Just Show Up

Eighty percent of success is showing up
– Woody Allen

Is it ever OK for the PM to skip a client meeting?

Short answer – never.

Longer answer – maybe, if there’s a family emergency or a sudden illness. And even then you might be able to get someone to cover or to reschedule.

In most places I’ve worked, the PMs would agree. They’d be mortified at the thought of sending a writer, or a programmer, or even the account rep to a meeting without them. How can you manage the project, and the client’s expectations, and the stakeholders, and the team if you’re not there?

On the flip side, in one place I worked this kind of thing was common practice. It was no big deal for the PM to skip a meeting – or send the team to meet live and dial in – because the focus of the meeting was on some part of the project the PM didn’t think he was responsible for (e.g., the writing, the code, the graphics) or because he was “too busy” with his other projects to take the time.

But how does it look to the client if you can’t be bothered to show up?

When you’re the PM, you’re responsible for everything!  And unless you have one of those rare clients (I’ve never met one) that is totally fine with being reminded that your other clients are more important, skipping face-to-face meetings in order to work on other projects (or to miss the rush hour traffic to get home – I am not making that up), isn’t advisable if you want to keep that client very long.

Not to mention that if Woody Allen is even partly right, you’re giving up an easy path to success!  If you can get 80% of the way there just by showing up, why wouldn’t you do that?

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The (Un)Communication Trap

We’ve all worked with that manager, co-worker, client, (or dated that person) that for some reason doesn’t ever tell you the whole story. Maybe he’s “protecting you” from all the details that he doesn’t think you need to know. Maybe he’s especially forgetful or is hiding a mistake he made. Maybe he feels more important and “in charge” if he’s the only one with all the facts. Whatever the reason, it sure is annoying.

It takes a shared goal and vision to build a cohesive, effective project team. It doesn’t make you more important if you’re the only one in the know; it just cripples your team and makes you seem like a jerk.

A few good communication practices:

  • Hold an internal kickoff meeting. Before the project even starts, get your team together, tell them about the project, discuss scope, deliverables, goals, and answer questions about it
  • Include your team members on status update emails
  • Include core team members on status calls with the client (when in areas of their expertise, e.g., when you’re discussing graphics, include the graphics designer
  • When decisions about the project are made, share them with the team
  • Send out regular communications about deliverables and review dates, note who is responsible for what
  • Check in with the team members on a regular basis – ask them what they need from you
  • Hold full-team meetings to discuss project progress, potential risks, and mitigation strategies
  • Actively manage hand-offs. Rather than letting one team member throw her work over the wall to the next, hold a meeting to review and discuss. You’re running a project, not a production line

What are your best practices for communicating with your project team?

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Being the PM Means You’re in Charge. Right?

I thought I was in charge at the beginning.  it makes sense, right? You’re the project lead. The person in charge, the “one throat to choke” as they say.  You’re responsible for everything – even things you can’t possibly control – like the quality of work done by every person on your team, even when they don’t report to you and have no interest in working on your project. You’re even responsible for what you client does – she misses a deadline which sets off a chain of events that makes the project late. It’s still your fault! In the project-based world, it doesn’t matter what happens. With the possible exception of  natural disaster, if something goes wrong, it’s the project managers’ fault.

That’s a lot of pressure.  You have to own the project, but you can’t do the whole thing yourself. Yes you develop the schedule and coordinate the meetings and all that, but you’re not the decider of everything. What you’re really in charge of is setting up an environment so your project team members can do what they do best. And so your client can feel secure that her project will come out perfectly in the end – which includes being on time, on budget, and resulting in a promotion (for her, not you).

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out. But when I did, it made a world of difference.  I sucked it up, admitted I wasn’t really in charge of anything (and yet responsible for everything) and that’s when things got better.

First, I worked a lot harder to make sure the people on the team were the right people. I fought the battles early to build a good team from the start. And “good” meant a variety of things depending on the situation – a certain set of skills, a positive attitude toward the project, enthusiasm to learn new things, compatibility with the client, ability to work crazy hours if needed – whatever it seemed like the project needed most.

Then, I did what ever I could to:

  • Involve the team in every stage of the project – from planning to design, development, implementation, and evaluation. I didn’t plan a thing without making sure I had input from the appropriate team members (in addition to the appropriate client stakeholders)
  • Communicate what was happening along the way. No more did I try to “protect” the team from things that weren’t important to them. Who was i to decide what wasn’t important to them? I told everybody everything and let them use the information as they saw fit
  • Encourage the team members to lead where they were strong – and support them when they needed it
  • Find help when necessary. If someone needed training, a mentor, or extra help getting work done, I found it for them.  It was so easy to just ask “Can you get this done or do you need help?”  It took awhile before people realized it wasn’t a sign of weakness to say they needed help. But once they did, it was a lot easier to end up scrambling and missing deadlines at the end
  • Be there to support when times were tough. When my team was working late to meet a deadline, I stayed. But I also stayed out of their way. If ordering pizza or making copies was all I could do to help, that’s what I did

At first I thought being a PM was all about managing the project schedule and the budget and the hours – and that was what made you in charge. But it turns out these “technical skills” are only a tiny part of the process. They’re important, absolutely. But its the easy part. Team development, stakeholder management, communication strategies, managing expectations, and delivering bad news…that’s the hard part. Funny how they don’t usually mention that when you sign up for the job!


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