By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.
Several years ago, I was teaching a project management course as part of a university’s MBA program. The course met for three hours one evening a week for the entire semester. The classroom assigned to me must have been used during the day to teach anatomy courses because there was a complete human skeleton hanging on the wall. When I returned from my usual 15-minute break partway through the class, I noticed that the students were examining the skeleton. I asked the students why they were so interested in the skeleton, and they responded:
“This skeleton must have been a project manager who failed to manage projects correctly.”
I then asked the class how they knew this was a project manager. Members of the class then provided the following comments:
- “The project manager must have pulled out all of his/her hair because of the stress they were under.”
- “He/she must have had their rear end chewed out often because there is nothing left but bones.”
- “Part of his/her spine is missing. Obviously, the project manager did not have the backbone to stand up to the customers.”
- “There are holes in his/her hands because they obviously did not have a good grasp of the project.”
- “We cannot find the project manager’s guts because he/she obviously did not have the stomach to manage this type of project.”
- “His/her eyes have been completely gouged out. We are sure this was done as the result of ineffective stakeholder relations management practices.”
- “He/she appears to have no nose, which obviously eliminated the project manager’s ability to smell that something bad was happening on the projects.”
I told the class that I agreed with their observations and asked them why they were so worried? One of the students in the class responded:
“We do not want our skeletons hanging next to this one in a couple of years. What project management skills do we need to make sure this doesn’t happen to us?”
I then instructed the class to close their books, and I used the remainder of the class time to discuss with them some of the skills that project managers possess that are not often included in textbooks but can reduce the number of skeletons.
Understanding Success and Failure
Most project management courses discuss project success and failure in technical and business terms. However, there is a third component that is often not discussed, namely organizational behavior success and failure.
Perhaps the best definition of organizational behavior project success is when the team members state at the end of a project that they would certainly want to work for you on other projects. This can occur even if the project you worked on together was a technical or business failure, but the team liked the way that you treated them and engaged them in the project.
The importance of organizational behavior skills, especially identifying the needs of team members, often receives little attention because of the shortness in the length of a project, or the project manager may have no input into the team member’s performance review process. However, there are things that the project manager can do or say as part of effective leadership that can bring out the best in people and help projects become successful.
All team members have needs. The needs are not always apparent. Project managers that possess good human behavior skills usually can dig beneath the surface and recognize team members’ needs, and this then affects the way the project manager engages, inspires, and energizes the team members. The way that the project manager works with and treats people can prevent skeletons from appearing.
The Work-Life Balance
Regardless of how frequently executives tell you that your project is extremely important to the success of the company and apply pressure upon you, what you have waiting for you at home is more important than any project. Several years ago, a project manager turned around a failing project and received an award for his success. When asked how he did it, he stated that he was the third project manager to manage this project. The first project manager was fired. The second project manager was one of his close friends. He watched his friend removed from the building in an ambulance. He then stated that he would not want this to happen to him.
In his first meeting with his team, most of whom had been working excessive overtime and under pressure from management for better results— he told his team to stop working overtime. He also told his team to stop working on the project for a couple of weeks and to spend whatever available time they have enjoying with their families.
The team could not believe what they just heard. The project manager spent the next two weeks getting to understand the project, together with the accompanying problems and risks. At the end of the two weeks, the entire project team showed up in his office and asked:
“What can we do to help you turn around this project?”
The project was transformed from a potential disaster to a success, and the project manager received an award. During the award speech, the project manager stated his appreciation to the team for the effort they provided and that he could not have been successful without their help. The team was highly appreciative of working for a project manager that demonstrated empathy for their feelings and demonstrated the importance of maintaining the correct balance between work and home life.
Another Form of the Work-Life Balance
An important project was already a few weeks behind schedule. An earthen dam burst in a nearby city causing the flooding of homes. Several of the project manager’s team members immediately requested the project manager to allow them to leave work for a week to help fellow church members in the nearby city dig out their belongings.
