Successful execution requires effective and efficient interactions between the people that make up complex organizational systems such as Project Teams. Project Teams perform work that is difficult, complex, often without precedent or examples to follow. They do it under the pressures of quality, cost and schedule constraints, for customers and sponsors who often have ambiguous requirements, high expectations, and a low risk tolerance. On top of all of these work related demands, each Project Team member must deal with their personal challenges of career, family and life in general. These pressures and distractions pose significant risks for human error of omission and commission.
While it is unrealistic to believe that Project Managers can eliminate these trying conditions, there are ways that they can build more robust team operating environments that make errors a little less likely and lower consequence. Here are a few ideas:
• Create a Mutual Expectations Agreement (MEA) with your Team. Discuss, agree, document and sign an MEA with your team that clearly defines your expectations of them and their expectations of you. This should address communications, respectful behaviors, recognition, conflict resolution practices, risk tolerance, and making it safe to ask for help.
• Project focus with peripheral situation awareness. Too frequently Project Managers and team members are told to keep their heads down and focused exclusively on the project objectives. I my experience, this is a bad, perhaps even dangerous practice. Projects are executed through productive interactions between people across a family of organizations, which also have their own mission, priorities and objectives. Certainly you and your team must understand and prioritize your efforts so that you will meet project objectives, but in doing so, care must be taken to be aware of, and empathetic to, the missions and objectives of other organization elements that are part of the collaborative effort. As the Project Manager, you must care, and be seen to care about other organizational element’s objectives. This will build critical relationships and social capital that you will need to use at some point to resolve issues and advance your projects interests.
• Encourage and facilitate social interaction across the Project family. Building relationships through non-work social interaction, builds trust that will enable and lubricate the interactions they must have later in a work context. These social interactions don’t need to be elaborate or costly, but they do need to take place early so that the relationships are built before they are challenged in more trying circumstances later.
• Walk, talk and listen to how people feel. Some used to refer to this as Management By Walking Around (MBWA), but I think its more than that. Project Manager walk-abouts, must also be talk-abouts in which casual conversation can be used to identify team environment issues, before they manifest human error. Move around and talk to people, not just about the work, but how they feel about the work and they way it’s being led. Ask open questions that start discussions. If you as the project manager don’t think you’re adept at talking about feelings, you’re at a disadvantage and you should take steps to enhance your skills in this area. You may be able to find someone within the team with those skills or bring in someone who has the skills and reputation to help you facilitate real communication within the team.
• Be willing to be more approachable and perhaps even more vulnerable. To be trusted and get insight peoples real feelings and attitudes and the state of the work environment, you must be seen as safe to talk to. Let your team know how you feel, and be empathetic to their situations and feelings.
Human errors of omission and commission in a complex, dynamic, organic system, like a project, are unavoidable. The thinking activities related to life and work are intimately intertwined, interdependent and often distracting. Distracted thinking can lead to disrupted behavior and errors in judgment. It is unrealistic to expect that your team members, or even you, can leave the activities and issues of life at the door when you come in to work. But by implementing these suggestions, as well as ideas from your won experience, you may be able to build a more robust project organizational culture that will make it less likely for the ever-present work and life stress to manifest as human errors that impact your project.
I love your last note about a manager basically showing more of human side. It’s a trait that sadly many managers believe is a sign of weakness.