Ask The Project Coach

Coach Sypsomos is here to answer questions on problems you have faced in projects, project leadership and even personal organization.

1. I am the Project Manager of a medium size but complex construction project. Our project team seems to be constantly very frustrated and complain that they do too much work, and they often argue about who does most of the work. I know that every project team usually encounters similar challenges working together, but I never experienced anything else to this degree. It gets to the point where the environment feels toxic; as a result, the turnover rate is very high as many people leave the project, and the company has been paying excessive amounts of money to replace the people we lose, not to mention that we are losing some of our best talent.

Why is this happening and how do we stop it?

Answer: These symptoms most often are caused by two likely problems; Lack of a proper Communication Plan that includes clear Roles and Responsibilities, and lack of Team Alignment.

Due to the first problem, the project team members get frustrated because they have not been given clear directions of what they should be doing, and this problem is amplified when some of their colleagues decide to work on activities that they assume it’s their job, but unknowingly they are infringing into other teammates’ responsibilities. To make things worse, if the team didn’t get to know each other through a team building activity, whether formal or informal, they haven’t had a chance to build trust by understanding the true motives of their colleagues; although these motives are usually well intended, as human nature has it, our first reaction is to assume the worst, and that’s where the “blame game” starts.

According to much research, the best talented members know they deserve better than this, and they end up leaving in search of other well managed projects.  From my experience in helping to transform teams, I have seen project teams change dramatically from just a one-day team building session, where team members have a chance to know each other at a deeper level, rather than only from the day to day professional interaction in the office.

Investing enough time to develop a Communication Plan, that includes a Communication Matrix and a set of thorough Job Descriptions with clear Roles and Responsibilities, and making sure that the team members are aware of them, will potentially save a lot of money from delays and duplication of effort, the cost of turnover and losing the best talent and having to replace them, not to mention the frustration, physical ills and other side-effects that the people that are staying in this toxic environment experience.

2. I was hired into this Petrochemical company less than one year ago, as a Project Director, and the industry is new to me. As part of my job scope, I am to manage a group of highly skilled SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), and I admit that I am not an expert.  They have also figured this out, and I feel that I am losing credibility with them, although I have been trying hard to learn as much as I can, by working close to them.

What is the best way to manage my SMEs so they can be most productive, while I gain their trust and respect?

Answer: Managing your team successfully means that you respect the individuals who join you. If you did a decent job of selecting the right people (and most likely you did), let them do their jobs. If you have a thoroughbred horses, let them run free.

In leadership, one of the most important areas of EQ is “knowing yourself”; be truthful to yourself and don’t pretend to have the expertise you lack. Recognize that you don’t know everything, you never will, and – as project manager – you shouldn’t. Your role here is to make sure the work gets done, not to do it all yourself.

Having said all that, your role as a Project Manager is still to watch over your expert’s progress, so you need some way to measure what has been accomplished. But remember, when you measure, you need to be results based. Measured by units that anyone (including you) can understand, and make the “completion units” small until trust is earned. However, if you hire someone to do the job don’t review every little thing he does. This is happening too often: In an effort for the boss to monitor progress, the experts are asked to spend a ridiculous amount of time in reporting, meetings, and so on. The measurement processes should never hamper production.

Finally, when you are managing a critical project and time is of the essence, don’t be afraid to bring in outside expertise, perhaps on a short-term basis, when you-as-manager are unsure of the situation. If you are not comfortable about the progress through the internal sanity checks, find them outside your group or company.

You will get a lot of respect when you ask your expert to speak to you in plain language, because otherwise you don’t understand them. Be straightforward, and bring the discussion back to the business need. For example, you might say, “Explain this to me in business language because that’s how we talk to our clients.

Trust takes time, and it takes patience, and along the way, if you are paying attention, your own knowledge in the area will increase as well.

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