The project manager knew that the project would get further behind schedule but also believed that the team members would take off from work the following week regardless of what the project manager said. The project manager informed the customer of what happened and made it clear that the project manager authorized and approved of the team members doing this. The customer, of course, was not pleased.
The team members were gone for two weeks rather than just one week. When they returned, the entire team worked unpaid overtime during the next few weeks and on weekends, and the project was completed on schedule. The team members were appreciative of what the project manager had done and volunteered to work for this project manager again.
In a Midwest city, a company finally completed a highly successful project that a local newspaper was following. At project completion, the newspaper interviewed the two individuals that headed up the project, namely the project manager and assistant project manager. The pictures of these two individuals also appeared in the newspaper along with the interview.
Members of the project team were furious that no mention was made of the team that brought the project to a successful conclusion. The team members believed that a picture of the team rather than the two individuals would have been better. The team members believed that they were exploited and stated that they would never work for either of these two individuals again if given the choice.
Project management is a team effort and recognition should be given to the entire team in most cases.
Project managers rarely possess real authority over all of the members of the project team and may have no direct or indirect input in the performance review process of the team members. As such, without any wage and salary administration responsibility, it is often difficult to reward people deserving of some form of recognition.
A project team was struggling to finish a project and generate the business benefits and business value expected by the customer. One of the ‘unionized blue-collar’ team members believed that he could significantly increase the chances of success with added effort. For several months, he worked unpaid overtime. The project was finally completed, and the customer was delighted with the results.
Everyone in the company knew that the success was due mainly to the efforts of this one individual. The project manager wanted to reward the individual somehow but was unable to do so because of the union contract that specified the criteria for promotion and salary increases.
Undeterred and challenged, the project manager went to the president seeking advice on how to recognize the exceptional performance of a team member. The president held a meeting that included the entire team. He publicly praised the team member, handed him a company credit card, and told him to take his family on a six-day vacation in the Caribbean at the company’s expense.
The president of the labor union sent a letter to the company president commending him for the way he recognized and thanked a team member as being a significant contributor to the success of the company. The labor union also commended the project manager for the effort he exhibited in finding a way to recognize blue-collar employee performance. People were now volunteering to be assigned to this project manager’s projects.
The Risks of Excessive Overtime
Overtime is a way of life on many projects. Excessive overtime can lead to costly mistakes resulting in schedule slippages as well as financial issues. During overtime on a large project, one of the team members used the wrong raw materials to build a product for testing. The results were disastrous and costly.
Senior management convened a meeting with the entire team and asked for the name of the individual responsible for the costly mistake. Before anyone could answer, the project manager spoke up and said that she was taking full responsibility for what happened by forcing people to work excessive overtime. Senior management fully understood what the project manager was trying to do with her statement and agreed to leave the meeting rather than looking for someone to potentially fire. The workers appreciated the project manager’s actions and empathy for the workers.
Project managers often struggle when things are going bad and do not know how to encourage team members or where to look for help. Sometimes, the best support can come from the functional managers who assigned the team members to your project. As an example, a team member was struggling to find a solution to a technical problem. The project manager asked the functional manager if he could some way assist in finding a solution to the technical issue.
The functional manager called a meeting with the project manager and the team member. The functional manager looked at the team member and said:
“You are one of my best employees, and I know you are struggling to find a solution to the problem. I believed you were the best person in the department to handle this assignment. Since you cannot solve the problem, who do you think I should replace you with from our department that might have a better chance of solving the problem?”
The team member now felt more challenged than ever before and asked for a bit more time. Eventually the team member solved the problem, and the project was completed.
All companies have projects that fail, but not all failures result in skeletons. By understanding the needs of team members, the behavioral components of project management can improve chances for success on future projects and minimize the damage on existing projects. There are ways to limit the immediate appearance of skeletons.
Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.
Senior Executive Director, International Institute for Learning, Inc.
Harold Kerzner is an American engineer, management consultant, Emeritus Professor of Systems Management at Baldwin Wallace University, and Sr. Executive Director for Project Management at International Institute for Learning, known world-wide for his work in the field of project management.
Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.