Thank you very much for the wonderful introduction, Samad. And welcome to the Telesummit, ladies and gentlemen! As Samad said, my name is Geoff Crane and I’m the principal at Papercut Project Monitoring in Waterloo, Canada. I’ve been managing complex technology projects for financial institutions for about twenty years and in that time I’ve seen my share of horror stories. When I look back on it, I’d have to say that the vast majority of catastrophes that happened on my projects were directly related to interpersonal interactions that went badly.I come from a technical background, so of course what that means is, once upon a time I preferred the cool, soothing glow of my computer screen to the biological units that kept coming to my desk and moving their mouths like they wanted something. Computers were predictable; people weren’t. I’m not kidding. When I was given my first project to manage, I thought it was a nightmare. Suddenly my beautiful computer had to take a back seat and these horrible people were taking up all my time. I planned that first project out meticulously—flawlessly. There was nothing that could stand in my way from perfect execution. And then the stakeholders and team members got involved and promptly trashed everything.I struggled for a long time, and things didn’t really settle down for me until I started working for someone who told me, Geoff, you have all the right pieces…you just need to learn how to dance.And that’s what I’m going to talk with about today.
Now, like any good dance, the soft skill salsa has a lot of steps to learn. It seems you can’t pick up a magazine or read a management web page that doesn’t suggest leaders need to learn touchy feely things like empathy and EQ. If you listen to the PMI, you’ll hear a lot about the importance of influencing in project management. HR seems to like to stick negotiation skills on management job specs. With all of this jargon, where on earth do you begin to start? Well, if you look through all the buzzwords, you’ll find that everything on this slide has one thing in common.
And that’s trust. This is where I’m going to spend the most time talking today. For the next fifty minutes or so, I’ll be talking about how trust works, and looking at it from a few different perspectives. After that, we’ll look at how it applies in a project management setting, and then we’ll go into some trust-breaking behaviours project managers commonly demonstrate that get them into trouble. I’m not sure if it’s been covered already, but you can ask questions via that Q&A interface in iLink, and they’ll show up right on my screen. When I’m finished I’ll address some of the questions that come in, so please feel free to throw out any questions as they come up.
If you look back to your earliest memories of childhood, what you likely find is that you had no real sense of what trust was. I mean it’s not like you had really high expectations…in the beginning all you needed was to eat, sleep and go to the bathroom. As long as your parents were able to provide that for you, then they consistently met your expectations, and life was great. While you might not have been able to articulate it, your trust for them was absolute.
Because of that, it probably never entered your mind that one day one of your parents might fail to meet your expectations. But here’s the thing. As babies, our expectations are extremely simple. It’s as we grow and learn and experience, what we expect becomes more complex. The likelihood that your parents can meet 100% of your expectations diminishes as the breadth of your experience increases. Still, until it happens for the first time, *not* having your every whim taken care of is unthinkable. Unfortunately, parents are people too. For reasons good or bad, the day finally came when you expected them to do something for you, and they blew it.
If your childhood was anything like mine, the first time that happened was pretty devastating. Don’t get me wrong; my parents are great people, but they’re people. It was neither realistic nor particularly all that healthy for them to bow down to my every whim. Still, I’m sure you can remember a big disappointment you had as a kid. It was probably pretty traumatic, right? It’s the first time you learn that you can’t automatically take other people for granted, and it’s kind of a shocker. But experiencing that first letdown, as hard as it is, gives rise to something new. It’s a sense of appreciation for people when they *don’t* let us down. Now, let’s be honest. As kids we might not have a fully developed sense of appreciation for others, but at least the seed has been planted, and it will continue to grow throughout our lives. It’s those first early knocks that put us on the road to learning about abstract concepts like faith, hope and trust, and those are all good things!
Coincidentally, around the same time we also learn about the art of manipulation but that’s a whole different talk.
As we leave childhood and start to grow up, we leave the small circle of our families, and start to encounter more and more people. Now, as children, we grow up with a fairly consistent set of values, whatever those may be. We get our values from our parents and they help shape who we become. But people from other families don’t necessarily share the same values that we learned. So what was maybe a bumpy but at least consistent path with your folks turns into an even bumpier and inconsistent path with everybody else.
As a result, some of the people we encounter will meet or exceed our expectations, just like this hot blonde here. She’s sassy, she’s rectangular…she’s everything our hero here has ever dreamed about.
