Replacing Tools with the Team: A Project Manager’s Journey

By Jayson Read | August 22, 2018

Years ago, I thought it would be fun to build a small picnic table from scratch for my kids. I did what any aspiring carpenter would do; I bought all the right tools, I scoured the internet for the right plans and templates, and I had the utmost confidence that I could make it happen. I mean, it’s a picnic table; people build these things all the time… how hard could it be as long as I had the right tools and a plan, right? Fast forward five weeks and I wouldn’t trust that picnic table to hold a cup of coffee let alone my daughters. That was the end of my carpentry and woodworking career.

Project Management can take the same path when you’re starting out anew. You scour the internet for the best templates and tools, you purchase all the right tracking applications and utilities, you spend endless nights putting together the perfect plan, and then you come to your team holding it like a child holding a homemade Mother’s Day gift, all starry-eyed and full of hope. Then, reality hits and six months later you’re wondering which tool did you forget to use. That was me after my first project over 10 years ago hit the skids and went wildly out of control. Luckily, I didn’t give up on the craft like I did carpentry.

If you’re an experienced and skilled Project Manager and you’re reading this, you’re likely reflecting on your very own similar situation. Take the time to pause and reflect. I’ll wait right here. However, if you’re new to Project Management, you’re either starting to figure this out or reality hasn’t hit, yet. Either case, you’ll want to read on because I’ll try to fast forward your experience a couple years.

Starting out in the subtle science and exact art of Project Management, there’s comfort in relying on templates, documents, artifacts, and carefully crafted and meticulous spreadsheets with formulas that would impress most anyone in the office. This is your world, this is your safe place, this is your everything. This is how you’re going to run your project; asking for numbers and words to fill in the open spaces on your documents, doing calculations to figure out percentage complete based on numbers and values that most people guessed at, and barely ever looking up from your stack of papers. And you think this is what successful Project Managers do. Your order of importance is Tools, Project, and Team and you might as well have it cross-stitched and framed on your desk. An aside to the new Project Managers… here’s your cheat code; it’s actually flipped!

As you progress through your career, there comes an epiphany, like when you found out TAG actually stands for Touch And Go (if you didn’t know that… you do, now, and this is the feeling I’m talking about); the team needs to come first. So much about our profession is identifying issues and risks as well as fixing and preventing them, respectively. I can tell you, first hand, those aren’t going to surface themselves in the pile of Gantt charts, slide decks, and spreadsheets lying next to your Sixth Edition of the PMBOK. They’re going to come from the team with which you work. In putting your focus on the team and the individuals that make up the team, you begin to establish rapport and trust and trust, my friends, is the magic pixie dust that exposes these very things. As many of you know, trust doesn’t appear overnight like the Tooth Fairy, it takes time, energy, and commitment to build that trust with the team and to do that you have to put the team first. With trust, the team is willing to open up to you about risks they see and issues presenting themselves that would have, otherwise, been hidden from your view and you can’t fix what you can’t see. After all, it’s the team that ensures the success of the project and brings the project safely into port.

The project, in and of itself, still remains in your constant view.  No amount of trust can just make a project go. But with a team beside you, your view widens and you’re able to see the glowing edges of the entire picture. That whole picture allows you to see further out into what could be and provides you the opportunity to turn your view and take these issues head-on rather than getting blindsided. To succeed in this, you need your team and you need your scouts.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time downplaying the importance of the tools. I’m not saying they’re not important, but it’s a matter of priority and perspective. Tools should be just that; tools. You should use the tools available to you to track and monitor things that you shouldn’t have to remember, provide metrics and insight that provide trending views to give you even sharper vision to what’s on the horizon, and to provide a means of communicating status and subtle details of the project to all interested stakeholders. However, those tools will never supplant the ability and knowledge of how to respond to what the tools are telling you and, unfortunately, it takes time to see the intricacies and the trends to know when trouble is brewing and determine the best way to adjust in the interest of the project and of the team.

As for my carpentry tools, they’re still sitting at the bottom of my meek toolbox waiting for me to dedicate the time, energy, and commitment to hone my craft and put the overall picture and the material before the tools and bits themselves. Like any skilled carpenter will tell you, the hammers and drills and planers are only as good as the person wielding them and to, truly, create something from nothing, you need to have a vision and not just a plan.

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