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Imitate the Pros

I’ve written several articles about remarkable project managers which appear on the three O web site and several ezines, such as Ezine Articles and IdeaMarketers. I’ve also written about coaches like Herb Brooks who astonished everyone with what they were able to accomplish with their teams. I’d like to relate some of their qualities a little more closely to the discipline of project management in this article. The opportunities abound to learn from these folks, even if you aren’t building a bridge, or coaching an amateur hockey team. Let’s look at some of the behaviors that all the great project managers have in common.


All the great project managers and coaches had a goal in mind and were able to communicate that goal to their teams and keep them focused on it throughout the project. Your first responsibility as a project manager is to determine the goals for the project and you’ll get your direction from the senior executives who perceived the need or opportunity for the project. You should be able to distill the goals and objectives of the project into 1 or 2 sentences, such as: "to create an e-commerce web site to sell our products by June 30th, 2010”, or "to upgrade our current order capture system to process an order in an average time of 2 seconds, by June 30th 2010”. This is similar to a mission statement and will serve a similar purpose.


It is your job to make sure that the mission you’ve been given is feasible. Are the project’s goals and objectives achievable given the budget, schedule, and team you’ve been given to work with? If you believe that you’ve been given "mission impossible” to begin with, work with the project sponsor to define more realistic goals. Your belief in the achievability of the project mission should be rock solid before you try and communicate it to the team.


The project’s scope statement, Statement of Work, and project charter flow from the mission statement. A Statement of Work (SOW) will be read by the vendor, if you procure services from an external vendor, but outside of those folks very few on the project team will read any of these documents. Your mission statement will be a key communication vehicle for informing the team of project goals and the more succinct and clear you make it, the easier it will be to use. The more often it is used, the more informed your team will be. Try heading your project communications with your project’s mission statement. Your team may feel like they’re being brainwashed, but at least they will know what success looks like. Leaders like Patton and Brooks were very good at distilling their goals down to a sentence or two and ensuring everyone on their teams understood them.


Your ability to communicate how everyone’s duties support the mission statement is as important as communicating the mission statement. Herb Brook’s team understood that to win Olympic gold they had to beat the hockey team they were playing that day. To win today’s game, the forwards had to put the puck in the net when they had puck possession and prevent the other team from carrying it into their end when they didn’t. Your project will need key developers to complete the prototype by April 30th, or finish development and system testing by May 30th, or finish QA testing by June 15th, etc. to meet the project’s goals. Your PMP course or PMP exam preparation training taught you how to break the project’s work down but you must be able to communicate to each team member how their task or activity supports the mission.

Organizing the Work

The greats that I’ve studied, both project managers and other leaders, were all able to organize work so that the efforts of their teams were maximized. Your organizational skills will be what translate the team’s efforts into project success. Breaking the work down into its logical sub-components is part of organizing the work. Assigning the components to the project team is another part of the process. Project managers distinguish themselves by how they break the work down and assign it to the team members. The work should be broken down and assigned so that each team member is as productive as they can be. This means that effort and duration estimations are realistic and each team member has another task to move on to as soon as they complete the one they’re currently working on. Take a project management course in scheduling work if this is an area you are deficient in. A good PMP course or PMP exam preparation training will also give you the basics you’ll need.


Exploit your team’s strengths. Brook’s team was a young squad who had plenty of hustle and stamina but no international experience and he turned this into an advantage by having his team pursue an aggressive forecheck strategy. He believed that his team could take advantage of any turnovers they caused but could get back to play defense if their opponents moved the puck out of their own end. Tailor your plan to take advantage of your team’s strengths. A good way to begin is to familiarize yourself with each team member’s personnel file so you know what each member’s strengths and weaknesses are. Choose the tools that complement your team’s strengths. Tools could be automated testing tools, automated build tools, or a 4th generation programming language. Choose the SDLC that best compliments your teams experience. Introducing a Scrum methodology to a team who have only ever used Waterfall is not the best utilization of your team.


Lead from in front, not behind. This doesn’t mean that you need to demonstrate your ability to write HTML code better than anyone else; Patton didn’t physically lead his troops into battle and Herb Brooks didn’t play defense in the 1980 Olympics. What Patton did was to place himself in harms way in the front lines when he needed information about the state of affairs there and that was the best way to get it. Demonstrate your commitment to the mission by working as hard as the hardest worker on the team. Be there for the overtime (or as much of it as you can). Your presence will be appreciated even if all you do is buy pizza and soda for the team and offer encouragement.