But sadly, she ran off with the tough guy stickman from the garage. Our hero’s heart is torn to pieces. So sometimes people don’t meet our expectations. In this case, it wasn’t so much a failure of the gorgeous stick woman as it was a failure of our hero. He made assumptions about her that weren’t correct. He misjudged her.Now you know this, and you know this happens all the time. It’s how we grow. Each time we cook in the aftermath of a choice to put our faith in someone, we take a little bit of what we’ve learned and apply it to all similar choices we make in the future.
Each new trust experience feeds on the next, so by the time we’re adults, we’ve developed an appropriate sense of balance in terms of how we approach new people. Take this little girl here. If you’re walking down the street and you see her, it’s pretty conventional wisdom that you don’t run up to her and invite her over to your house. In most places, actually, that’ll land you in jail.
Now based on the things you’ve learned from interacting with the other people through your life, combined with what you observe about the little girl’s behaviour, you might even make a snap judgement about her character (especially if she’s spray-painting obscenities across a supermarket window).But even if she’s basically behaving like we expect good little girls to behave, without any other context, you probably wouldn’t trust her with the time of day. Underneath the freckled face, she could be a really great kid, or she could be the spawn of the devil. You have no way of knowing for sure so you leave her be.
But what if your daughter introduces you? That changes the picture a little bit, doesn’t it? Now, you still don’t know this girl, but you don’t have to. You know your daughter, and hopefully, you have enough trust in her to believe that she wouldn’t bring someone dreadful into your home.
That happens every once in awhile. You see someone in one context one day, and then meet them through social circumstances later on. If that’s happened to you, you may have noticed your demeanor and attitude towards that person changed with the new information you gained from the people around you. In the example here, because your daughter has provided additional context for this strange girl, there’s enough cues to make it feel safe to open your door to her, on the belief that your daughter’s judgment is sound. It’s the strength of your relationship with your daughter that enables you to trust the new girl.
So that’s the first thing to note about trust, especially trust of new people. It’s informed by other relationships you already have.
Of course, there’s limits on the kinds of behaviour that you’ll tolerate. Just because you’ve opened your door to this little girl, doesn’t mean you’ll give her a carte blanche to do whatever she wants.
So that’s the second thing to note. Trust has boundaries. You extend the trust you have of each person in your life to suit what you feel is appropriate, but you don’t extend them further without something in return.
So let’s take those two points and look at a different scenario. You know how it is when you get on an elevator or streetcar full of complete strangers?
Let’s say you get on and one of the people you’re trapped with suddenly strikes up some completely random conversation.
If you’re like most people, you probably feel a pang of anxiety. Here you expected everyone to just mind their business until you didn’t have to share the space anymore, and suddenly your world is thrown upside down and you’re expected to do something. Now this guy likely didn’t intend to make you feel anxious, maybe he’s uncomfortable with silences. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s placed a demand on you. To make things worse, if you don’t respond to his demand, you’ll be seen as rude. Remember the boundaries point? This guy has unknowingly broken one. And since you’re surrounded by strangers, you have no connections to help inform your response. Hence the anxiety.I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention in a situation like this, but something I’ve noticed is that when this sort of thing happens, some of the other people in the elevator surreptitiously look at one another for clues on the best way to respond to the nutjob who’s spoken.
And that search for clues about the character of those around us isn’t just limited to uncomfortable situations. This behaviour of ours is hard wired into our collective consciousness. We do it without thinking. That’s because there’s a big risk attached to making decisions based on our judgments of other people. Looking for support from those around us helps give us confidence that our judgments are sound. If we’re wrong, we’ll likely suffer in some way so we seek validation as a way of relieving anxiety.
If someone ever invents a mental probing device that would let people eliminate that risk by seeing right into other people’s minds, it would be the best selling thing ever. We’d probably misuse it terribly, and civilization would ultimately destroy itself in a big ball of fiery doom, but while we had this power, we’d never have to take a chance again because we’d always know the outcome. Luckily, such a thing hasn’t been invented yet so civilization gets to continue awhile longer, but in the meantime we have no choice but to place our faith in other people and sometimes that means we’ll get burned.
When you look at it like that, trust is like currency. It’s something you give away in exchange for an expectation. It’s a transaction. That means, to keep things nice and simple, we can use terms like buyer and seller to describe the people involved. The buyer is the person giving the trust away, and the seller is the person offering the hope that an expectation will be met.
