While digital tools and techniques go some way to making life easier for project managers they'll never be the answer to a project's success.
If it weren’t for people, projects would be easy. Have you ever heard a project manager say that? You may well have done. But isn't digital making life easier for these hard done by PM's?
It's true that the tools and techniques in a project manager's arsenal are becoming more refined and sophisticated. Digital developments continue to provide ever-improving tools for planning, budgeting, monitoring and controlling. All things that are close to project managers’ hearts, who use these tools to calculate variances, smooth out resources, define the critical path, forecast cash flows – all at the click of a mouse. They can automate plans, track budgets and produce detailed reports, all of which can be shared around the world in an instant. Certainly, a project manager's job should be much easier than it was back in the days when you used to go to a computer room if you ever wanted to use a computer. Can anyone remember that?
Despite all of the assistance these digital tools can offer, projects still continue to get into difficulty. Many run out of money, some run out of time, and others fail to deliver what the end-customer either wanted or expected. On the other hand, many projects are completed ahead of schedule, well within budget and easily deliver what the customer wanted. We should not be surprised by any of this. If project management relied only on tools and techniques, then they would neither fail nor be too successful.
So, what's behind a project's success or failure?
Projects don’t fail because the planning hardware or software broke down. It is people that make projects succeed or fail. They make the decisions. They predict and plan. They control the progress. Every project is unique and people contribute to that uniqueness significantly more than anything else. How they are motivated. How clearly they understand their role. How they understand the importance of their contribution. These are all things that determine how people relate to the project environment and are a major factor in the success of any project.
Except for the simplest of projects, delivery of most projects is done by teams. As a result, project managers have to operate both as team members and as team leaders. As team members, they contribute to the effective operation of the team and as team leaders, they have to provide the clarity and direction needed to reach the endpoint successfully. From the outset, balancing these two roles requires great skill to harness the human element of building a strong, cohesive team and then maintain this as they control and coordinate the team as it evolves and develops with the project. A project team may exist for a significant period of time and during this, people will join, and people will leave as the needs of the project change. As a result, the project manager has to deal with the knock-on effects that such transitions have on the team.
However, arguably the single most important aspect of team effectiveness is motivation. Leadership and team building are important, but if a team is not motivated, both collectively and in terms of each individual, then the team won't perform well. The project manager needs to understand that most people are motivated by a combination of different factors and that the leadership style they adopt needs to change to reflect the particular situation and person (or people) that they are dealing with.
After motivation, communication is perhaps the next most important element in project team effectiveness. To ensure good working relationships, to monitor and control and to take swift corrective actions, project managers require good flows of information both inwards, to them from the project team and the customer, and outwards, from them to the project team and the customer. To achieve this, they need to make good use not only of formal channels but also informal channels as they can often highlight problems sooner and allow them to respond and take corrective action quicker.
So there you have it. A successful project manager will be a team builder, a team member and a team leader who can motivate the team and communicate effectively, both formally and informally with them and their customer. However, even with all this, things are unlikely to go smoothly at all times. Workload pressures, real or perceived inequities, team member transition and a whole host of other things can bring about stress and conflict within the project team. So, above all else, a project manager needs to be a people manager who helps their team through times of stress and conflict.
No wonder then, some may say that if it wasn’t for people, projects would be easy!