Ted Demopoulos    Demopoulos Associates
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Ten Ways To Make Leading Project Teams Less Unbearable

by John Foster, a management consultant who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

I met this guy once who'd just been made team leader. He was a veteran of all kinds of projects. He'd been on dog projects and sucker projects, but he'd also been a star a couple times. All this made him determined to run this project right. He opened our first meeting by saying he hated long meetings. He smiled and said, "we've got a lot of work to do here, but we'll all be out of here in 45 minutes, and we're not going to miss anything." Everyone laughed sympathetically. The meeting went 2 hours. His next one did, too. Later they got a little shorter, but I'm not sure he noticed. He was too busy trying to run an adequate meeting to worry any more about running a perfect meeting. You canít create a perfect meeting by decree.

Here are 10 tips for running better project teams.

1. Forget about running a meeting as though you rule it. Generally, the people on your team are at the same level as you. Nobody likes being lectured to about obvious things, furthermore lecturing that way reveals you as stupid. If something is obvious to you, it is obvious to other people, meaning simple solutions were tried a long time ago, and have failed.

2. Take note of the age of everyone in the room, relative to your own age. This is going to affect how each person listens to you. Take note of everyone's work experience the same way. If you're a younger manager, your plan may come off as arrogant before anyone notices it is brilliant. Managers who've worked at a number of different companies will be more receptive to "not invented here" solutions than company lifers.

3. Don't go by appearances. Don't let either straightforward cooperation or straightforward hostility fool you, as both can be used for effect. Business is a game of reality, but it uses appearances. That report you got right on time is not necessarily any good. That woman who won't do a damned thing, may be holding back for a reason. Could be she's just lazy. Could be she's about to retire. Could also be there's a new IS platform in the works, that you don't know about, and she doesn't want to do the same work twice.

4. Remember that upper level buy-in and signed forms from all departments don't always do the job. It is all too easy to find that out. If you've run out of signatures to get to coax people into work, think horizontal. Maybe someone's departmental colleague at your meeting can bring perspective, and change a team member's tune. Maybe referencing some other team's work can get your team cooperating. If desperate, think diagonal. There may be semi-upper managers not well-served by the status quo. If you can get these people talking to each other across departments, they may decide to scratch each other's back, and get your job done.

5. The higher the management level, the more political speech becomes. When people are trying to climb in management, they speak for effect as much as to inform. When someone in business says something incredibly stupid, or acts like Joe Hero, there are always reasons why he's doing that. It's not just him, it's his group and its interests and rules, that have him talking that way. That's why the union president on TV always sounds like such a jerk. A president's position essentially precludes him from ever "talking." Presidents propagandize to meet their organization's objectives. VPs above all would like to be president, and a CEO wants to stay safely where he is. Consider what upper management says skeptically, with awareness of the political interests that attach to different management levels. Saps who listen to a president or CEO like he was their Dad, get used.

6. If win-win negotiations solved everything, we already wouldn't have any problems. Setting up win-win negotiations is not an especially brilliant or original means of getting things done, despite what many expensive consultants will tell you. There are real costs to any progress in business, and they are never distributed equally. Try to determine early on who'll be worse off if your project succeeds. Then you'll know where to anticipate resistance.

7. Use business stereotypes to your advantage. There's a reason Dilbert runs in about 300 papers, and you yourself probably think it's funny. There are reliable truisms about how managers act when they are customers, clients, entrepreneurs or attached to certain departments. Do not expect Sales to be especially heroic about costs. If you are working on a new project, IT Security already resents you. New projects aren't yet secure. Bring a present whenever you visit Accounting. Accounting trolls are lonely. No one ever drops by Accounting.

8. Anticipate misbehavior as the natural consequence of all work, and look for it where it's structurally likely to occur. It's unlikely in professional life that you'll find your software developer hijacking a TV set out a broken window, but you may not have her full attention on your project. Software developers are hirable. If cranky or bored, they have options. A sad fact of life is that sales guys will poach even themselves. They'll switch a customer to a cheaper company product, if that works for them. Your colleague consulting on the big IT sale with you, checking out the customer's every need for 6 months, may know enough to jump ship over to them. In which case, no sale.

9. When you've got the job done, and are basking in glory, thank your VP last. Whether or not you've ever met her. Thank the people under your team members first, which will throw off any of their expectations about how you ought to praise them. Then flatter each person's contribution according to the happiest they ever could've been talking to you. The anal-retentive whiner? "We got this thing done right before we got it done on time. Tom's the guy kept me from screwing that up." The skeptical, capital-focused engineer? "I started out convinced our project's capital requirements spoke for themselves. Would you believe there's such a thing as a capital budget? It takes some cold water splashed on you to see the cost of capital badly spent. I'm glad to have worked with Mike, and to present you with a capital outlay that's earned Engineering's respect." Then thank your VP. Stop there, because thanking anyone who couldn't have known specifically about your work is toadyism, and recognizable as such. No attempt to climb should ever be seen. But a big win for you in business means you're an idiot if you're not Santa Claus; thank everyone you can. It never makes you look bad. Plus it's the single most common thing people forget to do with their own success: acknowledge who helped them. Any really bright senior managers watching will expect you to miss this, and be pleasantly impressed if you don't.

10. Recognize that the team's success is different from the success of individual managers. Even a huge sale to a happy customer can mean new responsibilities for some departments without any "attaboys" attached. In meetings, try to periodically acknowledge out loud the new work some groups may have to take on, and express your interest in making that work easier for them and something to be proud of. Emphasize that departments taking on new work deserve public credit for it.

11. Did I say 10 tips, or is that just you? Haven't you been paying attention? My 11th tip references some if not all of the first 10. As creepy as it may seem, some people do want to fail. They may want to fail personally, or they may just want your project to fail. Learn to recognize these people, and try to understand what's driving them in that direction. That'll allow you to manage their participation.

All these points really add up to one thing: never consider anything managers do or say as simple. This does not mean you have to worry about it when you win, or kick your own ass for being stupid when you lose. Respect for and consideration of even the dumbest guy's complexities, or the most irritating guy's complexities, just helps you to avoid problems. Considering other people's organizational behavior with care will give you new perspective on your own, which can help you identify the projects where you can make the best use of your abilities and your understanding of the effective use of appearances in management. Itís consideration of your own abilities within the framework of other people making use of theirs that leads to business insight, and to effective management. And effective management occasionally even leads to shorter meetings.


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