A very seasoned project manager has the skill set to perform the people management techniques required. They are both instinctive and an art. This intuition is learned with exposure and experience. It cannot be taught. It can be tricky when dealing with a project sponsor that doesn’t understand the workings of a project manager or how IT staff work. Often project sponsors want to be too involved or want to breathe over the IT staff to get tasks done. The project manager has to use a lot of people management skills to handle this type of project sponsor while shielding IT staff from that type of disruption because IT staff generally operate best when left alone.
On one hand I have stated that children need to understand basic project management skills and on the other hand, truly seasoned project managers have extensive experience in people management that others just don’t have. My skill set it with Information Technology. Both the systems and the staff. So what did I have that the kids didn’t have?
Primarily, I had almost thirty years of experience putting systems together and going through all the problems that could pop up and would pop up. I had a variety of computer systems mixed and matched together in different environments. I had a menagerie of infrastructures tangled in my brain and what could go wrong where. I could picture the whole system and its interfaces and all the possible points of failures and what to do in many cases when and if those failures materialized. What I had was experience, plain and simple. I had done it so many times and I had seen so many bugs. I had a pretty good base for what might go wrong and how to expect, prevent or fix problems.
What many fail to accept with computer systems is that there isn’t always a concrete ‘why’ answer to things that go wrong. They just do. Like people or cars; systems develop quirks or personalities and you have to adapt to them. This one may require a special setting or driver or something that another one doesn’t. You can’t learn that stuff any other way than in the trenches with experience.
You don’t learn in textbooks that programmers tend to be loners and aren’t outgoing and big public speakers. So you probably don’t want to force them to do big presentations to executives. Until you’ve had some experience with them you don’t realize they don’t work well with a lot of interaction; they generally like to be left alone to create, then they will show you their creation like a proud artist. Unfortunately the textbooks just don’t teach you that. Or that network guys are basically magicians and need a lot of praise and admiration. Database people want everything sorted in tables or libraries. The helpdesk guys are the ones that are very friendly, and the best ones to make friends with if you want a job in IT; because they interface with everyone and have to like a person to recommend them.
You also have to accept the artistic side of technology. These people create things from nothing. They are artists. There are a multitude of designs and methods to their codes, databases, network designs, and even hardware configurations. However they decide to configure their creations is an art. It is artwork. Therefore these people are artists and they should be treated as artists. Appeal to their artistic side and respect it. Admire and encourage it. You don’t dictate or control art. You can share a concept and a few constraints; but the rest you must give over to the artist. You must inspire them. The outcome will be much more successful if you have encouraged and embraced the artistic side of the technician. They will combine the analytic and artistic combination of information technology and deliver brilliance.
IT people respond to food. One of the quickest ways to a help desk crew’s heart can be donuts in the morning or cupcakes in the afternoon. It sounds trite. There is some logic to it actually. The floor crews are covering calls all the time and solving problems that are taking place at any time during their shift. It is not uncommon for them to get stuck on a call through their lunch hour or even be called in during the night. Many work shifts that don’t allow for them to take lunch at another time. So they are stuck eating at their desk; missing meals, or eating from the snack machines. This is why food can be very welcome to them. Sometimes those morning donuts are the evening shift’s breakfast at the end of their shift. Many pack a lunch in expectation; but again they are stuck eating a sandwich at their desk. A fresh cupcake is a pleasant sweet surprise. Hot pizza is like a steak dinner.
IT staff have thankless jobs for the most part. This means that the core of their daily function is based on a negative need. When they are needed most it is for negative reasons. Something is broken and they are needed to fix it. Generally that means someone isn’t happy. On the other side, if everything is working fine the IT staff isn’t needed and they are forgotten. No one is interacting with them. People don’t come and say ‘hey thanks, everything is working today’. So their job is generally thankless. They generally only get negative interaction with their support base. This is why any act of kindness or treats is so appreciated. Any acknowledgment of their value and effort is overly responded to. IT people are starving for it.
As a project manager I was often in the role of asking for support from the IT staff in the completion of the project tasks. I would try to show my appreciation and award the staff for their efforts in any way I could. The positive about projects is that we generally were creating something new and fortunately it wasn’t always something negative or broken. It might be an enhancement but it was usually a positive new creation so the IT staff was more eager to work on it. The only drawback was that it was in addition to their other work so they didn’t necessarily have time to work on it so you still needed to encourage them somehow.
Everyone needs appreciation. There are a variety of personalities that gravitate toward different types of professions. I think it is important to try and understand the types of personalities you are dealing with in the work environment. Especially when you are leading a project and need to assign and explain tasks to people. You may need to adapt to different types of explanation for different types of personalities. Verbal and visual delivery can vary widely with different personalities; and the types of visual delivery such as handouts, slides, tables, definitions, designs, concepts, or whether you simply give the group the general concept and let them do the design will depend on the type of group you are dealing with and how they perceive their function.
If you go against the grain and personality of a group you will likely be very disappointed in the outcome of the tasks. For example; a network team that is very creative and accustomed to taking a very general concept of what the new system needs are and running with the design themselves is suddenly given a very specific design to follow; with no room for them to insert their own creativity. They toss the design in the in basket on one of their desks and go about their business on other tasks. Two weeks pass and at the next project meeting they have to report they have accomplished nothing on that project; but they finished the tasks on three other projects ahead of time. Why?
It may be wrong; but the detailed project goes against their normal mode of operation. It’s unnatural for them to work that way. They aren’t accustomed to it and they aren’t comfortable with it. So they have put it aside and are procrastinating about it because no one wants to do it. Is it right? No. Does that matter if you can’t get your tasks done? No. So yes, you can fight and escalate and force these guys to finally get your tasks done; which they will do the bare minimum and not anything extra; and support for the system will always be a hassle. Or, you can learn that it really is in your best interest to learn what the personality of this group is and go with it. If they create the environment their way, then they own it and will support it. There is a passion that goes into what they do and you need that passion for the support and lifetime of this system. So butting heads with an IT unit is never really a good idea if you can avoid it.
These are the type of lessons a seasoned, experienced project manager learns in the trenches. These are the things the PMBOK can’t teach you. Although it does tell you that something like 95% of Project Management are people skills. It is. It is about getting tasks done by people that don’t work for you that have full time jobs doing something else. It can be very closely compared to getting the kids to clean out the garage. The quality will depend on the motivation. Learning how to inspire that quality is the key to managing your project.