by Vicki Wrona, PMP

This is the last post in our series on unlocking the value of project management. In our previous three posts we examined three cultural obstacles that can throw a wrench in the best laid plans of the most accomplished project managers. Fortunately, we were able to apply project management practices to address the hurdles of fire-fighting, turf protection and expecting miracles.

You Want It When? Unrealistic Expectations

While all the barriers are troublesome, it can be very aggravating to have leaders set unrealistic expectations on project managers; that somehow, through the ancient, mystic project management arts, the manager will be able to deliver under budget on an unrealistic timeline. This is similar to the problem of expecting miracles. There, we saw that the project manager was expected to be a miracle worker, delivering on project goals when the leaders who were supposed to provide direction and support were not involved, and yet, still expected success. Here, the leader arbitrarily makes decisions or adjustments to, for example, the timelines or deliverables without understanding how it impacts the entire project.

Unrealistic Expectations

There are a variety of root causes that can lead to leaders making these kinds of adjustments. In any case, the way to deal with it is to find the root cause and adapt to the issue. It may be caused by a perception that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) or project managers (PMs) are overly conservative in their estimates, since it is easy to underestimate the time and effort needed to complete work when removed from the process. Further, leaders may believe that the PMs or SMEs are inexperienced or are improperly managing the project. Lastly, leaders are more likely to get involved when they lack knowledge of the intricacies of the project.

Few leaders spend time in the “trenches” of the project; they may not be aware of the impacts of their decisions and the ripples that result. Without this insight, changes in the plan can impact contingencies and generate additional risks. Finally, without being able to see the details, leaders may reallocate resources or change the visibility of a project. This can bring additional pressure to the team as work schedules change and more questions are asked of them.

It is important to consider that leaders don’t make these changes out of spite. In the heat of battle, it is easy to be overwhelmed and frustrated by last minute changes and daunting timelines. It is advisable to assume good intent. Part of good project management is building solid, professional relationships with leaders and stakeholders. When sudden changes are imposed on the team, spend some time with the initiator to understand the reasons for the change.

Overcoming Unrealistic Expectations

Similar to overcoming other objections, planning becomes a critical piece in managing expectations. Here it is important to set detailed and realistic expectations early and communicate them often. In a culture that expects more rapid work, schedule work in a way that avoids or minimizes gaps or slow periods. Recall that leaders often make changes because they fail to understand the details of the project. Using graphical techniques such as a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) can help leaders and stakeholders quickly assimilate the intricacies and details of the project without having formal training in project management. You can also identify ways to achieve “quick wins” to demonstrate progress.

During the project, keep the team focused on reaching those quick wins and intermediate project goals and milestones to demonstrate progress. Enhance communications to make leaders and stakeholders aware of the tasks being done and the progress being made so they understand just how involved the project is. They need to see the intricacies (all the moving parts) of the project to keep reality in view and dissolve those unrealistic expectations. Communicate any changes or issues right away to demonstrate that you are managing contingencies effectively and to reiterate what is feasible to accomplish.

Finally, at project close, document successes and failures honestly and accurately. This creates a data record of the actual resources and timelines required for successful project completion and becomes ammunition for future projects to avoid unrealistic expectations of what can be delivered, how quickly and by how many people.

Few project managers can recall a project in which the timelines or available resources were static from project start to finish. Planning for contingencies is part of the process. Unrealistic expectations can be difficult to overcome but they can also reinforce your status as a manager who keeps projects on track and maximizes the use of time and resources.

Micro-Management

The micro-manager is that stakeholder or leader who feels it necessary to embed himself in the process and who interrupts the work flow.

The Impact of the Micro-Manager

Unlike the reclusive leader who expects miracles or the leader who sets unrealistic expectations from afar, the micro-manager engages the project team directly. Rather than waiting for scheduled updates, these stakeholders go directly to project team members for insight into project operations, to make requests or to provide direction. They question, or more accurately, second guess, the actions of team members, which increases fear, stifles creativity and slows the project down.

Micro-management runs the risk of creating destructive self-fulfilling prophecies. If the micro-manager lacks knowledge of or trust in project management practices, they lack trust in the established system. They question the team, question the processes and often undermine the project manager’s authority. This constant interruption slows the process and disrupts the normal workflow. When productivity suffers, the project manager or the management processes put in place appear ineffective, causing the micro-manager to continue, and possibly to increase, their involvement. In the process, they may proudly announce that the project management process adds time and cost rather than working effectively.

Sometimes this hurdle occurs because that is the manager’s default style. Sometimes it arises from lack of faith or knowledge about project management. Many of the tactics used earlier to build trust will apply here as well. In this environment, clear expectations and communication are priority.

Winning Over the Micro-Manager

Early in the process, it is important to build trust. During project initiation and planning, engage stakeholders, clients and management in the process and build relationships to discover what knowledge gaps exist and how you can build trust in the team, the processes and your abilities. Your goal is to become a trusted partner rather than an “untested entity.” Do your stakeholders trust you as project manager to deliver the project on time and on budget? Maybe you have experience but they haven’t seen it, yet. Maybe your skills in certain areas need to be developed. Take steps to enhance and demonstrate those skills, and eventually to earn their trust.

Transparency is the ultimate goal, achieved by creating clear, frequent communications that keep stakeholders engaged in every step of the process. It’s also imperative to define clear roles and processes for communicating with project team members. Let the team know where you stand and that you support them.

During executing, continue to build trust. Anticipate stakeholder needs and communicate successes early and often. If you truly anticipate the needs of your stakeholders, they won’t have to approach the team directly or as often. Micro-managers hate surprises: their desire to avoid surprises drives them to hover over the project team. Identify times when they should be engaged and take steps to keep them apart from the team when their engagement will only slow the team down. You should also reinforce the behavior you desire. Recognize the leader for following the process when they funnel requests through you and avoid direct interaction with the team.

Another step I have found to be helpful is to address as many issues as possible internally first. By determining the team’s response or course of action first, you present a unified front to stakeholders and leaders, serving to build confidence. As project manager, you need to not only communicate these activities to leaders during planning but also demonstrate them during executing, and the leaders will gain trust and confidence in you and the team. In turn, this will keep them from singling out team members for updates and requests.

As you close the project, make project archives available to clients and stakeholders so they can see the processes and decisions made during the project. Acknowledge leader support and recognize the effective behaviors that led to completion of project goals, to reinforce the behavior and educate leaders.

Project management, as a practice, can lead to better execution, better customer satisfaction, cost savings and better products. It only works when it effectively operates within the framework of the organization’s culture. While you can’t change the culture, you can apply strategies to work within it and show the benefits of project management practices. With a degree of flexibility and an eye on the cultural norms, project managers can adapt the practices to overcome cultural barriers.

What have you done to overcome micro-managers? Miracle worker expectations?

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