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The Psychological Value of Execution
By Steve Prentice

Many people who formally learn Project Management for the first time, whether they are completely new to the field, or have been informally taught through a series of crisis-laden past experiences, are somewhat taken aback by the five phase PMI approach (Initiation, Planning, Execution, Control and Closure), feeling that it has four items too many. A project, after all, should be about doing something, not thinking about it, right?

But as every project manager who has survived a project knows, these five phases are each there for a reason. Each has a role to play and each is as important as the other, regardless of duration, and regardless of the technologies employed.

Ultimately Project Management is about getting people to do things on time, on budget and correctly, which means that as a complement to a full understanding of its scope and effective planning of the actions involved, a project must also employ a great deal of psychology and leadership to best inspire the team to work to the standard required.
One of the greatest opportunities for a project manager to demonstrate leadership is in the third phase, the Execution phase – the dividing point between the research and planning that has already happened and the action and expenditure of funds and energies that are to come. It is the project’s ignition point.

Many people feel it is unnecessary to waste time and resources on this phase. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies, ground-breaking photo-ops, pizza parties – what bearing could these possibly have on the successful outcome of a project? In a word: huge.

The Execution or kick-off phase is a project manager’s opportunity to establish leadership and credibility with the project team, as well as to inspire vision, enthusiasm and commitment within the team members, all of whom likely have other priorities and tasks to take care of in addition to the project. Napoleon was once quoted as saying “an army marches on its stomach,” meaning that being well-fed contributes far more to a campaign’s success than does training or discipline. For as important as training and discipline may be, they fall by the wayside when a team feels less-than-optimum. People need to be satisfied, food-wise, in the case of a marching army, or confidence-wise in the case of a project, and there is no better time to reaffirm this than at that moment when the entire team has your attention.

A kickoff meeting or celebration allows for a number of hugely influential actions to take place:

  • Vision: Your kickoff presentation must deliver an up-to-date vision of the final deliverable and the route to be taken. People need to see what they are working on – the entire thing, and not just their corner.
  • Optimism: Your presence as leader, and your imagery of the project must create a sense of optimism and even desire to work on the project. This sensation will translate into team members actually reading your emails first and working on project tasks promptly, rather than procrastinating through lack of motivation.

  • Solidarity: A kickoff meeting allows team members to meet each other, see each other, and recognize that they are a now a team. Humans are tribal by nature, and there is great value in reinforcing a sense of togetherness. Organizations of all types use logos, color schemes, badges, uniforms and other physical symbols to reinforce this sense. Spending $200 on coffee mugs embossed with the project logo is not frivolous; it is a technique for buying solidarity.

  • Leadership: Your kickoff meeting allows your team to see you as the leader you want to be. The manner by which you address the team: organized, on-time, clear and confident, instils the same attributes within them. The opposite, of course is also true: a badly arranged, semi-prepared, informal presentation will yield inferior results and behaviour.

  • Resources: The kickoff should inform team members what resources and tools are available to them. Should they communicate by email or in a collaborative workspace? Should you as the team leader be the sole go-to person for answering questions, or is there another escalation process available? What other tools are they allowed to use? How is money going to be spent? In just the same way that the planning phase of a project is intended to address every element of the project itself, the kickoff allows the project manager to address every aspect of performance and procedure, leaving nothing to be “assumed” or simply avoided by team members who do not know and are afraid to ask.

  • Training and “dumb questions”: Team members might need to be trained on particular tools or techniques. For example if a team member has never used a cloud-based collaborative environment, or does not know what a Gantt chart is, he/she will be at a severe disadvantage, and consequently so will the project. A kickoff period presents an excellent opportunity to inform team members of any training opportunities available as well as to learn from the team about any deficiencies that may exist. It is both comforting to the members and highly proactive for the project itself for a blanket statement that confirms that no question is actually a “dumb question.”

  • Contacts and hierarchy listing: A furtherance of the training/dumb questions principle is the establishment of a central command centre: an online location where team members can go to access a directory of all the members of a project, including email address, phone number, their role in the project; and also to view an escalation hierarchy that lists the names of the people that team members can turn to for clarification or permission, rather than having to talk to you, the project manager, directly.

  • The Knowledge Base/Wiki: use the kickoff presentation to ensure that all team members are aware of your project’s wiki – a central online location for answers to common questions. Build a knowledge base where information about the project can be easily searched and edited by the team members themselves. A great deal of time can be saved by everyone when answers are easily accessible.

  • Permission: Finally, there is the green flag – the acknowledgement that the project is actually underway. This acknowledgement provides permission for effort to be expended by team members on behalf of the project. It is never sufficient in any circumstance – project related or otherwise – to assume someone knows what is expected of them. Give them the flag and send them on their way.

In sum, the execution phase represents the ignition of a project, where all of its components, human and otherwise come to life. Its brevity bellies its significance. A one-hour pizza party, whether held in a single room or virtually, across the world by webcast, serves to pull together all of the human elements of an essentially human-powered event, and launches them in the direction, that you, the project manager, need them to go.

Steve Prentice is an expert on productivity and technology in the workplace. He is a partner in The Bristall Group, where, in addition to being an actual project manager, he delivers keynotes and workshops to organizations across North America. He is a technology journalist and a frequent media guest, and he teaches management strategy and project management at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. He holds degrees in Journalism and Organizational Psychology.

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