What did Leo the trainer, Rachel the team lead, Debbie the systems analyst, and VJ the project manager have in common? They were highly skilled IT practitioners, but each had a similar flaw that held them back from meeting their full potential.
Leo was an expert in IT-related training and implementation activities. Yet whenever there was a criticism of the training or implementation processes, whether from the client or from his own team, Leo took the criticism personally. He would lash out defensively. He would perceive criticism in the most innocent question. I saw Leo’s effectiveness on a major project diminish, and his chance at a senior leadership position quashed, his career eclipsed by a less skilled but more personable practitioner.
Rachel was a very effective team lead when it came to strategizing the delivery of her team’s work products, never missing a deadline. She was destined for significant project leadership positions. However, she was often seen fraternizing with her staff and junior staff from other teams daily, and often on the weekends. As a leader, Rachel was conscious of not creating an “us versus them” gulf between her and her team members, but she often carried it too far. She liked to be one of the staff. Yes, she knew how to deliver through effective tactical strategies, but her inability to deal with difficult situations effectively when those difficult situations involved her friends set her career back.
Debbie was a brilliant systems analyst. Her work products seldom received any negative evaluation comments from the client. Her analysis was complete, well-written, easy to understand, and highly valued. While Debbie was a perfectionist with her own work, she was unduly critical of her teammates’ efforts. While her client loved her, her peers avoided her.
VJ was, and still is, one of the greatest project delivery minds that I have ever had the pleasure to work with. But VJ had a fatal flaw. He was so taken with proving himself to upper management that he would devise every trick in the book to ensure that any misunderstanding of requirements, any system defect, or any project delay was the client’s fault. What I observed was that his client respected him for his ability to deliver, but had little use for his inability to accept responsibility for issues that were clearly under his control. His company loved him because he consistently delivered on time, within budget, and with significant profit. If a senior executive occasionally had to deal with the client’s concerns of VJ’s one-sided tactics, so be it. He delivered more consistently and more profitably than any of their other senior Project Managers.
These four individuals, and countless others that I have experienced in my long career in IT project management, are consistent in two aspects:
- They are among the brightest and the best in their field; and
- They are seriously lacking in what we often called the “soft skills.” (Incidentally, I have serious reservations calling these essential skills by their typical descriptor of “soft skills,” but I use it here to establish common understanding.)
These four examples, and countless others that I have experienced, are the types of situations that are consistently glossed over in favor of IT’s focus on the technical aspects or process aspects of project management – to the detriment of the client’s end product, the IT organization’s reputation, and the staff’s own feelings of accomplishment.
It is my strong belief that as long as companies and internal IT organizations ignore the “soft skills” (have I told you that I dislike that term?), projects will continue to fail or perform poorly regardless of the highly developed technical or process skills of the delivery staff.
In my previous article, “This is Why Focusing on People in Project Planning Will Help Projects Succeed,” I lamented the lack of attention to the people aspects of project management when preparing the Project Management Plan. A significant section of the Project Management Plan is the Resource Management Plan.
Throughout my career, I have been involved in countless proposal efforts in which we developed the Resource Management Plan consisting of project roles and responsibilities, requisite skills, reporting relationships and the staffing management plan. We produced excellent resource breakdown structures. We estimated resource loading across the Work Breakdown Structure. We allowed for staff vacations and time away for continuing education. These Resource Management Plans would often receive full scoring points from the proposal evaluators.
Notice my description in the previous paragraph. Technical and process oriented. All the schedules, timelines and “arts and charts” were in place. But did we ever take into consideration the people aspects of those Project Management Plans?
No. We would fall back into old habits. We would put Leo on the team and tell ourselves that we would deal with his outbursts if we needed to. We would put Rachel in a critical team leadership role; and if her fraternization with junior staff becomes a problem – well, we’d just coach her as we went along. We needed Debbie’s strong analytical skills and would talk with her about her criticism of fellow team members if we won the job. As for VJ, well, we needed him. Especially if it was a short burn – maybe we had to bid a lower margin than normal, so we would need every advantage we could muster to delivery timely and within budget.
Yes, our org chart was sound
We even included RACI charts to identify responsibility and accountability within our team and the client team. The roles and responsibilities descriptions were tight – tight enough to write an employee contract with each responsible team member.
But as I posited earlier, had we really considered the people aspects of the project delivery when assembling such a team? By that I mean: what would assembling this team do for our client? What would it do for our firm’s ongoing reputation? What would it do for staff assigned to the project?
Unfortunately, in developing the Resource Management Plan, we as project management specialists often look at staff acquisition strategies rather than staff fit. Which staff will give us the advantage over the client? For example, in the case of VJ, I’ve had client management tell me directly that, yes, their project was delivered on time; but, no, they would never work with that team again. Short-term gain. Long-term loss.
So often in the Resource Management Plan, we provide resource calendars to allow for the obligatory vacation time or training time rather than preparing calendars to accommodate project needs. We set aside time for staff to learn more efficient ways to develop project schedules or resource loading charts – but seldom in the “soft skills” (oh, how I dislike that term) that would make them more effective as leaders on this project, and on future projects. Staff like Leo, Rachel, Debbie and VJ are brilliant technically and in the process aspects of project delivery; but in terms of the people aspects, they are each “a box of rocks” – with no real understanding of what they are lacking.
Setting aside time in each project for training in the people aspects of project delivery and for follow-up coaching, pays far greater dividends than continuing to rely on staff’s technical and/or process skills. Purposeful training and coaching in the people aspects pay far greater dividends than attempting to change behavior through the annual performance appraisal process.
Why do I suggest building this time into the project itself? After all, this adds expense
Because, if most IT project professionals have careers like mine, they will go years without any “beach time” (down time) between projects. So, the only opportunity is while they are on a project. Besides, behavioral change is better achieved and reinforced when coached and trained as it is happening. Rounding out a person’s skill set with the people aspects of project delivery is a growth process best achieved over several projects and years.
Additionally, as we develop the Resource Management Plan, we look at staff release plans as a way of reflexively managing project cost, even at the expense of project quality. I’ve worked on projects where this was the modus operandi, client concerns notwithstanding. Yes, the project was delivered timely. Yes, the project was delivered adequately (but not necessarily in a stellar fashion). Yes, the client provided a (reluctant) reference. But from the people aspects of project delivery, the staff that worked so hard at delivering the end product would feel unfulfilled if the expected quality was lacking.
In my experience, we also included a recognition and rewards process in the Resource Management Plan. We built in team luncheons, expensive bottles of wine, and for those incredible accomplishments over and above what was expected, weekends away at a resort. These were accompanied by framed plaques to go on the cubicle wall, and maybe even a bonus at the annual performance review. Now don’t get me wrong, as the recipient of many such rewards I truly appreciated them.
But it has also been my experience over the years, that the greatest recognition and reward that can be given to career-minded employees is to help them develop well-rounded careers. For all of Leo’s technical skills, he would have benefited from coaching and training in self-assurance. Rachel would have benefited from training in the people aspects of team leadership. Debbie could have learned much by taking a course in understanding the working styles of fellow team members. And VJ could have benefited from training in collaboration with client management.
Team luncheons and expensive bottles of wine are great for teambuilding, but the effects wear off with the next task to be delivered. Weekend getaways have slightly longer lasting effects. But coaching and training and paying attention to staff development (i.e. the people aspects of project delivery) are highly valued by staff. These pay dividends for the current project, for projects to come, and for a career lifetime.
People aspects. The Resource Management Plan is incomplete if the people aspects of project deliver/project management are not given serious consideration.
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