Make sure that your team is physically comfortable. This may seem an unlikely piece of advice when I’m talking about people working in an office environment, but comfort can become an issue when the team has been crammed into tiny desks because of a shortage of real estate. Look at all the elements that make for a comfortable working environment such as chairs, computer monitors, lighting, ventilation, phones, collocation, etc. Calling in a few political favors to provide a comfortable working environment for the team will pay dividends during those long dark days in February when the team is working lots of overtime.


Leadership isn’t just about making the team comfortable and working long hours yourself, it’s also about being a strong advocate for the team. Take every opportunity to boost your team’s morale, give them a pat on the back or an "atta-boy” (or girl) each time they achieve a minor success. Initiate an awards program so that contributions above and beyond the call of duty are rewarded in a material way, but be sure you are giving the rewards to the right people; there’s nothing more demoralizing than watching someone who isn’t deserving of an award getting one while the deserving team member is ignored.


Holding team members accountable is another aspect of leadership. This is the down side of rewards so make sure you enjoy as many of those as your team’s performance warrants. Poor performance should be confronted and dealt with. Provide the poor performer with any tools or training they need to improve and where poor performance is caused by a lack of commitment, laziness, lack of belief in the project, or inability to get along with other team members, deal with the HR issue. You may have to dismiss the poor performer from the team, or even fire them (if you have the authority) but the good performers on your team will appreciate your efforts. Conversely, the good performers on your team will soon become disenchanted with you if you fail to address these issues.


Being a leader requires you to be the team’s chief advocate. To do this you first have to believe in the ability of the team, both collectively and individually. Belief starts when you craft a plan you know the team can deliver and then give the team all the tools and training they need to execute the plan. Once you’ve shaped the team into the most proficient unit possible, believe in their ability to deliver and communicate that belief to the project stakeholders, your peers, and anyone else who will listen. Meet negative comments about your team and your project head-on; don’t miss the opportunity to correct misconceptions. Your silence in the presence of a negative comment about your team, a team member, or the project will be translated as agreement by those who witness the exchange. Belief in the ability of your team should extend to a belief in their ability to overcome adversity that was not in the plan. Patton believed that his 101st Airborne (paratroopers) were able to disengage from the enemy and march to the relief of Bastogne in time to relieve the siege of General McAuliffe, despite the fact that they were meant to be parachuted into battle. We all know how that turned out (if not, read my article).

Motivating the Team

Giving the team direction, organizing their work, and leading them won’t guarantee success unless the team wants to achieve the project goals. I think team motivation is probably the most personalized of all the skills I’ve talked about. By that I mean that your personality and management style will influence the way you go about motivating the team. The approach you take should be tailored to your style, but there are some things that will be common to everyone.


The team should perceive project success as beneficial. This means that project success will translate into the achievement of their personal goals and it’s up to you to provide the translation. Assess your ability to influence the team’s personal goals. Your influence may be limited to providing a glowing report on their work to their functional manager but you should be able to communicate to them how that report would influence their promotion to the next grade, or their next job. Do not get over-enthused and make commitments that you can’t guarantee. Set realistic expectations and then deliver on those. For example, if your influence over the team’s careers is limited to writing a glowing performance assessment tell them how that assessment could work in their favor for a promotion or raise but make certain they understand that the raise or promotion is not within your control.


Motivation is best instilled by verbal communication. You can motivate individuals on the team with face to face conversations where you can discuss how project success will translate into personal success for the individual. You can motivate the team by telling them how project success will translate into personal success in general terms. You don’t need to be a "motivational speaker” in order to succeed in motivating your team, but public speaking is a skill that will help you motivate the team in group settings. If you lack self-confidence in this area there are many sources of training available to you, most notably the Toast Masters organization.


Don’t discount yourself when considering how best to motivate the team. Team members who hold their leader in high regard will strive for success because they perceive this as a way to meet their obligations to that leader. Leaders in this position have usually built a high level of trust in their teams. One use of this motivational factor is the promise of consideration for roles on future projects you will manage. Team members who enjoy working for you will see an opportunity to work for you in the future as a benefit worth striving for.


It is normal for people new to the role of leader to look at leaders like George Patton, coaches like Herb Brooks, or remarkable project managers like Leslie Groves, as impossible to emulate but don’t forget that these people learned their leadership skills like everyone else, they practiced them until they perfected them. Don’t be intimidated by the high standards they set, do your best to meet them. Even if you can’t duplicate their successes you will likely find that you can emulate them well enough to deliver your project successfully.