The ‘mystery’ of project management

Few people understand the key is to work well with people

“Hey Ron, I keep hiring project managers that don’t work out. What am I doing wrong?”

“I don’t know. What kind of people do you hire?”

“I always make sure they’re PMA certified; they’ve delivered a few projects on time and under budget; and they have to have high-tech experience. What else should I be looking for?”

“With those qualifications, I’ll bet you get hundreds of applicants each time you place an ad. How do you select one?”

“That is a problem. I have my HR person wade through and select a half-dozen or so that would work, and we interview them. Any one of them should be able to do it, but none of them seem to work out for very long.”

“Well, most projects fail. Even if they’re never declared failures; very few deliver what they promised. Interestingly, I’ve never seen one fail because a project manager didn’t know how to use Microsoft Project or do a Gantt chart. You have to hire people who know more than that.”

“What else should they know?”

“’How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ You might want to hire people who have memorized the book instead of the project manual.”

I elaborated. “When a project is scheduled, your managers estimate how much time each component will take based on available resources, priorities, etc. By the time they’re called to deliver on their estimates, things have changed — usually for the worse. Resources have been cut, things go wrong and some other effort has a higher priority. The typical project manager escalates and highlights the schedule slips, alienating the very people whose help he needs to solve the problem. As a result, they’re not looking to help him; they’re looking for alibis.”

“That’s what happens. I have some really great technical people who are hard to persuade. Ornery might be a better word, but I need their skills. How do I break the cycle?”

Overcoming obstacles

I told him about a job I had a few years ago. I managed a turnaround for a local division of a parent company in New York. This division had never made money, and this was their last chance. If my efforts didn’t work, everyone was losing their jobs, and the division would close. The customer had actually stipulated an outside guy like me had to come in and run it, as these were critical components, and they had no confidence in their supplier’s management.

I was working for the executive vice president of the parent company in New York. He came up and told me in front of them, “If you run into any obstacles, call me immediately. Here’s my cell phone number.”

We ran into many obstacles, but I never called him. I would go to the offending manager and ask, ‘How can we fix this, so we don’t have to call Paul?’

This did two things. It let the guy in trouble know I wasn’t going to call the big boss and rat him out. In fact, if we had to call Paul, we would call him together, and the guy in trouble could explain what was wrong. Of course, none of them would ever look forward to a call like that.

The second, and perhaps more important thing, was my use of the word “we.” I was putting myself in the crucible with him, offering to help him get out of the mess. Instead of wasting time looking for alibis, these guys would leave no stone unturned to get me what I wanted. Then, we’d call Paul, tell him what happened and how we fixed it.

It worked like a charm every time. We delivered the project on time and under budget. The customer was delighted, Paul was delighted, and everyone got to keep their jobs.

“You need to hire project managers who know how to do that sort of thing,” I told him.

“How can I get you out here to do this for me? You’ll have to go back and forth to China, but you can name your price.”

“Sorry. L.A. is much too crowded for me, and China is even more crowded. Is this an outsourcing project?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have been, if some of those earlier project managers had worked out.”

“Sorry. Seven figures wouldn’t do it, even if the first digit wasn’t a one. I’m pretty good at getting people to work together, but I could never do it to get them to work themselves out of a job.”   

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or

Categories: Workplace Advice