By Kevin Yarashefski
In surfing, there’s a mutual, unspoken understanding of how to interact in the lineup with fellow surfers that determines respect, priority, overall vibe and safety. Following the movement and fluidity of the water (no two waves are ever the same) and understanding the intricacies for the personalities of the fellow surfers in the water that day, you learn very quickly your place in competing for waves. While it’s not a hard and fast science, the human element of working cohesively helps the surfing roll along smoothly. I try to apply that to my work as a project manager.
While project managers ultimately strive for extreme clarity and absolute definition, experiences have taught me that it’s often unrealistic to assume team members are 100% sure of what they’re doing every hour of their day—and therefore need to be allowed the time and freedom to explore solutions on their own. To help me abide by this, I’ve identified some common sense practices that help me provide teams with the flexibility they need by managing the intangible side of human nature versus the scientific process and project plan. Many people think project management is all about task management and checking things off lists in order to meet deadlines. They’re unaware that, the majority of the time, there’s a softer side of engaging with all different types of people and personalities.
Take a lap around the office around 10 a.m.
Folks should have arrived by then, have sipped their first cup of coffee and settled into their day. Read their faces and their posture to try to get a feel for how they’re doing; you’ll be amazed by how many cues you can pick up. Things like: If someone is dressed up and possibly heading out to a client meeting (this might suggest their highest priority for the day), or maybe catching a show after work (which might suggest they need to wrap up around 5 p.m.)? Does someone look tired from pulling long hours the day or week before? Sometimes, by even seeing you walk by, it may help them prioritize something they owe you. You’ll find that, by picking up these subtle details, you’ll be able to use them throughout the day to better understand and manage your team so that your priorities align with theirs.
Catch the meeting before the meeting (time permitting)
Often times, I’ll check in one-on-one with the most critical team members prior to the actual scheduled meeting to help ensure the objective is understood and what will be required of them specifically during the scheduled meeting time. This more intimate approach helps alleviate conflict or excursions which can be a potential waste of time during the meeting—it allows them the ability to listen, react and plan ahead for the discussion with the larger team. I also find it helpful getting a read on their opinion ahead of time so you can help manage the room and steer clear of challenges and obstacles.
Speak the language of the team
Communication is 96% of a project manager’s role (my biggest take away from PMP certification). We spend hours in Microsoft Project or Smartsheets building complicated project plans that link dependencies, requirements and assumptions—but what is done with all that information next is the most critical step. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up a Gantt chart during a meeting and watched creative directors immediately disconnect, rolling their eyes back in their heads. This is ineffective. Read the room, what are people reacting to or not? Are they multitasking, hyper-focused on another deliverable for that day? Working in shorter, more effective meetings will help your team use their own time more efficiently—Make the best use of your scheduled with them and they will thank you for it. Summarize detailed content when possible, and drill down into those details when questions arise and you need supporting facts or information. Make eye contact, direct comments to specific team members to command their attention and prevent distractions. Force people in the room to engage and react to the information to make the most of the meeting.
Always have a plan (whether it’s right or wrong)
In the thick of a project, keeping a multi-discipline team aligned is critical. It’s a project manager’s job to help keep the team on the same page with a plan, but maintain a nimbleness that allows that plan to flex when needed. Don’t withhold a plan simply because it’s not 100% solidified—My rule of thumb is to be certain with 70% accuracy. Use what you believe is an accurate plan in order to propel the team forward. Running a daily stand-up meeting with the team is great for collectively building a plan for the day ahead. It helps each person prioritize and understand the interdepencies of their own tasks—and in conjunction with their fellow team members, at that. With a daily stand-up, you have the ability to shift the overarching plan day-by-day, working through a new daily plan when necessary. And, when the team helps construct the plan, it enables them to understand the priorities and how all the pieces fit together.
Master the intangibles
Manages priorities, not time. Figure out what absolutely must get done, and do that first. Stop and re-evaluate things that feel complicated or unnecessary and help identify a simpler way. Listen to your gut, draw on past experiences to know right from wrong. Realize that policy and procedure must pass a common sense test prior to implementation. Focus on results. And always be ready with a plan to fix what’s wrong, even if it’s subject to change. Always.
Throughout my project management career, I’ve relied on humanizing my approach to managing teams over and above the science and detail-orientation often associated with the trade. The items above are some approaches I’ve learned to focus on which have allowed me to manage successful teams—a human-centric approach with a scientific foundation, resulting in what I like to think of as an empathetic management style. The art of project management forms benchmarks and milestones, but focusing on helping the team navigation in between requires mastery of the intangibles.
As the Associate Partner, Project Management Discipline Lead, Kevin brings his backgrounds in both boutique and larger agency environments to help execute and deliver across all campaign and advertising mediums including digital and traditional. Kevin has almost 20 years’ experience in project management, working on clients including McDonalds, Kimberly-Clark, The Breakers, Kraft, Spectrum Enterprise and Google. Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.