So that’s the next point. Trust is currency. In fact, when I was researching this talk, I came across an article that referred to trust as an “economic lubricant” which I really liked. Basically what is says is, trust in other people opens doors to new kinds of business, new ways of thinking and new experiences that we’d never get to have as a society if we never put our faith in other people. An interesting experiment was done with foreign exchange traders where both parties were expected to eliminate risk entirely from their portfolios and then transact with one another. What happened? Neither one made any money. Zero risk, zero return. It’s something we’ve always heard, and it’s true.
On a global scale, it’s trust that’s created the culture we know today. I don’t know if you remember the schmaltzy Bette Midler song from the early 1990s “From a Distance”…I totally found it recently in a collection of embarrassing CDs I owned. “From a distance,” she sings, “there is harmony, and it echoes through the land”. From a distance, trust in others has created more things than it destroyed. Through a long evolution, it’s trust in others that’s led us to cool innovations like online banking and iPhones and Starbucks Frappuccinos. So it’s definitely a good thing, and something we want to encourage as society goes forward.
But bringing it all back to earth for a moment, as beneficial as trust has been to our society on a large scale, it’s still something we have to watch on a small scale. In much the same way that “caveat emptor” applies to any financial transaction we make, buyer beware is generally sound advice to follow when initiating a trust transaction too. Putting too much trust in someone prematurely, or without proper checks in place, and the seller can let us down and trash the expectations we had of them. Despite the fact that from a distance trust has created amazing things, up close it’s also created snake oil, which I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of ads for in your junk mail folder.
So the buyer needs to make careful decisions.
Let’s use this as an example. The buyer in this situation has to go away on vacation and leave his prize cactus behind. If someone doesn’t look after it, the cactus will likely die. So what’s he do? He goes through the address book in his head, and picks someone he’d feel the most comfortable trusting such an important job to.
But there’s no guarantees. When the buyer returns from his trip, he’s going to have to face one of two outcomes. Either the cactus will be alive and healthy, or the cactus will resemble rancid asparagus.
Enter the seller. The buyer *hopes* the seller will look after his cactus, but he can’t know for sure. Even when the seller offers loads of reassurances that he’ll water the cactus, and take it for walks in the park, those reassurances can’t alter the risk that the plant’s going to be liquid vegetable matter by the time the buyer gets home.
So the buyer has to ignore the reassurances and go through some checks of his own. It’s interesting to note that the act of reassuring someone has more to do with the seller than the buyer, since a reassurance doesn’t affect risk at all.
So rather than listening to the words that come out of the seller’s mouth, the buyer has to go through a series of questions. He’ll ask questions of competence. Can this guy do what he says he can do?
He’ll ask questions of compatibility: will we get along? Am I going to like working with him?
Very important, he’ll ask questions of consistency. Will this guy deliver every time? Or will he be sketch? On the surface, all these questions appear to be about the seller, which makes sense, because the seller has something we want.
But for the person doing the trusting, the weight of the answers pales in comparison with that of their personal experience. Ultimately, the big question for the buyer is, “what am I afraid of?” And that’s something the seller can’t answer.
It turns out we’re afraid of quite a lot. We bring our own baggage to the table with every new relationship. Over our lives and careers, we’ve built our own reputations we don’t want to put in jeopardy. The person we want to trust might work for a company we’ve had bad experiences with…there’s all kinds of factors which weigh into a trust decision that have nothing to do with the seller directly.
That’s a pretty big divide. If the two people are going to have a chance at developing a trust relationship, a bridge needs to span that big yawning chasm. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
It’s because of this great divide that we’ve come to understand that trust is earned. If the seller does something for the buyer that answers one of those fears, and does it well, he’s opened the door. That’s not to say the buyer’s going to fully trust him yet…just that the door is open to the possibility of trust.
And it’s not just a one time thing, is it? No, to keep the door open for trust to develop further, the seller has to continue to perform. It grows rather tiresome, but it’s the repetition that really counts.
And all it takes is one slip up, not delivering what the buyer’s come to expect, to make him think about closing the door. Each mistake has consequences, which can be reparative, like having to apologize, or pay money to correct the mistake. The more slip ups occur, the more that door closes until it slams shut altogether.
