Mind the gaps

mind the gap image

When starting a new engagement, or a new role, the question that’s most often in my mind (apart from ‘where’s the nearest decent coffee shop?’) is ‘how can I add the most value here?’

Around a decade ago I worked at a client where project managers were a new thing – the management team had decided that the organisation’s delivery capability needed beefing up and several project managers had been brought in to ensure that key projects were delivered. In my first weeks I was regularly asked ‘what’s the point of a project manager?’ It was a genuine question as much as a challenge, and it led to some existential pondering – I’d taken it as self-evident that you needed a project manager to manage a project.

Looking around the organisation, there were hundreds of projects of varying sizes, most of them being loosely managed by people whose time and attention was consumed by their day job, and constrained from getting enough resource or attention from other parts of the organisation by silos and hierarchy. Everywhere projects were delayed, and no-one knew if they were achieving what they set out to do – project documentation and governance was sporadic at best.

After a couple of weeks in that role, the answer to the fundamental question had become clear in my mind, and these themes have crystallised in the intervening years.

A project manager is:

  • The person on point for the delivery of the project – i.e. the person that can be fired if the project is failing, without seriously disrupting the core organisation
  • The person who can tell you whether (and how) the project is meeting its objectives
  • On top of the detail – can provide updates (usually from memory) on progress, risks, issues, and dependencies, knows what’s happening now, and what needs to happen next
  • Able to unblock progress, whether by escalation, persuasion, or force of will
  • Able to bring together teams from across an organisation, without being overly concerned by hierarchy

In the interests of balance, I did concede (as we still must) that a project manager can also be an expensive resource whose effort is put into management of logs and reports without putting their shoulder to the wheel and managing the actual things that will deliver a project.

A project manager who is in charge of their project becomes the go to person – the one who acquires a reputation for getting things done, but this reputation has a dark side. As a profession we’re focused on the scope of our projects in order to protect time, cost, and quality, but in an organisation where the process of commissioning projects and bringing their output into operation is unstructured and lacking ownership, we can find that our own personal scope enlarges to an alarming degree.

This can happen slowly: a meeting where no-one else picks up the actions, a plan that parts of the organisation don’t deliver and which has no consequences, issues that arise that don’t have an owner in practical terms (if someone’s name is against the action and they don’t do it, and nothing happens – there is no owner), and the service organisation you’re delivering into is unstructured. You have two choices:

  1. Log the risks and issues, adjust the plan accordingly, escalate, and kick up a fuss, or;
  2. Do the work yourself.

If you’re on the hook for the project’s success and failure would reflect badly on you, you’ll probably do both. This is workable if the project isn’t too big, or you haven’t got other projects, but where this isn’t true you won’t be able to fill all of the gaps. Or rather, you may be able to, but at significant cost to any pretense of work / life balance.

This is where we need to look to ourselves, and decide how much we want to give – to ask ‘which gaps am I prepared to fill’, and perhaps more importantly – which we’re not. We all hear stories (and sometimes witness or experience) the results of acute stress, and to avoid falling into the gaps ourselves, we can take some small but practical steps:

  • Chair meetings yourself – it’s then easier to bring issues to a head, assign actions and follow up. i.e. it’s a challenge to steer the ship if your hand isn’t on the wheel;
  • Keep notes (ideally in a shared action tracker) – being able to demonstrate commitments that people have made makes it much easier to ensure that they keep them;
  • Escalate early, and constructively – if you become known as a project manager who only escalates when its really necessary and when something can still be done to fix things, and that you’re providing potential solutions as well as well-defined problems, senior members of the organisation will pay attention;
  • Lean in – you can’t get around the fact that some projects will require a huge effort, and it’s infinitely better to embrace the work and deliver the project rather than moan about all the problems you have and fail.

Every organisation has its heroes, and its martyrs – it’s our choice how far we go along this continuum.