An Open Letter to Project Managers, Program Managers and Directors

A source of tremendous frustration with project and program leaders is that we try and be helpful by doing things the way we think is best; and planning on delivering the outcome we know they (the client, sponsor and the person paying the bills) should want.

I know you understand how to do your job. I know you’re good at it. I know you understand how to plan, schedule, track and report; and you’re good with people. I know you can use the ‘right’ or ’latest’ tools and methods.

What I don’t know is… if you recognise the most important thing of all. Stick with me here.

A project or program is about getting an outcome someone else wants. Yes I know that’s basic, but it’s what I want to talk about.

We’re human and that means we want to do the very best we can for the people for whom we work. We want to bring our best, give our best, and do what we know is right for them.

Because we’re human when someone asks for an outcome we hear through our filter; and overlay what we know and what we know how to do. We believe that with us they’ll get a better outcome than they wanted. Dangerous territory.

Fact is, they want us to deliver their outcome, the outcome they want. It sounds simple and it is, but it’s not easy. It’s so hard to hear someone describe an outcome they want and know in your bones that it’s not what you’d do, you just know they’re wrong and they should want something else. The temptation and I’ve done it too, is to say yes to what they’re asking and secretly head towards what you know they’ll love more. Many endeavors have run aground on this alone and with single minded dedication from the outset, ensured the sponsor will not be happy with the outcome. Forever more, the sponsor will say the project failed and you’ll be frustrated because you know it was a brilliant project.

If we can stop ourselves doing this, I guarantee the perceived and reported success of projects and programs will escalate and with it your stocks. The easiest way to catch yourself is as soon as you find yourself thinking or saying ‘should’. ‘It should be this way’ or ‘they should realise’. Stop! Listen to them. Understand what they’re asking for. If you don’t understand, persist. If you do check it with them and bravely remove all assumptions by addressing the unasked questions (including hidden hopes). Once you truly understand what they want, if you have problems with it be brave and raise them. If they still want the same thing, have a talk to yourself and ask “can I deliver what they want?” If the answer is yes, dive in and head into the waters of delighting the sponsor. If the answer is no, be professional and say, “I’m not the right person to deliver this”.

Sometimes saying no will be the impetus for them to listen again, sometimes they’ll get annoyed, frustrated and even angry. A lot of the time they’ll hold you in high regard for contributing to their success by standing aside.

If we get better at delivering what they want, our success and standing will be increased as well.

If you need help please ask me. I’ve got a lot of experience working with sponsors, and their project and program people overcoming this barrier.