Putting the Romance Back into your PM Relationship

A Project Management Article by Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP, EVP

There are times we all fall out of love with those things we cherish the most. Our closest friends, our homes, and our careers can all migrate from being what we treasure to becoming what we tolerate. And yet, with Valentine’s Day upon us, it’s a great idea to find ways to fall back into love. And yes, I’m talking about falling in love with your career as a project manager. 

Remember when you first came on board as a project manager? You got the responsibility and you really didn’t seem to mine the lack of authority that went with it. Why? Because you were going to achieve goals! You were going to get things done! You were going to craft the outcomes in your own image. It would be splendid.  

Over time, that sense of wonder waned. Focusing on goals gave way to dealing with nuisances. Crafting a well-hewn plan ceded ground to trusting Jeannette down the hall, because she always gets stuff done. Building the team gave ground to the sense of urgency and the concern that team-building might be seen as an enormous waste of time. 

Yet for some of us, we now find ourselves in the bleak mid-winter of our careers. It’s February, and the bloom is definitely off the rose. 

Which brings us to Valentine’s Day. Seemingly the purest of the proverbial “Hallmark holidays”, Valentine’s Day (the February 14 Valentine’s Day) actually dates back to 498 A.D. when it was a time for romance. What brought on that romance? Originally, it was artificially induced! In the Roman holidays that predate the February 14 celebration and traditions, pairings were determined by lot. You got who you got, and you had to make due with them as your mate for the next year. Sounds kind of like your project team sometimes, doesn’t it? Yet many of these pairings evolved into successful marriages. 

How can we induce new fire into our project management relationships? I believe there are two critical elements that have to be rekindled—the novelty and vision. 

Project Novelty

When a project is new and untested, it holds forth an enormous amount of promise. There’s hope that it will be an ideal experience. There’s promise that it will prove our mettle as managers and professionals. But as it evolves, we come to the realization that some of the aspects of the project may not be achieved as projected and some of the hope we had for the project will not be realized as we had envisioned. 

In many instances, there is no novelty in our projects because we haven’t looked for it. We rely on the original plan, the original documentation and the original vision statements, believing them sufficient to carry us through the end of the endeavor. They’re not! 

Just as a romance sometimes needs new fire, we need to take a fresh look at some of the foundational documents of our projects. The charter, the objective/scope statement and the project plans all merit a mid-term review. By looking at them, affirming their validity and restating them to the critical stakeholders, we can put the proverbial “fresh coat of paint” on the work that has seemingly turned less attractive. 

Simple reminders of what the project is and why we’re doing it are crucial to our shared long-term success. It’s not enough to say the objective statement is available. Any psychologist will tell you that you often only change attitudes and feelings about any entrenched environment through positive reinforcement and repetition. In the classic Bill Murray comedy “What About Bob”, the troubled Bill Murray is seen following this advice as he walks down the street, saying “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful. I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful. I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful.” The reason he doesn’t seem to succeed is in part related to his inability to be convincing about the message he’s sharing. So it’s not just enough to say the words. There’s a real need to reinforce the attitudes. And that stems from an intense focus on the project vision.

Project Vision

The project vision is an honest assessment of where the project is going to be within a given time-frame. In a short-term project, it should be an assessment of where the project is going to be when it’s done (coupled with the timing of when it will be done). In a longer-term effort, the assessment should be tied to the next significant milestone, but stated clearly in terms of what achievable objectives can be met between now and then. Agile software development has adopted this with “sprints”—short bursts of project activity to reach achievable goals. 

Success in Agile is not achieved by slogging along all the way to completion, but by identifying elements of work that make sense as a group, and flagging the means by which we’ll know we’ve arrived. With that information in hand, we can seize the next short strides forward with more gusto, knowing we don’t have miles to cover…only yards. 

As Agile is showing in many organizations, small visions are much easier to manage than leviathan ones. It’s easier to get team members to become enthused and invigorated when they can see a clear end target in sight and know their roles in getting the project to that step of the process. 

There’s an easy test to evaluate if your project objectives are both fresh and clear. Ask your team members if they can articulate the project goals. If they drop into a rote recitation of the objective from the original project charter, there’s a problem. If they can’t answer the question, there’s a problem. If they can tell you (with confidence) where the project is going to be by a date certain, you should be encouraged. If they can tell you their roles in getting there, you have the right people on the team, and a well-articulated message to support them.

Falling in Love is a Two-way Street

Building passion back into a project won’t just happen organically. Team members who see a project as drudgery won’t suddenly come to their senses and embrace it as challenging and innovative. As project managers, we have a responsibility to give them reasons to fall back in love with the work they’re doing. But it’s not an impossible task. If we can redefine the work, keep the description(s) manageable, keep the vision in check to a reasonable timeframe and give them a vision of their roles in achieving that vision, we can encourage our team members to succeed where they might otherwise be ready to walk away in fatigue or frustration. 

About the Author

Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP, EVP

Carl Pritchard is a recognized author, lecturer and teacher in the project management community. He is the author of six texts, co-producer of the "Portable PMP Prep" and is the U.S. Correspondent for the British project management magazine, "Project Manager Today."

He has presented keynote addresses around the globe, and sits on the board of directors for ProjectConnections.com and on the advisory board for the Project Management Leadership conference by QAI in Dehli, India.

He was the lead chapter author for the risk management chapter of the latest (4th) edition of the Guide to the PMBOK.

Carl Pritchard can be found on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Plaxo and LinkedIn. He can also be found with a simple e-mail to carl@carlpritchard.com

Copyright 2009, Pritchard Management Associates - Right to reproduce in full with attribution is granted freely to Washington, DC Chapter members for personal and professional use. All other rights (including resale or republication) are reserved.

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