Why do the good project managers doubt themselves?

I was coaching a project manager last week and we worked through several of the issues he is facing.

He was probably hoping that there were some cool new Lean or Agile tools that he could use to deal with some seemingly really difficult problems.  In fact I always hope the same thing – it makes coaching and work easier.

Sadly, and predictably, he didn’t need cool new techniques.  He was already applying common sense, accountability and a real focus on getting the best outcome for the project (best for the team, the organisation and the customer).  He was also treating people like people, risks like risks and even status reports as a way of communicating status.

Yet he was still struggling.

As we worked through his issues a couple of things came out of the conversation.  He noted that he rarely gets time to sit and reflect on the project because it is too important and too urgent.  He also noted that if it is so importantly maybe he does need time to think.

But for me what came out was the crystalisation of a pattern I was vaguely aware of.

Most good project managers struggle.

  • They start out runing small projects successfully;
  • So they get bigger and harder projects; and then
  • Eventually they either get blown up or find a sustainable rhythm between nightmare project (that they often seem to want every third project) and cruisy project (that they need every third or more projects but rapidly get bored with)

Now if they blow up, they often give up or get shunted out because they failed or struggled with something really hard.  But ironically this is exactly when they can learn to be a great project manager for future projects.  I often say I won’t hire project managers who have no scars because they need to learn from the struggles of being out of their depth or making mistakes, but I would rather someone else pay for that part of their education.

Also ironically, the good project managers seem, like the one I was coaching, to feel apologetic about struggling with really difficult projects.  They seem to feel that if they were better and more experienced the project would not have been such a struggle.

This is proabably true, but then we usually don’t know until half way through what a project will be like. So is is hard to avoid being a project manager and being in trouble.

On the other hand there are also many “sub-optimal” project managers who never feel apologetic.  Sometimes they choose easy projects, usually they ask for far more time, money and resources than a better project manager would need and still struggle to deliver, and every project they blame all problems on the complexity of the project  and claim they did an amazing job simply because the project was always in trouble and they were there to rescue it.

So it seems to be the project managers who doubt themselves that become better project managers, while the ones who blame the complexity of the project and the “dumb” stakeholders who fail to learn and yet costing their projects a lot of money for having the same problems they should have learned to avoid last project.

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2 thoughts on “Why do the good project managers doubt themselves?

  1. Interesting insight James. I agree completely.There is no doubt, good project managers are developed through the ‘school of hard knocks’ and the hardest thing for project managers to do as they devlop is to make the transition from small, hands-on, projects to large, hands-off, projects and this is, as you quite correctly suggest, part of the developmental process.Unfortunately you’re also correct when you suggest some good project managers make it and some don’t and there aren’t enough good project managers going around to lose any along the way.But if I can be so bold as to suggest there is a way of minimising the number of good project managers that “get blown up” along the way… Project Risk Profiling.I note the project manager being coached has covered off project risks but one of the greatest risks the project is facing that hasn’t been covered off is the project managers lack of time to manage the project. This is analogous to ‘an axeman that can’t cut a tree down because his axe is blunt, but can’t spare the time to sharpen his axe because it’s really important he cuts the tree down…’ The end result of a blunt axe is a dead axeman who failed to cut down a tree, an unenviable outcome by anyone standards.Now, if the project manager doesn’t have time to manage the project there could be many risks the project is facing taht haven’t been identified:1. Lack of skilled resources, possibly budget related;2. Lack of clear requirements leading to a significant number of variations;3. Difficult political landscape leading to the project manager being sidelined constantly resolving political issues that should be escalated out of the project space;the list goes on…But the project is not lost yet and niether is the project manager…A suggestion as a way out of the woods is to formally review the Projects Risk Profile in paralle with the project execution phase, identify and quantify the Project Risk Profile, then take the complete Project Risk Profile, supported with underlying causes and mitigation strategies to the Project Steering Committee so they can share the project managers burden.It’s only too late to establish a Projects Risk Profile when the project ahs failed and there is no project left.Good luck.Graham is the Managing Director and Principle Consultant for Downes Corporate Services. For more information on this topic or on Downes Corporate Services please go to: http://www.downescorporateservices.com or follow Graham through Downescorp on Twitter.

  2. James King

    I was running a course recently and most of the project managers said they knew about risk and that we could skip over that section of the course. But then when I asked about how they manage risk and whether they are risk managers or task trackers they got a bit confused. Most of the group did not actually manage risks as much as just report them.

    So I think you are right – more focus on understanding the fundamental link between risk and project management would probably lead to a lot lest project managers being “blown up”.

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