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The truth: your project management plan has nothing to do with project management

Aidan HornsbyLast Updated: June 7, 2017

Convincing a group of people to do something can be difficult. But it’s also the bedrock of effective project management.

No roadmap, process, or project management plan can convince the people you’re working with that a project is worth investing their time and effort into—that’s something you need to do as a manager.

Don’t get caught up in details

It’s easy to get caught up in the activities and minutiae of project management – tracking and hitting milestones, meetings, etc. — but good project managers know that these surface-level indicators don’t matter much unless you have buy-in from your team members.

A project will simply not be successful unless people are willing to sacrifice time and energy to complete it.

The ability to persuade team members to buy into an idea is larger than any one project management skill or habit, and often takes years of experience to master. The best way to get better at this immediately is to make sure you aren’t currently doing anything that is actively preventing people from buying in in the first place.

All people deserve and expect to be treated with a certain level of respect. They want the same things that you do: to be understood as individuals, to do meaningful work, and for their efforts to be acknowledged. Ignoring these very basic facts about people is a surefire way to lose the trust of your team members.

The best tip I have received was that people make projects… So many methods try to setup a systematic approach to projects, be it PRINCE2, Agile, Scrum or a method based on one of the other bodies of knowledge, but at the end of the day delivery is all about co-ordinating and motivating people.

— Paul Naybour, Business Development Director, Parallel Project Training

No size fits all

Maybe the most common way that project managers lose their team members is by arbitrarily and haphazardly applying project frameworks that are simply incompatible with their teams.

We’ve all been there before: we read a book or article about some aspect of project management (like this one!), realize it’s the perfect solution to a specific project management problem, and then march into work the next day expecting to apply it to our workflow and solve everything. A big meeting is called, where everyone is told that from now on, the whole team is going to use system X to track tasks, scheduling, and deliverables.

A week later, no one is using the task management program anymore and you’re back to square one.

The problem with arbitrarily applying frameworks to teams is that teams are made of people, and every team is unique. Just because a certain way of working was compatible with a previous group of people doesn’t mean it will work with this one.

When encountering a new project and a new team, your job is not to control and shoehorn the group into a specific project management process, but instead to ask yourself how you can improve and build upon what already exists. Get to know people on an individual basis, and figure out what has worked for them in the past. Be open to experimentation, and the idea that the process you start off with might end up not being a good fit. 

Also, make sure that you aren’t using project management processes to distract from more fundamental problems with your team or business. A team that manages to do all of their planning with post-its without getting distracted will be a lot more effective than a team that constantly flits from one new project management system to another in the hopes that it will magically solve all of their problems.

The point is to find a project flow that works for your team, not vice versa.

Reward efforts

Never underestimate the role of motivation in a project’s success. When someone performs well, acknowledge the person’s effort. Share the great feedback with the person, his peers, and/or his management. Such recognition will pay off immediately as your team will feel their work is important and valued.

— Katherine Kostereva, CEO and Managing Partner, Bpmonline

One of the most powerful tools that managers at small companies have in their management toolboxes is rewards.

At the end of the day, acknowledging and rewarding good work is the most direct and effective way of communicating to people that you understand and value their work. Someone who feels like their work is appreciated and understood is then more likely to do more good work—it’s a very simple feedback mechanism, but it underpins every healthy management relationship. 

Choosing who to reward and how to do so, however, can be tricky—should you reward entire teams, encouraging effective teamwork? Or should you reward individuals? This can be especially tricky at a small company where roles are mixed, people find themselves on multiple projects at a time, resources are limited, and everyone knows how much everyone else is making.

When awarding bonuses and raises, rule number one is always that they should be as closely tied to tangible, measurable expectations and outcomes as possible. If someone goes above and beyond the call of duty and their effort results in a tangible, objective increase in outcomes, a similarly tangible increase in financial reward is appropriate.

Bonuses, raises, and stock options aren’t the only way to reward team members, however. 

Dinners, events, and retreats are great perks that offer a variety of side benefits — they help foster bonds between team members, remove you from your typical work context, and help you get to know team members as people. Getting to know team members can also help you understand what they value, which, in turn, makes it easier to reward them!

There are also small, day-to-day things you can do to communicate to people that you appreciate their effort. If someone goes above and beyond the call of duty to help you out, remember that you owe them one. Sending someone a thank you note, or simply thanking someone in person for their effort can also mean more than you think.

These are basic instincts that are hard to teach, and usually only come through experience. You will not always do this right. From time to time, you will fail, make people feel neglected, and maybe even cause someone to leave the company. This is inevitable in a fast-moving, lean startup environment.

The best you can do is to make sure that instead of repeating these mistakes, you learn from them, and that you never lose sight of the fact that your teams are made of people.

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