Emphasizing the Human Element of Project Management

Several years ago, like so many other project managers, I had the painful experience of slogging through a 600-page study guide in preparation for the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam. One of the things that makes the coursework so unsatisfying and difficult to grasp is the lack of a human element.

There are very few real-world examples and the emphasis is on the what, not the how. In other words, it teaches you what to manage, but not how to actually do it. Up to my eyeballs in practice exams, I wondered, “Will all this work actually make me a better project manager?” 

Now, with the exam more than five years in my rearview, I can see the payoff. The PMP teaches you to speak the language of your peers; it signals to your colleagues and customers that you are invested in your field; and it focuses your day-to-day management efforts via defined knowledge areas.  

However, the Project Management Body of Knowledge is missing other core lessons that are critical to your success as a project manager. As the lead of U.Group’s project management team, I try to bring the human element to the forefront of my work. By incorporating the four key concepts below into your management style, you can do the same.  
 

Know Your Value 

I’ve seen a lot of project managers struggle with this concept, especially when they are new to the field or leading a project where they don’t have a lot of background knowledge. This crisis of confidence is natural and even to be expected. Imagine you’re joining a project where your team members have more experience than you—they speak at conferences about their work, maybe they’ve even won a few awards—yet here you are, expected to lead them and direct their work? If you don’t find that proposition at least somewhat daunting, I’d wonder about you. 

But here’s the thing: project managers are NOT expected to know everything our subject matter experts know. We are not magical unicorns who can do it all. Our value lies in bringing order where otherwise there is none.  

We understand how to coalesce a team and empower them to do their best work. We know the mechanics of the project lifecycle and the levers at our disposal to deliver on time, within scope, and on budget. Our value is our ability to take all of the information that lives within our team and integrate that expertise to achieve a common goal.  

Once you understand your value, you will gain the courage to be vulnerable. Be open about what you don’t know and work with your team to fill in the gaps of your understanding as it relates to the project as a whole. Once you understand your value, you can ditch the posturing and focus on the work at hand.  

Ask Questions Early and Often  

Being inquisitive may come naturally to us as children, but somewhere along the way most of us lose that gift. Asking questions is key to effective project management as we work to integrate disparate crafts and deliverables into a comprehensive work plan. You should condition your team to expect lots of questions right from project kickoff—and encourage them to ask questions, too.  

As you review a new contract or charter at project start, go back to your PMP basics and frame your questions according to the 10 knowledge areas. Here’s a brief sampling of some of the questions you might think through and talk about with your team (and these are just scratching the tip of the iceberg):  

  • Scope Management: What are we slated to do? Do we understand what is included and, just as importantly, what is not? If the scope is vague, how and when can we define it further?  
  • Schedule Management: How long will X take to complete? How does X relate to Y? How will any delay affect our schedule?  
  • Cost Management: Does anyone on the team have concerns with the existing budget allocation? What are our options to remediate if we see costs trending up?  

For sections of the project that are new to you or the company, and therefore have more inherent risk, set up one-on-one meetings with your team members at project start. It’s often easier to open up and dig down into the details of a project in a smaller setting. Ask the questions you need to understand interdependencies and ask what the team member needs from you to be successful.  

If at any point you don’t understand what’s being discussed, pause the conversation and ask for clarification. Ask your teams to strip away any jargon and use plain language as much as possible. This should also apply to conversations with our clients to make sure language isn’t a barrier.  

Practice the Hard “Soft Skills”  

Soft skills don’t get enough credit—the name itself implies that these skills are lightweight and somehow easier. “Soft skills” refer to the mix of communication and social skills that enable a person to work well with others.  

For myriad reasons, we often don’t practice this set of skills and therefore don’t strengthen them like we would our more technical skillsets. Yet, managing a team and customers (and all the different personalities that are along for the ride) is one of the most difficult parts of the job. People are complicated and there is no one right way to approach a situation. But we can still prepare:  

  • Practice empathy: First and foremost, get to know your team members and your customers well—beyond a more traditional workplace, transactional dynamic. When things get bumpy, remind yourself that we’re all human and trying to do our best. If someone is taking more time than expected to complete a task, think about why that might be before you start the conversation. Think about who is on the other side of the conversation and what might be coloring their world. 
  • Anticipate reactions: If you know your teammates well, it becomes much easier to anticipate their reactions. Before you have a key conversation with a team member, think about what they might say and how you would respond in each given situation. What are the most common but difficult things you hear in your role? Do you feel comfortable responding on the spot? Chances are you’ve had a teammate blow past a deadline or a customer push for additional scope. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will. So think through how you would respond and have a judgment-free, action-oriented response ready.  
  • Be polite AND direct: When it comes to communication, the word “direct” has become a euphemism for rude. But it doesn’t have to mean demanding or insensitive. In the project team context, direct communication means effectively communicating information and expectations. Your phrasing should give team members insight into how their role affects the entire project. When we deemphasis direct communication, it can backfire if the team doesn’t realize the implications of your request. Think about the phrasing you use and how you can replace them with something more specific and direct. Consider the following examples:  

Example 1: “It would be great if you could share out the designs prior to the client meeting.”  
 

Example 2: “Can you please email me the designs by 2 PM on Wednesday so the developers and I can review against the client’s requirements? We’ll give you any feedback by 4 PM for revisions.”  

The second example is still polite, but it sets expectations, provides rationale, and mitigates any risk caused by ambiguity. It’s a simple communication fix that can have a big impact on your project success.  

Change is Inevitable–Accept it and Plan for It  

Change is going to happen on your project—and it’s not because you’re a bad project manager or your original plan was faulty. It’s because we enter into projects knowing only a fraction of what we’ll come to know. That goes for both our project teams and our customers. After all, if our customers knew exactly what they wanted and how to get there, they wouldn’t need us.  

So, set the expectation for change early. It should be part of your first conversation with your team and customer. Introduce a process for how you’ll respond to change—before the process is ever needed. When we wait too long to have conversations about managing scope creep, additional rounds of revision, changing requirements, etc., we are forced to introduce it when the need is already present. That means tensions are high and a change order can feel like a penalty. By discussing early and implementing consistently, your customers will understand that this is part of the process and that they are empowered to assess the cost and benefit of a deviation from the original plan.  

The very human element that makes these four philosophies and practices so important for any manager’s toolkit is also what makes some of them more difficult to implement. Confidence and comfort with asking questions don’t happen overnight—but just like any other skill, as you continue to hone them, you’ll find it gets easier with time. And once you get there, both you and your team will be the better for it. 

From project management to front-end development, we aim to emphasize the human element in every aspect of our work. Sign up for our newsletter for monthly thought leadership on all things human centered.

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