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Building the relationships on your teams is more important than managing project deadlines. In the weeks since Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, it has been heartening to read stories of her relationship with Justice Scalia. In a story recounted over Twitter, Christopher Scalia, son of the Justice, shares the story of Judge Jeffrey Sutton visiting Justice Scalia and learning that he was about to deliver two dozen roses to Justice Ginsberg on her birthday. Questioning whether Scalia’s generosity towards Ginsberg had ever swayed her voting, Scalia remarked that “Some things are more important than votes.

Justice Scalia said: 'Some things are more important than votes.' That’s how I feel about most project deadlines. Very few project deadlines are that important. But the relationships on your team are critical. Share on X

That’s how I feel about most project deadlines. Very few project deadlines are that important. But the relationships on your team are critical. So why do I think most project deadlines aren’t important? And why do most traditional project managers disagree? Maybe they don’t anymore. The tide has been turning in recent years and even old-school project managers are increasingly focusing on leadership.

But from what I see, those studying project management, at least in the US, are still taught a comparably larger number of techniques for managing project deadlines. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to teach those techniques than to teach people how to care about others.

In this blog, I’ll focus on three specific ways that leaders can improve project performance.

Select people with strong leadership ability.

It begins with hiring the right people. Hiring managers often subscribe to the notion of hiring for attitude. Soft skills, such as leadership, empathy, and attitude are hard to teach. I’m not just talking about your project manager and project sponsor. Remember that many of the people on your project teams can be leaders. Whether they are working as activity leaders, risk managers, or the people on the team who are doing the hard work, their soft skills are important. Do they want to hoard work or need to take all of the credit for their successes, or are they a collaborator who helps others perform better?

Some people just have a knack for making others look like geniuses, building intelligence of those around them, and magnifying the impact of the work that people are doing. We cannot keep adding people when we need more results. We need to look for ways to magnify the results of those around us.

In a book by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, the authors recount a story from their Navy Seal days. During Hell Week, commanding officers noticed that one boat crew was consistently winning while another was consistently losing. The instructors reversed the boat crew leaders. The results were striking. The boat which had lost consistently went on to win, demonstrating the critical importance of leadership.

Encourage people to ask questions born of curiosity and to listen actively.

Have you ever been in a meeting where it seemed like the speaker was pontificating endlessly and paying no attention to other opinions? It may be a bad memory from childhood lectures or news reports on how your government seems to be functioning. Or, it may be community meetings that you’ve attended. Some people just like to hear themselves talk.

Contrast that scenario with the meetings where people are asking good probing questions and encouraging open debate on complex subjects. People are listening actively and care about what others are saying. Progress seems to be made.

Yes, there are times when you might simply need to give a larger group of people a chance to express their thoughts, and the meeting is not about dialogue. But if you are trying to innovate or create, you won’t get there with one person droning on and on while others doze.

Identify a very small number of critical deadlines and meet those. Let the rest go.

As I said in my opening, building the relationships on your teams is more important than managing project deadlines. And very few project deadlines are that important. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that schedules are ultra-important. Let there be no question. Schedule management is critical. Finishing your project when you said you would is important. And it might be required by contract!

But not all deadlines are equal. I’ve written before on the need to use activity deadlines effectively. When everyone on the team truly cares about those around them, they will stop at nothing to meet the important deadlines. Need help?

I have an upcoming online course that teaches the Smart Projex methodology. It is limited to a small group of participants. Email me at suzanne@smartprojex.com if you’d like to be on the list when it launches. Please use a subject line of SPM Crash Course.