It’s harsh, but that’s human nature. On our own terms, this is how we behave with all relationships throughout our lives and our careers. If we spent all of our time entirely on the buy side of a trust relationship, we’d never have to learn the soft skill dance. We could lead however we wanted and the rest of the world would have no choice but to follow along. Too bad that’s not really the case, is it? Project managers, like it or not, spend their careers on the sell side of most trust relationships. And that’s where things tend to go horribly wrong.
So that’s the next thing to take away. The buyer controls the transaction, despite the fact that he’s putting himself at risk. It’s that decision to open the door that allows the transaction to happen in the first place. If the buyer refuses to take a risk, for whatever reason, then the door stays closed.
So how does that look from the outside? Yeah, not very pretty is it. I think we all know this feeling. While our experience as decision makers on the buy side of trust puts us in a position of power, as soon as we have to flip over to the other side of things, we’re immediately at a disadvantage. Getting through that door is a tough thing to do, so let’s talk a little bit about that. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that as project managers, we live on this side of the door. Sure, you have to sell yourself enough to get the PM job in the first place, but all getting hired gets you is more closed doors to stare at. You’ve won the company over, now you have to win over all the people you’re going to be working with.
Now I’m not going to talk about the hiring process today. That’s a huge conversation in and of itself. But assuming you’ve managed to land a job as a project manager, you’re still surrounded by people at all levels of the organization you’re working for, and every last one of them is buying expectations from you. Now. Because you’ve already made your way into the organization, you’re in luck. The company has already said it’s okay for you to be in their office space, so everybody who works within it has that bit of information to work from. If the company said it’s okay, then it probably is. That’s why social engineering works so well. The other people they work with may have already talked about you among themselves, and they may have seen some kind of documents from or about you that helped them understand the sort of value that you bring. So you’re not completely out in the cold.
Assuming the people on your project are reasonable (big assumption, I know), they’ll each likely open the door fairly readily to you for discussion. But remember, just because the door’s open doesn’t mean you can walk in and start trashing the place. Trust has boundaries, and your first step on walking through the threshold should be to establish what those boundaries are. If you’re not sure, be respectful.
Have you ever been to a party where someone crossed the line, got drunk and threw up in the host’s living room? That’s not particularly respectful is it? Well, it’s pretty much the same thing when you walk into a dialogue and start barfing words all over the place. To the buyer, this has the same effect is if you slapped them in the face. But believe it or not, this is really common. A negotiation begins with an open door, and the seller walks in and hoses down the buyer with ideas, instructions and opinions. It’s completely overwhelming, and the dialogue usually ends one way.
The seller gets pushed right back out that door. This applies to any negotiation, but in particular, first impressions are very important. You want to start off on the right foot, and that generally precludes getting pushed out of a buyer’s office while they bar the door with their body to keep you out.
Rather, since you know how it feels to want to trust someone, you should take a breath, and put yourself in their shoes. There will be time for solutions later. The beginning part of this dance should be about you learning about the person you’re dialoguing with.
And remember that whether they tell you in so many words or not, they’re probably anxious. Despite knowing that their company’s hired you, and that their colleagues may have said good things about you, and you had a fabulous resume, the two of you haven’t yet embarked on the particular adventure you’re about to take together. If this guy’s never worked with you before, or never worked with you before *in this particular capacity*, then they don’t know what’s going to happen. The unknown always creates stress. The person buying from you likely won’t tell you that they’re anxious, but don’t think for a moment that they don’t feel some.
So if you start a dialogue by telling them about *your* ideas and how *you* want to do things, you’re really making the transaction about you. You’re turning yourself into a buyer by imposing your expectations on them rather than the other way around. But you’re not the buyer. They are. This is another common mistake. Some people approach a dialogue already having preconceived ideas about a solution. It may be that the solution will work, but until you’ve talked through the history and issues of the problem, you might find you miss important details that alter your solution, or invalidate it altogether. That can be upsetting to the buyer, and can end the discussion.
I’m going to tell you a quick story. About ten years ago I took a job as head of technology for a bank. I’d been doing that kind of work for a long time so it was an easy fit. The first thing I noticed was that the customer didn’t have any technical support physically located at their site. I thought that was silly and it would solve a lot of problems if they just opened their doors and gave one or two of my guys a desk. Well, on my first actual meeting with the customer, I tabled that idea. First thing, no preamble. Well, she made some noise about how “it would be all in the execution” and after I left her office she called my boss and ranted at him for about a half an hour. It turns out they’d tried that before and it had gone poorly because it wasn’t organized very well. And here I come, barging in her front door, basically trying to tell her how she should be doing her job. So despite the fact that I had her best intentions at heart, my impertinence cost me an opportunity to set that up. Not only that, it was months before I was able to revisit that scenario again after a lot of time spent proving I wasn’t a monster.
