Channeling the Power of a Project Management Outsider

From the outside looking in

From the outside looking in

I traveled to another office this week to meet with colleagues on their project management best practices. This was not my first time visiting this group. A few months ago, I delivered a presentation for them on how to boost their efficiency, improve productivity, and foster creativity. In addition to talking about productivity, I prepared some remarks about the broader team’s program management standard operating procedures. Unsurprisingly, the first presentation went over way better than the second. It could have been the time of day…it could also have been the subject matter :)

This most recent trip was even more heartening than the initial one. Not only did I get to visit with a group of welcoming colleagues, but I also got to observe their progress over the last quarter. It was cool to see how the different teams had taken steps to incrementally improve their project management practices. I enjoyed the sessions even more this time, because I had the opportunity to meet with the teams one-on-one to diagnose where they were along the path to project management maturity. We had several “a-ha” moments as we brainstormed how to improve inefficient processes, better prepare for upcoming projects, and enhance team collaboration. One of my colleagues commented that they were embarrassed about how obvious my proposed solutions had seemed in retrospect. “I should have been able to figure this out,” they bemoaned. “On the contrary,” I replied. This conversation was easily the best part of my trip, because it helped my colleagues realize that what I am offering is something they can achieve independently. It’s easy to make recommendations when the project is not part of your portfolio. Innovative solutions are simpler to spot from the outside looking in. If you don’t have access to a coach, how can project managers channel the power of a project management outsider to improve their existing practices?

  1. Self-diagnose. You likely know what you’d like to improve about each of your projects already—although you may not know how to fix these issues. Start by carving out 15-30 minutes of uninterrupted creative time to list the pain points associated with each of your projects. This could run the gamut from an unmotivated team member to slipping project deadlines to lackluster meetings. Record anything that comes to mind, no matter how small. If you have preliminary ideas for how to address the issues, note those too, even if your solution is only half-baked.

  2. Meet with your team. See if any of these issues resonate with your team and discuss as a group how to fix them. If the team has less experience than you do, they may not be able to solve the problems either, but they will undoubtedly offer some useful nuggets that could help you on the path to diagnosis. The other benefit to this exercise is that it helps foster a culture of continuous improvement. Team members should be comfortable offering feedback about how to improve business processes. Being the project manager doesn’t mean that you are all-knowing. While you may ultimately make the decision on which solution to pursue, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable in front of your team. It cultivates a culture of trust that helps you work together more efficiently.

  3. Find an outsider. You’ll notice that the first two steps take a narrow view of self-improvement. But sometimes, you and your team are too close to the issue to be able to effectively problem solve. If your organization has a coach, take advantage of that person and sign up for sessions to work through these concerns! If your organization doesn’t offer access to a coach, find your own. Invite a peer to a lunch, coffee, or walking meeting to talk through your concerns. The offer of food or exercise can incentivize that person to want to help you despite their busy schedule. Another option is to host a rotating “guest PM” on your project. Invite a colleague to sit in on a team meeting and act as coach. They can offer a fresh perspective on how they may have solved a similar challenge on one of their own projects. To return the favor, do the same for one of their projects.

  4. Host a quarterly or semi-annual project management “ideasfest.” To build on these one-on-one coaching sessions, host a half-day or full day event a few times a year to share internal project management practices. We often spend time briefing each other on the results of our work, but we rarely speak about how that work gets done. Don’t be afraid to go behind the curtain. Doing so may even spark some team-wide best practices that can be applied to future projects. Improving internal business processes increases the volume of projects your organization can handle and may also offer greater opportunities for staff to contribute across multiple projects.