I think that a project manager is solely responsible for project planning. However, in my opinion, he (or she) should never try to produce a project plan alone.
It is hard for me to sell the benefits of creating a plan by only facilitating planning activities.
So I will share a story from my early days as project manager. It is about the advantages you can get by creating a project management team.
One morning while having a cup of coffee and reading through emails I found out that there is the fifth project that I urgently need to start. There was no chance to handle them all. And there was no way to avoid the project.
It was clear that I was in need for help. The idea of having a project management team is as old as PMBOK Guide. But at that moment, it was hard to delegate project management duties to someone else.
It seemed like it was my work to do. And it was way too critical to delegate.
Jumping slightly ahead, I should say that even though it was the first time I created a project management team it was a success beyond my expectations. Most of the suggestions and ideas below still work for me years after.
1. Selecting the Best Project Management Team
The first question you need to answer is who will be helping you with project management. The apparent impulse is to choose the most experienced specialists. They are knowledge experts, they participated in dozens of projects, and they have authority.
But on the second thought. I’m a junior project manager, without technical expertise and dozens of projects, but I was able to create project plans and manage projects successfully.
So most probably I need different personal traits.
Here is what has been working for me since then.
First of all, people on my project management team are responsible. They take responsibility, and they own it. It is the kind of individuals who sleep badly when something is done not in the best way possible.
Second, they should have a leadership aptitude. The best candidates are leaders without formal authority. They can rally people with share force of charisma or built their influence with personal outstanding performance.
Third, they should be team players. In the long run, I did not want just to create a project plan. I wanted to engage all those people who will do the project work.
Getting their buy-in is the goal.
In other words, my proxies should understand how to work with others. Such people are always ready to help and quite comfortable to ask for assistance.
Fourth, they should have free time to take on project management activities. You do need to ensure that you provide enough time for them to perform project management tasks.
It is quite difficult to spare precious time of the best specialists on the tasks not related to their knowledge area.
You may not know your team well at the beginning. It might be a good idea to collect feedback from managers who worked with your team members before.
In any case, do your best to gather as much information as possible before making a choice.
2. Secret Ingredient of Delegation
Now you need to delegate the tasks correctly. However, I will not go into the details on standard practices of delegation here. There are so many great articles around.
However, there is one specific matter I would like to point out as a project manager.
You need to keep in mind further integration of the project.
You will receive a lot of information from different people. It will be different in form and style. You will have to spend a lot of time to compile everything in one coherent piece.
There is one best way to overcome this. You need templates.
Anything that you need to produce two or more times during a project will benefit from a template.
Spend time creating quality templates now and they will save you a lot of time in future. You can reuse them on other projects as well.
First of all, templates should be easy to use and exceptionally apparent for those who use them. You need to predefine all font types, formats, colors and spaces as much as possible.
Any field that should be filled in should have a description and an example. It might also be useful to clarify how you will use the information in future.
It is the most beneficial when your team gives you feedback on your templates.
3. Facilitation of the Project Management Team
The magic did not happen on its own. Still there was much work to do from my side.
And I should warn you in advance:
This approach does not save you time and efforts. It just requires a different involvement from your side.
My ultimate purpose was to align the team with the goals of project planning. First of all, I ensured that role, authority and goal of each team member are clearly stated.
Now I had to give the management team a gentle push. It was a bit awkward for them to take on new responsibilities. Especially communication and negotiation between each other.
But I wanted to build momentum here. You know, it is very helpful to have momentum during planning. People will be less prone to stuck with debates and procrastinate.
So I helped each sub-team at the start and set deadlines for the first results and the next meeting.
During the initial period, I put off my headphones and try to listen to the team’s talks as much as possible. I do not intervene unless it is critical.
You can’t expect that everyone understands every bit of project planning. So I usually try to add details, background, and dependencies between tasks that the team works on. It pays off quickly when you mentor and develop a team while they perform actual work.
4. Derive Deeper Expert Analysis
The first results of the newly created project management team were astonishing. With the data, I received it was the easiest planning effort I had.
Each piece of planning document got much more attention. For example, besides the usual decomposition of work packages, I received comments, concerns, and suggestions for each activity.
They became the input into the risk management.