So my advice? Make every dialogue about the person you’re working with. Put your own thoughts on the backburner for a bit. Once you’ve collected enough information about what they need, *then* you can start using what you already know to begin building them a solution. If you skip that step, the person buying from you may feel they’re not being heard.
How do you do that when the temptation is to puke your thoughts all over them? You listen. In the beginning, the lion’s share of your time together should be spent using your ears rather than your mouth. And don’t just listen to the words that are being said. Listen for subtexts. People are notorious for not saying what they really mean. Take this example. “I want to make money!” the buyer says. You’re there to help him do that. Now if you work on a solution that will help make him money, yes, technically, you’ll be meeting his expectations. But if you listen to what he’s really saying, you may discover that he’s sad his staff are unhappy.
Remember that big chasm that separates the two of you? Well, if you’re able to find and hit on one of the buyer’s fears, and come up with a solution that addresses that…
…you’re going to score big points. But don’t forget about his spoken objectives. The more of these things you can identify and work into a solution, the happier the buyer is going to be.Here’s another story. This one belongs to a friend of mine but I’m totally stealing it because it demonstrates my point so well. My friend’s a video editor and he was working on a recruitment video. The producer sort of had a formula for making recruitment videos, which were all about extolling the virtues of the company, and talking about the competitive compensation and benefits and yaddayaddayadda. Well, when the client saw the video, she had a million microscopic changes. She clearly wasn’t happy with it. The producer kept relaying these changes through to my friend the editor who would make them blindly and he started to get really frustrated. He asked the producer, “Are you sure this is a recruitment video?” And the producer said “yep. The client wants a recruitment video, so that’s what we’re making.” One day, the editor found himself in an elevator with the client, and he asked her outright what she wanted. “I want a recruitment video that showcases how great Toronto is. I want college students to see how great their life can be if they live and work in this neighbourhood.” Well, my friend said, “you don’t want a recruitment video. You want a lifestyle video.” “EXACTLY” the client said. He got back to his desk, redid the video the way he thought she’d like, and it turns out she was thrilled the first time she saw the new cut. All those finicky little nuisance changes stopped immediately—they were a sign that something wasn’t right.The producer approached the job already having a solution in mind without listening to the client. He gave her what she appeared to want on the surface, but without listening to her, he never found out what she was really looking for. It wasn’t until my friend asked the right questions that he discovered what she wanted.What I particularly like about that story is that the client didn’t necessarily have the right vocabulary to articulate what she wanted. When you’re in a selling position, I think it’s your job to actively listen and guide the buyer to solution they need rather than just the slapping together the solution they say they want. If you’re doing all the talking you can’t possibly hope to ascertain all those fine little details because you’re effectively kicking sand all over them.
Now it’s important to note that if we set up an expectation for a buyer, and fail to deliver, there’s going to be repercussions. Since this talk is for project managers I’m going to use a stakeholder analysis grid to demonstrate my point, although this applies to anyone you’re working with, not just stakeholders. Put yourself in the center. Depending on the amount of power the buyer has over you, the consequences of a failed delivery will be different. The same is true for the amount of interest the buyer has in working with you.
As you can see, displeasure wears many faces. Now I think everyone understands that if we break trust with our boss, he’ll likely react with anger, and there will be obvious, overt consequences to us as a result. Because he has power over us and is directly invested in what we’re doing, he has the luxury of being obvious in his response. But others in this grid likely won’t be so obvious about their reaction to a trust breach. Project team members, for example, may not have power over you, but they’re directly invested in the work you’re doing together. If you break trust with one of them, they’ll probably keep working for you, but you may notice a shift in the quantity and quality of that work, that may have impacts to your project schedule. Secondary stakeholders, who have power over you, but aren’t as interested as what you’re doing may react with incredulity at the breach of trust, and while you might not see immediate consequences to you or your project, they may run around behind your back telling everyone what you did. There’s all kinds of ways the people around you may react to a trust violation, ranging from shock to contempt, but they all lead to bad places to you as a seller.
