what i’ve learned about project management

Last semester I helped revise an open source textbook on project management for an instructional design audience. At the conclusion of the project, I was a bit stumped when David Wiley, who’d been overseeing the project, asked our team what we had learned about management through the process. Although we’d spent four months running the book project together, no one had really acted as the manager; I doubt even David would claim to have filled that role except on particular occasions. And while we had worked with this large body of content about project management, we hadn’t spent a whole lot of time discussing how we ourselves were being educated by the material.

As I think back over the last several months, though, it occurs to me that I’ve been exposed to a number of different managers in both my academic and professional work. Each one has had his or her own management style, and I’ve been noticing lately how widely the quality of their approaches vary, from the efficient, personal, and capable to the chilly, non-communicative, and disorganized. Thinking over these good and bad examples, one clear take-away lesson does seem to come to the foreground. It’s not a particularly surprising insight; in fact, it’s something that David emphasized at several points as something that needed to remain prominent in the book on project management we were working on.

The lesson is this: people matter. They matter on a personal level, even when it’s a business matter that has brought a team together, because issues at the personal level affect the kind of work they will be able to do as individuals and as a group. Being a good manager requires being able to deal with people as people, with all their multitudinous personalities, preferences, and other complexities.

Good managers know their people. They know what their team is doing well with and where they’re struggling. They may not be the best of friends with every member of their team, but they have a personal interest in each one, at some level beyond just the work at hand.

Good managers realize that their decisions about the project affect these people, often on a personal level. Not every decision or problem is necessarily brought out for everyone to discuss openly, but good managers understand how their decisions affect people. Even though everyone may not agree with managers’ decisions, they make sure their people have at least some understanding of why these decisions are being made.

Good managers respect their people. They don’t waste time with meetings that have no purpose, or long discussions about low-priority matters–not when there are truly important conversations to have and meaningful work to be done.

Good managers don’t make promises they can’t keep, just for the sake of keeping the peace for a little while longer. Good managers realize that in the long run manipulating people in this way is poison to a team, an organization, or a relationship, and at some point down the road will make it impossible to continue to do good work together.

Good managers recognize the importance of the personal touch, of taking a moment for a good-natured joke at the conference table, for a friendly greeting in the hallway, for an expression of appreciation. A box of donuts or closing party won’t solve every problem with a project, but I believe that there are some projects that won’t proceed well without such gestures.

People matter. My ideas about and experiences may not be very refined at this point, but this, I think, is the most important thing I’ve learned about project management over the last few months.

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