Project Management Unplugged: When it’s not about the metrics

Project Management Unplugged:  When it’s not about the metrics

Where I’m coming from…

Job descriptions for project and program managers all contain a hefty requirements section on the candidate’s ability to collect, codify, analyze and report information.  I don’t know about you, but I certainly spend a good deal of my day tending my metrics farm…the data and the schedules and the change reports and the risk analyses give me a picture of the state of my programs that helps me know when I can heave a sigh of relief, and when I need to course correct.  They are very, very important.

But, though it’s tempting to stop there, to rest easy in the belief that PMP certification and expertise with tools, schedules and change management analysis make the PM, I’d like to offer an alternate viewpoint.  At the end of the day, it’s really not about the metrics.

I slipped into Program Management through the side door.  My first degrees were in Performing Arts and Communications, but I eventually entered the business world, got my MBA, and segued into Marketing.  After many years as a Marketing Professional, I had an opportunity to lead a cross-functional team in a process change effort, and I loved it.   A colleague said, “There’s a name for this kind of team leadership, you know, it’s called Program Management.  Maybe you should check it out.”  So I did, and the rest is history.

As a result of what I sometimes call my checkered past, I come at things from a slightly different angle.   I’m not a PM because I love to organize detail and work with tools, I organize detail and work with tools because that frees me to influence, motivate, nurture, shape, counsel and lead my teams.   I even took a seven-year hiatus from corporate life to do leadership development, team development and process change consulting, but I missed the rough and tumble of the program team and the camaraderie of fellow travelers.  Now that I’m back in corporate life, I pay a lot of attention to the integration between my need to communicate, comprehend and coach and my passion for making things work.

As a result, I tend to believe that if we are to excel in our PM roles, we need to pay as much — or perhaps even more — attention to the human dynamics of our work as we do to the quantitative tools of our trade.

Courtney’s tale of woe

There was a time, in a far-off land, when I was the PM on a very challenging program in a very challenging corporate climate.  The critical decisions were made outside my sphere of influence, and my job was to make them a reality, no questions asked.  Senior management was often arbitrary and out of touch, and they repeatedly interfered with the program team’s ability to deliver quality products in a timely fashion.  My options to change circumstances, or lead the program in a different direction seemed slim to none, and I felt I had become a tracker of missed opportunities.  In an attempt to bring order out of chaos, I spent hours creating metrics charts.  The results were massive, complicated printouts far too large for anyone to have an individual copy, so I covered my office walls with schedule art.  People trooped in to look at them and report on their delays, whereupon I made new charts and repapered the walls.  After months of correcting and reprinting, I realized I was no longer managing the teams, I was simply chasing and recording their activity.  I had become Courtney, the schedule-meister.  Humph!  I got an MBA for this???

There ensued an extended period of whining, self-pity and self-flagellation.  I alternated between victimhood and self blame.  “How could I be so incompetent and useless?”  Whereupon I slunk in and out of my office, hoping no one would notice the LOSER sign I had hung around my neck.  “How could they do this to me?  I’ll make them change!” Whereupon I would openly challenge the CEO with the negative impact of his decisions, and we started ducking down side hallways to avoid each other.  Not a pretty picture.  I eventually ended up a burned-out case by the side of the information highway, and left to find new challenges.

I have seen this happen to many of my PM compatriots when the need for clarity and the dedication to rigor butts up against the messy reality of corporate life.  When we can’t bring order out of chaos, it’s too easy to get caught in a downward spiral, defeated by overwhelm, saturated with helplessness, and smoldering with grievance.  It is in these moments that we need something more than Microsoft Project.  We need a finely-honed set of soft skills to help us negotiate our way back to a position of power.

Let’s talk about power

Those who have taken the PMP certification have been exposed to the PMI assumption that the PM is at the top of the pyramid.  They are at the helm from beginning to end, much in the way of a general manager of a division.   They ostensibly have a great deal of legitimate power: the organization has agreed that the PM can make decisions on behalf of the organization, and direct the activities of team members.  For many of us, however, legitimate power does not come with our job description, and we often feel ourselves to be at the mercy of events, and struggling to be effective.

To bring ourselves back into a power position,  we ironically need to start by acknowledging that we will not be in charge of everything, and that’s just the way it is. That’s life at its finest!  However, once we accept that we do not have the ultimate authority,  we can discover other ways to create our own power base.

Perhaps we are expert in our field, have lots of degrees, or have worked on large and complex projects at this and other organizations.  Our reputation has preceeded us into the team meetings, and people are predisposed to grant that we know what we’re doing, and to take our contribution seriously.  Expert power comes to us directly from what we have done in the past, from what we know, and from our ability to provide that knowledge and service to the problem at hand.

But most of us are not “experts.”  We’ve done good work, and we know our stuff, but Oprah has never interviewed us on the fine points of our latest book.  So we can’t play the expert card.  What we do have is the opportunity to develop possibly the most potent form of power – referent power — the power without which even a CEO can become a non-entity, the power that is available to anyone ready and willing to take themselves on and develop self awareness and interpersonal skills.

What is referent power and why do we care?

We gain referent power because people like us, because they want to be like us in some way, because they respect us. There are many sources of referent power.  Perhaps we are charismatic and inspiring.  Perhaps we are calm in a crisis, can defuse a conflict with humor and directness, are fair and reasonable, take the time to listen before we speak, or are willing to take responsibility for our actions.  Referent power comes from who we are, day after day, and it’s essential to our success in a role that bridges so many functions, yet owns none of them.  The challenge is that we may need to develop a deeper self-awareness in order to understand more completely how we can become a person worthy of respect and liking.

Personal growth, as many of you know, can be a daunting prospect, but the rewards are infinite.  Sometimes we have to accept hard truths about ourselves in order to find new ways to communicate and interact.  But as we become more comfortable in our own skin, we have more options open to us when dealing with the difficult situations and people in our daily lives.  Deep in the core of who we are, we have new strength and confidence, and we increasingly learn to tell the truth in a way that energizes our teams and supports the entire enterprise.

As for my tale of woe, it took some time for me to understand that the struggles I had experienced were largely my own doing.  I was challenging the CEO’s legitimate power as if I, too, had legitimate power.  In my tiny mind, I did: I was right and he was wrong.  As a result, I didn’t use my sense of humor or my ability to listen to and understand his point of view.  I never considered speaking with him one on one, out of the glare of publicity, to work a compromise.  Instead, I went mano a mano, challenged his position, and left him with no room to wiggle, or even to agree.  I might have had the metrics in my favor, but by failing to play the one card that might have led to success, I gave myself a hard lesson in how to do it right the next time.


1 thought on “Project Management Unplugged: When it’s not about the metrics”

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    What a fabulous story, Courtney! I particularly love the part about papering your office wall with the schedule and status challenges – something I call “documenting our demise”. And I personally have fallen into the trap of being right while being entirely ineffective due to a lack of skill in how to use my own enormous personal power while lacking positional power, such as that held by a CEO. These lessons, learned the hard way, could have been easily avoided if I’d had a wise mentor and coach like you to guide me through these rough waters. Thanks for writing!

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