And let’s face it. As project managers, we already have the deck stacked against us. No matter how experienced we are, we can’t possibly perform all project work personally. It’s not just a matter of time, it’s a question of skill. Projects just have too many different kinds of jobs for one person to be adept at all of them. Likewise, we can’t know all the subject matter. Even if we’re familiar with the core domain, there’s secondary domains that require attention like legal, marketing or accounting. And because project teams are made up of resources from multiple business units, each with their own functional managers, we can’t make demands on their time that would conflict with their management’s objectives. But despite all that, we’re still bound to deliver our projects.
This leads to one of our single biggest obstacles as project managers. I’m talking about influence without authority. In a traditional business model, you have staff who carry out your orders and if you have a problem with one of them, you can just threaten to fire them and they’ll come back in towing the party line. That’s not how I’d recommend you run your department, but hey it’s certainly within you power to do that. When you’re managing a project, that’s a luxury you no longer have. Now you have to get people from diverse business units to do work for you, but that option to threaten is gone. Now you have to either play nice and somehow get them to do work for you, or you’ll find great big gaps in the work that’s getting done. Sure if you’re having a particular problem with an individual on your team not cooperating, you can always go to their manager, but that’s not really a great way to make friends, is it?Your only recourse if you want to keep a positive working relationship is to actively get in there and build that relationship.
Now earlier on I mentioned the three C’s of trust building. If you can do what you say you can do, if you’re likable, and can get along with people, and if you’re 100% consistent in delivering, you will slowly break down the sea of anxiety separating you from the buyer and get them to open the door. It’s those three C’s that give way to a fourth C. Credibility. I’d contend that’s a project manager’s single biggest asset. The more credible you are, the more people will trust you. The more they trust you, the more willing they’ll be to follow your lead and do what needs to be done to see your project through to the end.
Think about it for a second. What do we as project managers do? We take the wants, knowledge and skills that belong to *other* people, package them together and spit out a new product or service.
Now that new product or service is a team effort. It takes everyone involved a lot of blood sweat and tears to arrive at the finished product. So it would be pretty arrogant to say that the output of months and months of work by countless people belongs to us. If a developer’s product is the code that makes up the finished software, and an architect’s product is the groovy design that makes up the finished building, and a scientist’s product is the research that makes up the finished cure for cancer, what’s the project manager’s product? What is the actual thing that we produce?
We produce promises. We promise, based on analysis we’ve done, and information we’ve collected through a variety of channels, that a project will be delivered within certain parameters. We promise our stakeholders, after careful negotiations, that the project will realize their objectives. We promise our team that they will have the resources and inputs they need to do their jobs. At every turn, with every person we interact with, we produce promises, and it’s the strength and validity of those promises that determines how well team members can trust us. Along the way we use all kinds of tools to make and verify those promises, like Gantt charts and spreadsheets and risk matrices, but those things are incidental what we make.
You could even say, as project managers, we’re in the business of promises. And I don’t mean that a developer means I promise I’ll have my code done on time. I mean, promises are what we make, sell and market. They’re our livelihood, and as such we should treat them with the same care as a storekeeper would care for his inventory.
Now there’s some basic promises that come with every working relationship we have. These promises aren’t spoken out loud, but they’re there nonetheless. When you work with another person, they expect you to be honest. Your vendors expect you to pay on time. Some of your workers may go above and beyond for you, and they expect that you won’t take advantage of that. In general, the people around you expect you to not be a monster. Now unless you’re offering something pretty damn amazing, these tacit promises supersede any other promises you make. If you lie to your colleagues, and get found out, or you’re sneaky, or deliberately create problems, word’s going to get around. You might not immediately lose your job over it, but neither will you make any friends. And believe me, in a complex project environment, you want lots of friends.
Before I go on, I’d like to take a moment to point out here that we’re still talking about trust, not money. In a financial transaction money is the thing that gets passed around and because we like money, we tend to behave better with the people who control it. But this talk is about trust. And as a project manager, *everybody* you work with is a buyer. That includes people who don’t directly control either your salary or your project’s funding, like your team members and your vendors. Remember that trust has boundaries? Well, if your team members don’t trust you, they’re not going to work their hearts out for you. They might not be able to directly refuse you (although sometimes they might), but since you’re trying to make a really great product, you should *want* them to work their hearts out. But in exchange, you need to provide an environment where they feel secure. When they need things to do their jobs, you need to get them. If project conditions change, you need to inform them. And if a stakeholder wants something that’s going to screw one of your team members, you need to understand the details of your project enough to be able to push back. Likewise, vendors who don’t trust you aren’t going to do you any favours. And if you screw up and cause a vendor to have to do extra work, you can expect a big slap to your cash flow.
