Successful project managers approach their work in organizations with a seamanlike serenity. Alert and willing to cooperate they form coalitions, juggle interests and ensure the progress of their projects. They are the men at the helm, and they benefit from past experiences and their methodological skills. They know that solutions to problems will arise out of the specific situation; these solutions cannot be found in advance. As a result they will not sugarcoat an approaching storm but they also will not command all hands on deck. They are much more likely to count on bad as well as good weather and to have ensured availability of life jackets at all times.
Rethinking Project Management
Seamanlike serenity, a German expression, describes a specific mindset; acknowledging that things can turn out differently than expected and that reality is not a linear construct, but a very complex one. It means saying goodbye to causally determined solutions and replacing categories such as right and wrong with adequate and not useful. This also means accepting that a plan is just one of many possibilities and may have to be adjusted, and that this adjustment may have to be explained to the project members.
Project managers with a seamanlike serenity act completely alert, are focused, well prepared and are in control of all their project management skills, while at the same time thinking like a human being. Anticipating problems and diversions instead of factoring them out by statistical means takes the edge off them and ensures the efficiency of process operations, which is exactly what a project manager is paid for. Anybody and everybody can stoically work through tasks and activities.
Operational rushes, last-minute reports and mindless multitasking dissolve when seamanlike serenity enters. This type of project managers thinks through alternatives in advance, not ad-hoc. They stay calm, radiate optimism and help to stabilize difficult situations.
Project Coaching – A Concrete Example
As part of a restructuring effort a financial service provider converts its internal processes. Not only the differentiation between front end and back office operations but also the entire management level proved to be superfluous. The project manager in charge of the restructuring is among those losing his position and leading a new team in the future.
The managing board aims to strengthen the project manager’s leadership skills as well as his ability to cope with changes. The mission includes two specific goals:
- Clarification of the client’s role and responsibilities within the limits of project management and the new leadership position.
- Improvement of personal work organization, in particular the ability to delegate tasks and responsibility.
The coaching consisted of five semidiurnal sessions; the client reported back to the sponsor regularly. The coaching lasted four months. The focus of the coaching was on Goal 1.
The client was disappointed to have lost his leadership position, he wanted to prove his ability to lead to management. In parallel, he wanted to take on his new leading role. In doing so he felt overloaded and the pressure to get everything right. The client’s desire was a more laid-back attitude.
Initially we used mind maps for a structured reflection of the current situation. Instead of making assumptions about the possible roots of the problem at hand we hypothesized. As a result the project manager was able to appreciate the coming changes as a professional challenge, nothing more and nothing less.
During this phase the client raised his awareness for the forces that drive him and the things that motivate him in his work. He then decided to bring his needs and competences to his work instead of trying to fulfill his superiors’ expectations, which he verbalized with the phrase I don’t want to prove anything to anyone, I’ll just do it.
One thing that became clear was that his new position would not go well with his management style; it put a heavy focus on authority. He was unsure whether he would be accepted by the project members without power, bonuses and authority to grant training measures. This is why he wanted to develop a skill of delegating tasks to colleagues without being their direct superior.
He was able to channel his energy and take a more focused approach to his work, thereby letting go of his passive and time consuming attitude caused by a looming necessity to prove himself. His new goals included a more methodical project management approach and a sensible distribution of work effort, enabling him to dedicate himself to his tasks as a leading person.
In the next phase of the coaching the client worked on developing a new strategy for the kick-off meeting of the project. Whereas he had originally planned on sustaining the existing company policy and presenting the project plan (a Gantt chart and a work breakdown structure) he now was able to let meaning become his motive force.
He got to know the entire team in advance. The developed a set of open questions aiming at learning about the needs and wishes, the current workload and the expectations of his colleagues. The first interview sessions were then reflected in cooperation with the coach, enabling him to further refine his conversational behavior.
After the kick-off meeting he received a lot of positive feedback for his fresh and people-oriented attitude; he had been able to communicate the necessity of the project, the resulting steps and the involvement of each team member convincingly. He was very pleased, especially about the fact that the managing board, having learned about the praise for his work showed interest in his new approach.
Subsequent to the planning and determining of goals, achieving Goal 2 was much easier. He already had carved out WHO had to do WHAT UP TO WHEN, and he had also conducted one-on-one conversations that helped him gain confidence in the motivation and competence of his colleagues. Delegation ran extremly smoothly.
Recommended read (in German): „Der Projektkapitän“- Springer Gabler, 2013