Putting the People into Project Management

Over our morning coffee and naughty-feeling, sugar-laden muffins, my colleague recently described a problem she had been having in her department. In her role as a project manager, she was dealing with a lot of pressure from stakeholders and her immediate supervisor to increase creative patronage within the library’s makerspace. The board had a community vision they wanted enacted through the project and her supervisor wanted to pass that responsibility to her so that she could carry out the plan.

Everyone else involved viewed the situation as a top-down systems approach: the board communicated the vision to the supervisor who oversaw the daily working of the library and appointed a project manager to organize the specific task. My colleague viewed the project a different way.

Although helpful in visualizing the overall structure and in anticipating some of the tangible factors involved, the top-down systems approach fails to accurately recognize the most essential element of project management—the people. Without the people, we would have no project at all.

By taking a social process viewpoint, we can see that people influence projects and projects influence people. We cannot and should not try to cleave the life cycle from the very element that can either keep the project on track or completely derail it. The human factor is one that determines the success of every stage of the cycle from scoping to closing, and a good project manager learns to embrace the social aspect in service of a successful project. In this case, my colleague needed her staff to embrace a change in habit relating to the all-too-quiet makerspace, and the board and supervisor needed to adjust their expectations on the completion timeline of the project—these things don’t happen all at once!

We know that when we effectively incorporate evidence-based psychological practices into project management we promote a culture based on trust, set appropriate expectations for everyone involved, accurately predict a timeline, and incorporate lessons learned to increase productivity and the likelihood of a successful project resolution. We know that the mindset of the people involved in the process makes all the difference.

How do we change a mindset? We can start by bringing the people into the picture at the beginning of the scoping process. We link the project to the values and mission of the organization. By reminding both stakeholders and team members of a compelling vision that can be shared by everyone, even large projects with many moving tasks can be more efficiently completed with a unified goal.  Team members (and others within the organization) can be proud of a clear purpose and are more likely to stay engaged with the process, motivated to complete each task, and committed to the outcome.

A shared vision can both guide decision-making and inspire problem-solving when inevitable challenges arise. Maintaining the ability to refer back to the values and purpose of the project, and its benefit to the organization, can help team members relate to their work in a more meaningful way. In my colleague’s case, everyone involved wanted to increase community involvement in the library. They knew there was a demand for creative pursuits, and they knew that engaged library patrons vote for continued library funding. In an essential way, everyone shared a similar goal.

By bringing people into the process, understanding what they need to complete projects, how they conduct their daily business, and what motivates them to action, applied psychology has contributed significantly to the management process. One of the most substantial contributions has come through a greater awareness of a team’s communication structures and the likely reasons that misunderstandings occur. With a solid understanding of how groups communicate, a project manager can encourage the best decision-making by promoting group collaboration.

Asking “what is right” instead of “who is right” strengthens a culture of collaboration. By creating, and then reinforcing, a collaborative model, members of the group are more likely to build trust, and subsequently, more likely to share knowledge.

When team members trust one another, they are more likely to attribute mistakes and misunderstanding to a group member’s error as opposed to specifically hostile intentions. If misunderstandings are attributed to hostile intentions, conflicts tend to escalate, so mitigating the fallout of mistakes by placing an appropriate value on trust-building can prevent the need for costly conflict resolution. By understanding how these group dynamics function, a savvy manager can establish a culture of trust, an environment that promotes learning from mistakes, and a cooperative learning focus.

By considering the needs and motivations of her supervisor, the stakeholders, and her staff, my colleague was able to both build group cohesion and form an accurate timeline of project. This proved to be a powerful piece of information since so much of the perceived success of a project is tied to its timely resolution.

She found that by setting expectations in time management, in group collaboration, in knowledge sharing, and in the trust that everyone’s voice would be heard, she was able to create an effective and collaborative method to promote engagement in the library’s makerspace. By understanding the people, she understood the process and she got the job done. Yes, the makerspace is now a lively and thriving creative hub.

1 reply

  1. Hi Andthenalso
    Very nice article. Yes, that’s true, people influence the project and project influence the people. The success and failure of the project depend on how the project management team is handling the people working on the project. One of the significant element in project management is trust the team. If there is no trust in each other, then people will be focusing on protecting themselves rather than focusing on the project. Based on my personal project management experience, managing people friendly has more effect than managing people formally.


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