Dear Elizabeth: Advice Column for Project Managers

March 16, 2016 Elizabeth Harrin

advice column

Advice for project managers

Dear Elizabeth: I have a boss who makes a habit of overcommitting my team to projects that require more resources than I have and deadlines that aren’t reasonable. I’m always told to just “make it happen.” I manage the team and do my best to keep morale up when people have to work overtime, etc. But you can only do so much. I see my team members burning out and a few of them have found new jobs. How do I convince my boss that his demands are unreasonable? – Exasperated

Dear Exasperated: Does your boss know that this behavior is causing people to quit? Perhaps it’s time for some home truths.

The problem with being a superstar at delivering is that people expect you to do it all the time. It’s fine to pull out all the stops for a critical business project where everyone understands the urgency. But it’s not fine to put people under unrealistic deadlines and increase the pressure as normal working practice.

Burnout isn’t sustainable, so something has to give. I suggest it has to be your boss’s expectations that give, and not your team’s health (or your own—I imagine it’s not great for you either).

However—bosses like yours aren’t the kind of people who will respond well to emotional pleas for extra resources or longer deadlines because “the team is tired.” But your boss might respond to facts. Plan your schedule and work out the resources required based on his deadlines. Then do the same based on the resources you actually have. Show your boss. Compare the two.

It takes courage, but you need to tell your boss that you can’t magically deliver projects from an overworked team with low morale. Say no. Tell him what you need in order to hit the deadlines.

Of course, you do need to use your professional judgment. You can’t say no every single time, especially when the project is business critical. You could factor in overtime already to your plan – make some concessions and explain how you have already accounted for the extra you can expect from the team.

Your boss will probably still ask you to work miracles. Document everything, including minutes of meetings where you say you are unable to achieve the deadlines with the resources you have. Put your project on Red. Log risks and issues like there is no tomorrow. That’s your job: monitoring, controlling and tracking the project and escalating when something isn’t going according to plan (even though the “plan” was fictional to begin with). It also gives you a trail of proof when you truly can’t deliver—you have something to support what you’ve been saying the whole time.

You’ve got this!

Dear Elizabeth: I work on a remote team that’s spread all over the world practically! Both coasts of the U.S., Europe and Asia. Even though we have a cloud-based project management system that anyone can access from anywhere, there’s still a lot lost in translation. Sometimes I feel like we spend more time trying to clarify our communication—requests, bugs, feedback—than making substantial headway. Do you have any advice on how to handle geographic and cultural barriers to working remotely? – Communication Breakdown

Dear Communication: Can you get everyone together for a special kick-off event? That can really help cement relationships on the team and get everyone on the same page for project communications.

However, let’s assume that you can’t for now, because that’s the situation that many project managers find themselves in.

First, strip back how you are communicating to the very basics. Stop using project-related or cultural jargon. State expectations clearly, and use the facts. It’s impossible to expect someone else to take a task as a priority if you state it as: “When you get a moment can you look at the risk report for the software changes please?” In my world, that means: “Drop everything and review it now,”—but that’s a culturally-specific interpretation particular to my team!

You could also drop English as the main language for communication when a discussion between native speakers of another language has to happen: Don’t impose English as the language of the tool when it’s hampering communication.

Next, think about how you can stop using words and start using visuals to communicate instead. Clarify your requests with screenshots, graphics and videos of the bug that you upload instead of a long text description.

Finally, take some time to understand how your team members think and respond. The best way to do this is to simply ask. Try to get closer to their culture and working practices. It will help you establish whether cultural differences are holding your project back or if it’s something as simple as the language barrier.

Dear Elizabeth: I have a teammate that I don’t get along with—we don’t see eye to eye on solutions; one of us is quiet and the other is loud, and we just get on each other’s nerves. We’re usually buffered by the rest of the team and we can tolerate each other. But now we’ve been assigned to collaborate on a project together. Do you have any advice on how to work effectively with someone when you don’t get along? – The Quiet One

Dear Quiet One: First, you don’t have to like someone to work with them. You just have to be professional.

Secondly, does your team mate feel the same way about you? They probably do, but a coffee and a chat to get everything in the open can be a huge help. You need to understand each other’s working preferences because if you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you’re more likely to tolerate each other’s behavior.

You could also talk to someone in HR and ask what sort of psychometric tests they have available for staff to complete. These are often used on management or leadership courses or during the hiring process for new recruits. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a good one to try to do, although you both need to be open to taking it.

A personality inventory like this doesn’t prefer one working style to the other; it simply makes you more aware of your own working preferences and that of the other person. You can have conversations about how best to work with each other based on a common understanding of your own preferences. The results can also show you how you can work together: Certain MBTI profiles do clash with others, for example, but not in a way that makes work impossible.

The bottom line is, the more you understand how the other person is thinking and why they work the way they do (because of the person they are) the more you can both adapt your styles, be sensitive to the others’ needs and be tolerant of the behavior that really annoys you.

Plus, make sure you have someone at home whom you can have a good moan to from time to time!

Have questions for Elizabeth? Send your questions to: MarketingTeam@liquidplanner.com with the subject “Advice Column.”

Wait, there’s more! If you want practical solutions to common PM problems, download the eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

top 9 project management challenges

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