I know what you’re saying, “Geoff that’s all really obvious”. But it’s really hard to manage the expectations of an entire team of people such that they all continue to trust you. Everything on a project is interconnected to everything else…that interconnectedness is quite beautiful, actually, but it takes very careful management to avoid a change in one area of your project to completely derail work that’s happening in another. What I see an awful lot is, a project manager makes a promise to someone senior to themselves, at the expense of a promise they’ve already made to someone else on the team.
The easiest way to lose track of the promises you’ve made is by being disorganized. While this is the probably the easiest behaviour to fix, it’s surprising to me how hard it is for most people. I think this is because our culture seems to think organizational skills are extremely basic, kind of like punctuality (something else that’s hard for a lot of folks). Because they see them as almost beneath them, many people tend to disregard being organized and treat it like it’s less important than the specifics of the job they were hired to do. So I’m here to dispel that myth—organizational skills are really hard. Not only that, but they’re essential to the field of project management. I work with project managers all the time who’ve said to me, “I can learn to be organized anytime it’s something I’ll deal with later”. But here’s the thing—managing an entire team’s worth of expectations is hard. If you’re not organized…and I mean organized as a default position before starting any work…you’re likely to forget about a promise you’ve made, or worse, make another promise that makes a previous promise impossible to fulfill.
Now when you’re disorganized, it’s easy to unknowingly make a promise that negatively impacts another one you’ve made, but sometimes, project managers actually do it on purpose. You know how it is. You’re sitting in a status review meeting with your stakeholders, and one of them asks for something. More specifically, they’re asking if something is possible. If you blurt out “yes, sure, no problem” without fully understanding whether or not it can be done, or can be done without severely impacting other promises you’ve made to people who aren’t in that meeting, you’re jeopardizing your project. This particularly problem usually happens one of two ways. Either the PM tells the stakeholder they can have what they’re asking for as a means of avoiding conflict, or because there are complexities in the project that the PM doesn’t fully understand. When the project manager gets back to his office and tells his team what he’s done, the reaction is often pretty negative. That’s because by agreeing to something he didn’t know for sure was possible, either the PM has to go back on his word with the stakeholder who asked the question, or has to force his team into an untenable position. Either alternative impacts a promise, and that will ultimately affect the project manager’s credibility. Remember…once you agree to something, it’s yours whether it’s achievable or not!It’s very important to remember that every decision on a project ripples through and potentially impacts every other decision. A simple “I’ll find out” is a much better answer to a question you don’t have the answer to. Sure it means a little legwork, but it both avoids conflict and brings the facts up front and centre where they belong.
Now when you’re working with a lot of people, chances are, many of them will have their own agendas they’re looking to fulfill, beyond the objectives they have for your particular project. Vendors, for example, want to sell you goods and services for your projects, but revenue is generally their chief concern. Various stakeholders will be concerned with risks to their particular organizations, or even their personal positions. Now, you can and should capture as many objectives as you can in your project charter. But sometimes, participants will attempt to steer you in a direction you’re not comfortable with. They may want you to change the way you run your project by withholding information, altering your behaviour or eliminating steps from your processes. The benefits for the request are purely for the person doing the asking, and they want you to make these concessions for their own ends. When a project manager finds him or herself in a situation like this, it can be really challenging because you’re not really sure how to respond. If you agree to the request, you’re effectively making a promise to that person; but there’s going to be trouble when you have to break promises with other people to honour this new request. This is particularly problematic when the asker is the PM’s client or boss…the temptation to give in is pretty major. I can’t tell you the right answer to a situation like this, but I can tell you that if you compromise your integrity, you’re likely going to compromise your project. As you find yourself making one concession you’ll likely find yourself making more as you try to contain the impacts. It doesn’t take very long for this sort of thing to snowball and you find yourself losing control.My best advice if you’re put in an uncomfortable situation like this is to ask for some time to think it over. Get away from the person and assess the impacts of what it is they’re after. Some people can be unrelenting if they think they’ll be able to get their way by bullying you, so be firm. Remember that once you’ve agreed to something, it’s yours for good or bad. If what they want isn’t in the best interests of the project, go back later and tell them no. Better yet, tell them they can have what they want, but it’s going to cost them x amount of money, all these people will have to know about it, and here’s how the current project will have to change. If it’s that important to them, they’ll pay the price. If it’s not, it’s amazing how fast bullies sink back into the woodwork with this approach.
