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Being Erin Brockovich

08-24-15 Drew Clemens

Tight budgets, short timelines, expanding scope—we’re all walking through the same stuff, but we’re wearing different shoes. Drew shares how putting your people above your projects leads to better results.

If you could walk for a day in my shoes at Sparkbox, you’d find yourself filling a variety of roles. Planner. UX Designer. Writer. Mentor. Village idiot.

However, you’d spend the majority of your shoe-filling day managing web projects. It’s what I do.

My daily project management stroll brings many other individuals of similar roles and titles across my path. We all see the same issues—tight budgets, short timelines, expanding scope. We’re walking through the same stuff, but we’re all wearing different shoes. And some shoes can really hurt you… and your project.

There’s No Accounting for Taste

How is a project best managed? Methodologies and strategies vary. Project scope and team environment impacts practice. Personnel and competencies change as teams change. Regardless of these considerations, one thing matters most: how you conduct yourself as a human being.

There is a stark difference in styles among those managing projects. One project manager rules with an iron fist and an army boot. Orders are given from the front of the room. Failure is not an option. Tension is the norm.

Another cheers from the sidelines with pom poms and sneakers. Encouragement is constant. Success is driven by positive thinking. There are posters of kittens. So many kittens.

I believe there’s a time and place for both. And others as well. Your style—your personality—can contribute to a successful project. But you have to stop managing the project.

Confusing, I know, so I’ve asked Julia Roberts to help me explain.

Stop Managing Projects

The following scene in Erin Brockovich illustrates this perfectly. To set the stage a bit, Julia Roberts is playing Erin, a foul-mouthed legal assistant in a push-up bra and six-inch heels. She is devoted to her case—fighting for families affected by a power company’s water pollution—but her boss has been forced to bring in another big-name law firm to help with the case that has grown too large for their own tiny firm. Watch as Erin meets Theresa.

Warning: Language

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Theresa believes in her methods. The boxes need checked. The lists need to be marked off. It’s a project that needs managed.

Erin believes in herself and the people she’s been working with. People need to be heard and understood. Relationships need to be cultivated. They are people needing guidance.

Huge difference. They have the same destination in mind, but they have wildly different ways of getting there.

In the end, there’s a little of both styles that are needed in order for them to win their case. Erin did need some more structure added to the project to take it across the finish line. However, the people—the true core of the case—trusted Erin and hated Theresa. Without Erin’s continued involvement, they would have pulled out completely. There’s no project to manage at that point.

People First, Project Second

Your first goal as a project manager should be to involve yourself in the people of the project and not the project itself. At Sparkbox, we hire based on fluency, humility, and empathy. Notice that two of those qualities have to do with relating to people. Only one is centered on the individual.

As my friend Rob Harr likes to say, “Projects succeed or fail because of people. The technical stuff is the easy part.”

Want to know how the scope of a project is going to fluctuate throughout its life cycle? Get to know your customers on a personal level. Understand the challenges that they are facing within their environments. Get to know their bosses and their bosses’s bosses. Look for nontechnical solutions that involve organizational change and break down political walls. You will never be able to predict all scope changes, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to forecast from the trenches than it is 30,000 feet up.

Want to know if your project is going to be on time and on budget? Spend some time talking to your team about their lives. Are they getting enough sleep? Are they distracted all day because of stuff going on at home? Are they feeling confident in their abilities? None of these answers can be put into a Gantt chart or burn up, but they will help you interpret the velocity of your team’s work. You can then make better decisions.

For a real life example, let’s talk about new team members.

Our team at Sparkbox has grown quite a bit in the past few years. As a result, we’ve had “new folks” join projects quite often. Some individuals are veterans, some are younger in their careers. Regardless of fluency, there are times that almost all team members (especially new ones) feel like they are floundering in their projects.

A team member floundering isn’t good for his or her confidence, and it isn’t good for the project either. “That’s why we do daily check-ins and identify blockers,” you may say—confident in your methodology. However, methodology cannot force honesty. Humans, especially those who are insecure or confused, have a tendency to paint a rosier picture and obscure the truth for fear of being discovered—especially when put on the spot in front of a group. Most new folks would rather flounder than risk embarrassment. Eventually, yes, this will come to light as progress is not being made and others become blocked due to the new person’s lack of progress. However, at what cost? The project has suffered some, for sure. But how do you even measure the cost of the damage done to their confidence? Most egos are fragile.

Simply put, a people-focused project manager can identify some problems before they arise and address them more quickly. Spend one-on-one time with the project team asking them more than “what they’re working on.” Ask them how they feel about it, what their concerns are, and what you can do to help them. And don’t stop asking until you believe them. Obviously, this is good for the urgent needs of the present project; however, it is invaluable for the more important long-term needs of your team.

Do It Today so There Is a Tomorrow

Can a project be successfully run based solely on warm fuzzies and good intentions? Of course not. Some kind of structure is needed to keep the kitten herd moving. However, relying on methodology alone is a dangerous place to be. Relying on the system—and in turn relegating the team to be simply cogs in that system—may work for a time, but it will not last. People matter. And they know when they aren’t being treated as people. You’ll eventually lose your team for the sake of your process.

In the end, focusing on people is a long-term play. Happy, healthy, engaged team members generally lead to better work and thus better projects. Start there. Focus on the project second. You’ll end up with better results, and you’ll have a team that’s willing to take on project after project.

Ben Callahan Discusses Creating Something Timeless (Video)

Rob Harr on Managing Client Expectations

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