Square Peg, Round Hole?

Jul 5, 2018

There are two types of project managers. You’ll all recognise the Type 1 PM. The task list jockey who systematically ticks off activities on a pre-determined list and every now and then, when operating in a stable and mature environment, flukes a win. Primarily because the environment they inherited allowed them to ‘paint by numbers’. Everything fitted in place. They followed the happy path. The easy path. All their risks and issues were documented. They had a Gantt chart detailed to the nano-second. And their status report hardly changed from period-to-period. Of course, they deliver. In the same way a jigsaw fits together. They’ll always get there; it’s just a function of time and trial and error.

Good news, right? Yes … and no. Every organisation needs these plodders, colloquially known as a ‘safe pair of hands’. There are always prosaic projects that need to be done. The trouble is that these projects aren’t exciting and don’t attract the Type 2 project manager.

Your Type 2 PM runs at fires. They seek out problems because their DNA is wired to solve them; not just capture them in a register and then put their head in the sand. They commit to and own problems. These are the people you need leading your complex projects. If you have high complexity, significant uncertainty and third-party variables; or if your project is off the rails and you have a fixed deadline that you simply must meet, then you need the Type 2 PM.

The Type 2 PM knows that people make great projects, not methodologies, frameworks, processes or tools. They know how to bring a team on the journey. Because they’ve done it before. Don’t confuse capability and delivery authority with expertise. The latter is about the theory, driven by a myriad of courses generating ‘experts-in-a-day’. The former is the super power that highly capable people bring with them.

So, if you’re the sponsor of a complex project then your first step should be to assess whether you have the right people with the right capabilities leading delivery. If you don’t, or they simply can’t or won’t adapt, then remember the old adage:

“If you can’t change the people, then change the people.”

Top ten signs it’s time to change your project manager

If you’re seeing a pattern of behaviour where your project manager is consistently demonstrating the traits below, then a re-assessment is required.

1. Your project manager can’t tell you the current state of health for their project. Or just as bad, they can’t tell you how it got into the shape it’s in. Worse still, they can’t tell you when it’ll land or how much it’s going to cost. This is nothing short of a capital crime and needs to be addressed accordingly.

2. Your project manager doesn’t actively seek out information from the project workstream leads. If you find that you regularly know more than your PM about what is going on, then you should release them to pursue whatever it was that was distracting them from paying attention.

3. You can’t make heads or tails of the what they’re telling you. They talk in circles and their steerco packs are shambolic. The ability to communicate at all levels of the organisation is a key attribute of a good project manager and concessions cannot be made.

4. The project team are unaware of the project progress and confused about the priorities. Your project manager is not sharing information or providing clear direction to the team. Because of that, they are losing trust in the PM. So should you.

5. You’ve asked your project manager several times for a plan. They keep coming up with an excuse. “The vendor hasn’t provided their information”. “Key resources are away”. “We’re dependent on the findings from the pilot”. At the end of the day, they’re in the business of providing estimates. So if they can’t create a plan and estimate or model where the data isn’t available then you need someone who can.

6. You’re getting feedback from the project team that your project manager has gone rogue. The project is off the rails and the PM is under pressure and making unilateral decisions about things for which they have no expertise. In other words, they’re panicking. The fight or flight reflex has taken hold. Help them take flight.

7. Your PM is very needy and you’re having to play counselor, mediator and coach. Worse still, they’ve got a habit of delegating actions upwards. Somehow you seem to be spending a lot more time working on the project than you’d planned; leaving little time to do your day job. You need to get out of the weeds.

8. Behind closed doors, your stakeholder team are telling you that they’ve lost confidence in the project manager. They’re doing what they can; but they don’t have the experience, capability or resilience to get the job done. Your reputation as sponsor is being undermined. Make the call.

9. Over-promising and under-delivering. Your project manager is an always says ‘yes’ martyr who is afraid to challenge stakeholders, despite being the supposed delivery expert. And that means they have no regard for the impact of their ill-conceived promises on the wider team. Let them fall on their sword.

10. Lastly is the project manager who is never at fault. They ritually recite the narcissist’s prayer: “That didn’t happen. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was, that’s not a big deal. And if it is, that’s not my fault. And if it was, I didn’t mean it. And if I did… you deserved it”. You don’t deserve these people.

Take action now. Don’t put your project and reputation at risk a moment longer.