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Putting People Management Back into Project Management

~ By Lisa Walker

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No one will ever be able to convince me that the most challenging component of project management is the science behind it. The way in which we need to pull people together to be a high performance team over a relatively short period of time is the most challenging part of project management.

This article will focus on the communication issues within the project team, in particular, the people management aspect. Given the natural pressure of projects, tight time frames, cost management and close monitoring, the need for project managers to be good people managers is heightened.

Forming the Team

Project teams are temporary, often a mixture of contractors and employees. Given the temporary arrangement it is generally assumed that employees will receive guidance from their line manager and contractors are assumed to be self motivated enough that feedback is not necessary. The outcome of these assumptions is that individuals in the team are rarely given feedback on their own performance, rarely consulted about the overall project and rarely part of team building activities.

There is a very good reason why all project managers must make an investment in becoming good people managers and that is projects are more likely to succeed! A very good functioning team is always one of the major attributes of successful projects.

The points below describe some strategies to use when forming the team:

  • It is essential to have a good understanding of each team member's skill set. Make sure that the project does not suffer because the team does not possess the right skills to deliver the project. Remember that team members tend to over estimate their skills and under estimate duration to complete tasks. By closely looking at each team member's previous experience you can judge how much you need to 'weight' his or her input.
  • Time should be dedicated to discussing each person's role and responsibility. If this does not occur then the project manager has an uphill battle in obtaining team member commitment. The newly formed team needs time to become a team and get to know the project manager. Have regular one-on-one meetings with each team member in a relaxed environment (like at a cafe) to build a rapport with them and observe each member in the team environment to see how well they interact with other members. Arrange team-oriented activities such as lunches, after work drinks, social outings like ten pin bowling, movie nights etc.
  • Discuss as a team what the most effective means of communication is for everyone. Discuss your project management style and understand the team's general expectations in terms of what development/learning opportunities they would like to get out of the project.

Managing the Team

Throughout the life of the project you may come across the following human resource issues that can contribute to project failure. This article only notes a few issues, and is by no means exhaustive:

  • Over the life of the project commitment levels may vary. In the middle of the project members are likely to experience a lull and find that their commitment and motivation is lower. Team members are less likely to be committed to the project's success if they have not been made to feel part of the team. Be very in tune with the energy levels in the team and when you sense that commitment or motivation is waning employ strategies to prevent a rut setting in. Strategies include revisiting the project's overall goals (getting back to the big picture), hold a 'learning' meeting (e.g. get someone out to chat to them about the latest technology trends in the weekly team meeting), have a dress down day (for those teams that must wear business attire), and inject lots of fun and laughter!
  • If conflict exists in the team you cannot afford for team members to 'work it out themselves'. Team members expect the project manager to assist in resolving serious conflicts. Team members may not feel they are in a position to resolve the matter or lack the skills to handle the situation well.
  • People tend to first work on tasks they enjoy doing. A pitfall to watch out for is that more time may be spent on these preferred tasks, leaving little or no time for other, less enjoyable tasks to be completed. The project could be in trouble if the tasks that are neglected are on the critical path. To overcome these problems inform each team member which of their tasks are on the critical path and when the deadlines are due. Provide rewards (such as movie vouchers, coffee vouchers) for the completion of the critical tasks and publicly celebrate the completion of these critical tasks.
  • Providing regular feedback to team members (both employees and contractors) is critical. Everyone wants to know how well he or she is performing. Conduct regular review meetings with the team member to discuss how well they have performed. This session should be balanced and where you discuss any difficulties they may have experienced. You should also discuss the areas of their performance you are very pleased with.

A final comment is that the way you interact with your team must be very genuine and sincere. If your behaviour is inconsistent, distrust and cynicism quickly sets in among the team members.

Lisa Walker is the Senior Project Manager for PM-Partners Pty Ltd. The PM-Partners group specialise in project management and programme management delivery and capability development.


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