PM: We Are Not Here To Make Friends!

Anyone who has progressed in their career from individual contributor to a role leading others realizes this can be the most difficult step to take in one’s career. That is, we went from being peers with those around us, even buddies, to the point of now supervising these folks with the objective of achieving a defined outcome. The alternative (if we are unable or unwilling to achieve this outcome) is that we can and should lose our job!

This is no different than what a project manager initially experiences, as we find ourselves in a role where we are required to drive an initiative forward, by working with and through other people – often our peers.

The key requirement here is that we must hold people accountable. And, we CANNOT be timid (nor abrasive) about this.

An apt quote:

Care about peoples’ approval and you will be their prisoner. ~ Lao Tzu

Consider the following backdrop:

  • The goals, objectives and scope of the project have been defined and deemed important by leadership of the company. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the project.
  • We have been assigned as the de facto leader (the overall manager) of the project.
  • Our project team is comprised of people who were assigned to or volunteered for the project. As such, their role on the project is now part of their job.
  • We (the PM) defined the overall timeline and intermediate milestones by reaching an agreement with each teammate on when their task(s) will be completed and how their work fits into the overall plan.

Fast forward a few days, weeks or months when the previously estimated task is coming due. If it is a particularly important task, we (the PM) will have already reached out well in advance of the due date to check-in on how things are going, determine if we are on track with regards to our previous conversation and the estimated completion timeframe.

Invariably, we will be faced with the situation where a teammate’s task is not going according to plan. It wasn’t started on time, conflicting priorities or unanticipated issues have emerged or they simply forgot about it.

First, we must keep our emotions in check and NOT take it personally. Breath deep, count to 10, 20 or 100, if that is what it takes.

Now, we must engage with our teammate to find out how “we” got here and what “we” will do to get things back on track. Frequently, this will unfold in the context of a meeting, with others observing. This is the perfect time to show our true colors and set the precedence.

That is, we have a couple of choices, for which we must realize the full impact of each.

We could respond in a conciliatory fashion with an, “ok, you are a bit behind…” and move on, such that we reduce tension and avoid making our teammate feel uncomfortable. However, there are a few impacts that we must acknowledge:

  1. Our (late) teammate, as well as the rest of the team, observes that “dates don’t matter” and therefore, “I don’t need to put any more pressure on myself to get my tasks completed on time, since it is ok to be late. Ah, the pressure is off!”
  2. If we continue to accept late tasks then we are “back-loading” the project with work that remains incomplete, further putting pressure on the entire team to wrap-up the remaining tasks prior to go-live.
  3. We just put a monkey on our back that simply doesn’t belong there. That is, when a task is late it often means that other tasks which are dependent on the late task are now going to be delayed, which could ultimately impact the entire project. We have just placed stress on our shoulders as we now have to figure out how to get the resulting chain of tasks back on track.

Alternatively, we can politely and professionally engage with our teammate to determine what can be done to get the task completed on time, by asking questions like:

  • Are there ways to reduce scope of the task while still fulfilling the main objective of the deliverable?
  • Do you need assistance from a peer or teammate?
  • Do you (or I) need to ask your manager to give you a reprieve from other duties (a.k.a. day job) to allow for a more dedicated focus on this particular task?
  • Do we need to hold an extended working session (during and/or after-hours, including over the weekend) to plow through the activity and get it done?

Depending on the situation, there could be many other questions to ask or ideas to share. The last resort is accepting that a task (which has direct ramifications on other, downstream activities) will be late. That said, if it turns out to be the case we’ll deal with that. However, not until we’ve exhausted ALL other considerations.

We must realize, it is the team member’s job to complete their task. As the project’s leader our role is to help them solve the challenge they have been presented with, not simply absorb it and let it impact the rest of the project and team. Doing so would set the wrong precedence and will result in our facing the same challenge over and over again: missed dates.

Bottom-line: We are NOT here to make friends. We are here to get a job (the project) done. That said, we remain polite, courteous and professional at all times, while holding people accountable to completing THEIR work in support of the project. And, while not our primary objective, we will undoubtedly continue to have and make new friends.

In closing, if you are looking to improve PM competencies in yourself, or organization, please reach out so that we can chat about how I can help.

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