I remember this movie from the early 90s called “Flatliners”. Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon play medical students who deliberately kill themselves and have the others bring them back to life to find out what’s on the other side. Kiefer goes first, comes back and neglects to mention on his return that he’s seeing the vengeful apparition of a kid he harassed as a child. When she finds out, Julia’s comment, after having seen similar frightening hallucinations herself on her return says, “you withheld information. That’s the same as lying.”Because we make so many promises to different people, it gets really tricky to avoid a situation where one promise conflicts with another. To avoid a conflict, some people have a tendency to leave out details that have a direct impact on a particular problem, because they’re afraid they’ll get in trouble. Let’s be clear. Neglecting to inform someone on your team of an important fact that could directly affect them is dishonest. Now you have to use good judgment. Not everybody on your project needs to know each other’s business. But some people use that as an excuse to knowingly hide information from the very people who need it. This behaviour violates one of those tacit promises we talked about and is a surefire way to create further problems. The consequences of silence belong to the project manager, so it’s better to be brave and get the information out there.Now you don’t just blurt out “hell no”. In a situation like that I usually choose to state the implications of the course of action under debate. Even senior managers and stakeholders can’t understand all the pieces of a complex project, and it’s very likely that they’ll be grateful for information that could prevent them from sticking their foot in it. Most senior executives I know get very tired of people telling them (or not telling them) what they think the executive wants to hear. Helping a stakeholder avoid trouble demonstrates an awful lot of value on the PMs part. So just present the facts.
One of the skills every project manager needs to have is the ability to see across the breadth of their project, but also plumb its depths. Both are equally important, and if you favour one too much, a project can fall apart like a house of cards. Still, when a project gets fully underway, it’s really easy to spend so much time focusing on the details of what’s going on you lose track of your project’s objectives. You know the expression can’t see the forest for the trees? Well, a lot of projects go badly for just that reason. Don’t get me wrong…details are important and it’s the details that really make a finished product outstanding…as long as that product meets the needs of the people who paid for it to begin with. What happens, though, is that we often spend so much time focused on the details we wind up making something nobody actually wants to use. By the time we’re finished, and pull back for a wide view, suddenly we’re horrified at the Frankenstein monster we’ve created ambling its way towards the village and there’s no way to stop it.Of course, things seldom get that far. What usually winds up happening is a senior stakeholder sees what’s happening and demands to know what on earth you’re doing. At this point usually we wind up having to undo a lot of work, which upsets the entire team. Not to mention a huge blow to our credibility, because face it, if we can’t keep the end state in mind, what’s the team doing all this work *for*?The way to avoid getting lost in the forest applies here too. Keep your eyes on the destination, and take baby steps towards it. The moment you take your eyes off the prize and start essentially doing work that your team could be doing, your project no longer has a captain. Your crew will look after the details as long as they know they need to do so…what you need to worry about are clearing any roadblocks in their path. If you find yourself sinking into details, or worse, actually taking on chunks of work that could better be delegated out, you need to stop what you’re doing and take a breath.
And that’s the soft skill salsa. I want to take a moment and say, that as a project manager, you deserve a hell of a lot of credit, that you probably don’t get very often. Being a project manager is a pretty thankless job, with an incredible number of headaches and a lot of sleepless nights. With each new project you’ve pushed your way past bullies, brittle personalities, countless and sometimes completely bizarre issues, stubborn stakeholders and smarmy salespeople.It can feel sometimes that nobody understands you. I do understand you, my friends, and I want to congratulate you for having the sheer tenacity and determination just to show up for work each morning. Although you might have your own unique steps, you’re all fabulous dancers in your own right. So well done!
Once again, my name is Geoff Crane, and I’m the Papercut Project Manager. If you want to reach out to me, please feel free. You can get me via any of these channels. In addition to running programs in my own right, I offer coaching programs for project managers who are struggling with the people aspects of their projects. Believe me, I know what it’s like, which is why I like to give back and help.I’m going to turn to questions now, but I want to remind you, if you have any questions you don’t feel comfortable asking here today, you can send a message to Samad, and he’ll get it to me, or contact me directly. I’ve made arrangements to be especially available for the rest of the week to anyone who attended the Telesummit, so don’t be shy.