In the Information Technology field I’m often working with very bright people who have very high capabilities. When we would go to customer sites, I would tell the lead person “you are in charge.” Yes, in the era of instant communication, I could be in charge all the time and be within seconds of being contacted. However, I never felt that presented the best face towards our customers (or the people we send out) and it worked against developing people to be future leaders.
For my project managers, when we were delivering and installing a product for example, I reminded them that they were in charge. We might also have engineering, test and quality folks and even senior managers on site, but I told them that any final decision needed to be made should be made by them. I didn’t care if what they decided was just the team consensus, they needed to keep control of the decision making process and then finalize it by saying “OK, this is what we’ll do.” I never wanted to hear “but, it is what others said we should do – I’m not responsible!” (See for comparison, self directed teams, there is a balancing act to be done here.)
I also told them that because they were in charge, I would support their decisions. Now, it had to be a reasonable decision and on occasion I might end up saying “sorry, we won’t be able to do that after all.” If I ended up having to do that too often, then they might find themselves back being an individual contributor and not leading a project or team. They needed to know, cold, our overall strategy for success and how we were going to go about it. If they could work within the strategy, even creatively, then things should work out fine.
This approach has worked well for me. Establishing this is not a one time discussion with my team or project managers. Instead it is something I often talk about in meetings and other communications. You are the project manager, you pull together the efforts and capabilities of many very capable people, and your job is to ensure it comes out with the desired results.
I’ve seen quality managers, business managers, senior managers, marketing and just other strong personalities “take over” a project from the project manager. I’ve never seen where this has happened that a project, going poorly, suddenly became successful or even ever became successful while that person was “in charge”. I have seen perfectly good projects go off the rails because someone “took charge” who simply didn’t have the ability, beyond a dominating personality, to manage a complex project.
In one interesting case, I worked with a new engineering manager and a new Project Management Office (PMO) Director who took over a project from their subordinate project managers (note, while senior, they were both new to their positions and had not done a project of this type before). I recall the PMO Director stepping up in front of the room, under her breath saying “I can do this!” and taking over a meeting set up by engineering (not by her PMs). It all went down hill from there.
The new engineering manager eventually shut down any communications from the engineering teams to project management and would just report they were “on track.” They weren’t. Not even close.The PMO Director then essentially abdicated responsibility and took the position “its their project now.” I recall thinking “isn’t it great that this worldwide corporation would give essentially two rookies the company’s biggest and most critical project to learn how to manage a mega project?” The project was months late. The software developed in the project, which was the baseline for future projects, took years to finally stabilize and stop being a quality liability (i.e., “worst part of the product”). Neither manager retained their positions once the project was complete.
See related: A Successful Manager But Never A Successful Project?
The project managers (PMO and engineering) who would have normally run this project went on to finally help the company achieve on time and good quality mega projects (i.e., they knew how to do their job). It took years, however, to undo the damage done by this one mismanaged mega project.
As project managers we need to take charge of our projects. Allowing “strong personalities” or other persons (even our boss) to effectively take charge of the project is a recipe for failure. As the project manager’s senior manager we should prepare the PM, then give them their head to lead their project and then actively support them, including actively intervening when others try to effectively “take charge” of their project.
Do your project managers truly lead their projects?