Though it was not a new practice, the quality of the additional information on activities and in-depth analysis was much greater. It only happens when people feel responsibility and ownership of a task or a problem.
How did I achieve such feelings?
I just used standard practices of delegation correctly.
When I explained a task at hand, I tried to establish the impression that I needed a complete solution, not just a filled in template.
For example, I voted doubt that my template was not entirely suitable or good enough. There should always be some place for improvement.
Additionally, I explained how their work will be used in future by me and others. It added up value and meaningfulness to the work.
5. Foster Effective Collaboration
You can also achieve stronger cooperation in the team using the same approach.
But there is a minor difference in technique that can hinder you.
In general, you do want to control the process of planning. Moreover, it is tempting to forcing the people to work the way you would do it.
It will give you the results closer to what you expect. However, it will also kill any initiative to make connections between teams or departments.
Here is what I usually do. I give away the ownership of the task to a responsible person. I only describe the inputs that would be good to use and people that should be involved.
On the other hand, I clearly state the output I need, it’s format, and the way I will use it. I usually also indicate a person who will help me checking and verifying the outputs.
Now the responsible person has to communicate with others at least to get a fast acceptance and verification of the planning task.
It is important to give the team some time to find the ways to communicate and build up working relations on their own.
I intervene only in case of some serious conflicts or meaningless debates. Only to cool down the discussion, align it with the task and to remind about the pressing deadlines. Then I step back again.
Sooner or later they have to come up with a constructive way to efficiently perform their work.
If you did not influence too much during this process, you would end up with the best plan this team can produce today.
If it is a new team and it is the first iteration of planning most probably you will end up with outputs that do not align with your project management approach, project boundaries, and your expectations.
It is the expected result.
Only after several iterations of planning, you will be able to get the raw output of the team aligned with the project management approach and project constraints.
Before that, the team should first understand the mutual responsibility that you share for the project.
6. Share the Feeling of Mutual Responsibility
I repeat quite often that a project manager holds the ultimate responsibility for the project.
It is your responsibility to your superiors. On the other hand, it is your responsibility to take the blame for your team. In other words to shield them from any negative outcomes.
It is the primary source of your power in the team, though. It is an expert power.
By managing projects efficiently and achieving the goals while nursing your team, you win authority and their trust. People like to work in safe, productive and respectful environments.
On the other hand, remember, that “people leave managers not companies”.
However, within the project, I recommend building mutual responsibility for the project outcome.
Here is how I do it.
I delegated the tasks and ownership to the team. Hopefully, I managed to build up a feeling of responsibility. Now it is my turn to take a share of it. There are two steps.
Firstly, I remind the team about my ultimate responsibility for the project. I promise them to take all the hits from the outside. I promise to shield them from any negative external influence. And until they perform to their best and do not violate any major rules, no harm will reach them. They will always deal only with me.
It is something that you need to prove.
With the new team, it will be just words with nothing to back them up. But the more you are consistent with your promises, the stronger your reputation will become.
At some point, it will go without saying that working with you is just a great experience.
Secondly, I explain my responsibility to finish the project within given constraints. Now we need to negotiate and come to an agreement how to fit it their tasks into project deadlines.
Quite often timelines and budgets are very tight. Sometimes are even impossible.
Therefore, project plans are always challenging at best. The greatest problem for you is to find a balance where the team thinks that the scope of the project is still feasible, and they agree to be responsible for their commitment.
Now the team acknowledges that their tasks are feasible, and they promised you to finish them in time.
Whatever happens after, they will be more attuned to fulfill the commitment. It will be much easier to ask for some extra effort. It works completely opposite to the approach when you push the plans down to the team.
However, it will only work well until you keep your promises. Putting additional stress on the team by accepting a change request without negotiating changes to deadlines or scope is a good example of a violation.
7. The Truth From Trenches
There are no simple ways in project management. This one is not an exception.
It’s hard and challenging approach. Many aspects will interfere.
- You may not have suitable people on the team.
- They may not have enough experience.
- They may be totally demotivated.
- You may not have enough time and effort to build the project management team.
- You may not have support for such approach within your organization.
- You will choose wrong people.
And people will let you down from time to time.
However, it is worth it.
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