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Managing Uncertainties in People
By Allen D’Souza

I come from a software development background where people are the biggest assets. A strong team of people can take a company to dizzying heights while a bad one can drastically change even an existing success story.

A project almost always has constraints and risks. A good project manager always tries to weigh in these constraints and risks during the planning phase and throughout the lifecycle of the project. But no matter how well the plan is conceived, a project cannot succeed without the contribution of the team of people. In fact, if we were to have different project managers manage identical projects in identical environments subject to identical risks, adverse events and constraints posed by non-human sources/entities, we would still see varying degrees of success with each of these projects. One may argue that each project had a different project manager and team and so naturally the skills and abilities were different. But, quite often I have seen the same team working under different project managers and yielding remarkably different results. What this proves is Human Resource Management is a very important aspect of a project and is often under-estimated for the impact it can have on the success of a Project.

People Are “Special” Resources

Unlike other resources, people are different because of their inherent unpredictability. A good raw material will always produce a good finished product, subject to the same manufacturing process. On the other hand, a team member can produce varying results in different projects. A person’s motivation, expectations, sense of ownership, perception, fit within the team, etc. can alter that person’s performance drastically.

Therefore, it is extremely important for a project manager to ensure that the team he is entrusted with performs to the best of its abilities and makes the project a success. Quite often, I have seen PMs getting too busy managing scope, cost and time in their ivory towers and fail to pay attention to the people themselves. It isn’t a surprise that such projects often end up in failure.

Set the Expectations Straight

One of the first things a project manager must do with every new project is to ensure that every person has a clear role and job description defined. This must be communicated as early as the interview stage for new members. Every new member in a team tries to picture himself in relation to other members of the team; who are my peers, my superiors and my subordinates, what will be my role and responsibilities? In many cases, experience and level of knowledge make that distinction amply clear; and leaders naturally emerge. But a PM cannot rely on the good sense of the individual; he must set the rules of the game straight and ensure the team abides by it. Companies with the worst politics are often the ones where people are unsure of their role within the team and naturally need to assert and “wrest” their desired role from the hands of the others who are also seeking to do the same. Such power struggles have only one winner and the loser either sulks away or in the worst cases, jeopardizes the project.

Understanding Personalities, Not Just the Resume

Different people are motivated by different things; some enjoy positions of power; some seek sense of achievement and others seek recognition from others. There are some people who just follow the herd, while others are real critics. Some operate efficiently when there are clear processes and norms, while others thrive in chaos. It is important that a PM identifies these traits in addition to the explicit skills and knowledge that are on the resume. This will help the PM in assigning appropriate job duties during the project. For example, it is best to use a critic in reviewing a new feature or someone’s code, assuming the person knows enough to do justice.

While seeking to characterize personalities and traits, a PM must be cautious not to overlook root causes and must not paint every behavior as a trait. For example, lack of motivation is almost always never a personality trait. It is a symptom of an underlying problem, maybe there isn’t enough recognition/visibility for the work, or the person misunderstood his role or is plagued by personal problems that distract him. Understanding the root cause can help find real solutions.

Feel the Pulse

Unlike project cost, time and scope that can be quantified and easily controlled, problems with team dynamics are hard to notice. Problems tend to fester for a long time before a real event occurs. A PM must gauge the pulse of the team to understand any problems. Team Meetings are a good time for this. PM’s must encourage the team to speak up and discuss issues and concerns; have an open door policy and reflect an open attitude towards problems. Informal settings, such as break room conversations and team outings can be a real eye opener to conflicts between team members and a good PM will be quick to catch such anomalies and check if they affect the work as well.

Do Not Ignore Conflicts; Resolve Them

Some PMs, especially those who are not very assertive, try to brush aside issues when brought to their notice. Not all problems can be brushed aside and pooh-poohed and a good PM must be able to take that call. Resolving conflict when it first emerges can avoid a lot of bad blood. When everything else fails, a PM must be prepared to reassign roles if the situation demands it. Again, it is very important to address root causes first.

Conclusion

Managing people is challenging and provides great opportunities to hone one’s project management skills. Some of the most difficult people to deal with bring out the best in a project manager and make him that much wiser to deal with similar problems in future. I hope some of the tips above will help all Project Managers handle their team better.

In the next round of articles, I will go over few case studies which highlight different challenges and steps that can be taken to resolve them.

Allen D’Souza is a PMP Certified Project Manager and Solution Architect with wide and varied exposure to Oracle HCM within Oracle Corporation and outside in the Consulting domain. Interests include designing solutions and products that are functionally rich yet scalable, performant and extensible using client-server architecture; Implementation of Oracle E-Business Suite (HCM) for both 11i and R12 releases.

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