritize details without losing sight of the big picture. Pick your battles. Don’t turn every problem into World War III. Save your ammunition for a real crisis.

Use project management processes to drive the project forward more effectively.

While I don’t think project managers need to control everything, I do think projects have a lot of details that need to be managed. And project managers can best serve the team when they provide a framework that allows the team members to work without too many distractions.

You need to build a framework, or a set of processes, that helps you manage the project. I’ve written before about the Smart Projex method in a series that starts here. Part of your framework might be some well-designed meetings.

Meetings, with the right people around the table, are a great time to build accountability, identify new risks, discuss improved ways of accomplishing a specific objective, and debating alternatives. The key is to think ahead about the purpose of the meetings and organize your agenda for maximum effectiveness. We are all social animals. Slack, and other such tools are great for some things. But, there is no substitute for the back and forth dialogue in a meeting, provided that you ensure that the meeting goals are accomplished.

Protect the team from chaos.

Chaos can come from a variety of places – including change, competition, people, and technology. Your job, as project manager, is to protect your project teams from chaos.

Part of your set of processes needs to include a process for managing change. But suppose the chaos is coming from leadership changes that are threatening project teams? OR, suppose the company is transitioning from one technology to another, replete with hours of training that will distract your project teams? There are no easy answers. But try to protect your teams from chaos.

Celebrate wins

Whether the accomplishment is the completion of a major amount of work, one significant activity, great feedback, or a positive media announcement, look for things to celebrate. Celebrate the little wins to drive momentum and empower people.

If we place the focus on delivering real value regularly, build a culture of trust, empower our teams, and emphasize improvement, the rest will fall into place (with a little attention). Click To Tweet

Have you ever wondered why HR departments frequently put out a newsletter, announcing employee birthdays, but pay no attention to work anniversaries? Why is staying alive for another year such an accomplishment, when working for your company for an entire year is irrelevant?

Looking for more project management tips? Sign up for my newsletter. And here are the links to the previous blogs in this series.

Is a Project Schedule of Availability Really Needed?

If We Don’t Use a Resource Schedule of Availability, What Should We Use?

People Management Metrics That Actually Help