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If you’re named to lead an important project, should you feel pride or misery?

There was a time when project managers led a team that truly was a team – working together, all committed to and consumed by the project. But in today’s complicated world, a project manager has to oversee a diverse group that even before the pandemic was often not working in the same office and whose members all had other bosses and other projects that they had to respond to.

“In a matrix environment, project managers have little to no control over their resources. They don’t have the whip, so they can’t come down on team members for failing to do a good job, and they don’t have the carrot, so they can’t reward them for doing well. In reality, project managers don’t have the ability to make the people who are assigned to their project do anything,” project management consultant Clinton Padgett writes in his book How Teams Triumph.

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Sounds like misery, and that’s only part of the challenge. People on the team tend to view project management as punitive, since leaders will often assign tasks and deadlines without input. Every project a team member is assigned to is viewed as a priority by one of their many bosses. Those team members also tend to overestimate their availability for the effort and underestimate the amount of work needed to complete their tasks.

As project manager, start by getting everyone on the same page. Develop a charter outlining what is expected of everyone. That means getting everyone in the same room – from all the various departments that have a stake. “A project manager who fails to get the right people in the room will end up planning a project that won’t work,” Mr. Padgett warns.

Tasks need to be delineated. You won’t know every task that might arise but can figure out many of them early on – with accountability built for each. Don’t settle for joint accountability, which can become vague. One person must own a task. That person also takes responsibility for getting the appropriate resources and, if it involves other people, overseeing them. And make sure it’s that person who is telling you how much time their task will take, not somebody else such as their manager.

Mr. Padgett highlights the importance for project managers of shifting “the worry curve.” At the start, nobody will be particularly worried about this project – indeed, with everything else on their plate, they may be oblivious to it. Of course, as the deadline nears, their worry rises until it can reach the panic phase. Your job is to get everyone to worry sooner. Part of that comes with the detailed schedule agreed to at the kickoff meeting. The team also needs to meet regularly, so they can be reminded of why to worry.

He urges you to plan for the known unknowns. Someone will get sick during the project; you just don’t know who. Someone will have to attend a training event that they didn’t expect. Build time in your schedule for the unknowns without overdoing it. When someone gets sick, delay those tasks that have enough flexibility to allow it and assign those that can’t be delayed without compromising other deadlines to someone else.

When a team member has to change the duration of their task, never respond negatively. If that person could have fixed the problem without coming to you, they would have done so. And getting angry will just break trust with team members. If the delay doesn’t affect overall project timing, that’s easy to handle. If it does, the team has to address how to avoid missing the deadline.

His ideas may help you feel pride at the way you handled the project rather than misery at being appointed team leader.

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Quick hits

  • The common denominator of successful individuals is he or she formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do, according to 1940s insurance executive Albert Gray.
  • People are interrupted and switch tasks every three minutes and five seconds on average, a research study found. About half of those are self-interruptions.
  • If you lack confidence, consultants Ron Alford and Dustin Hillis recommend in their book Redefining Possible that you establish confidence anchors – a past victory you can regularly revisit, be it a fitness triumph or conquering a fear holding you back in your personal or work life. The anchor includes understanding how you changed after the event.
  • If you make a bad first impression, offer unexpected help to the other party in your next meeting, advises Rachel Campagna, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire.
  • Consultant Michael Kerr recommends the online Wheel of Names if you are facilitating a meeting and need to randomly choose who poses the next question, has a chance to present a new idea or win a door prize.

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