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.