The PM bravery kit – A project management guide to courage

By - 04 Dec 2014

Woman wearing boxing glove, pretending to knock a man out

From previous experience, I know what it feels like to tell a client that we’re not going to hit their very important deadline, or that we need a further $25k to deliver the feature set we initially promised. It’s really hard; it’s easy to press send on an email bombshell at 5:30pm on a Friday, but dealing with these tough issues head-on is scary.

“Struggle isn’t fun, but it is an opportunity to be BRAVE.” – Rae Smith

Let’s face it, bravery is what being a great PM is all about. Shying away from the hard stuff doesn’t do anyone any favors—not the client, not your team, and especially not you! As the old saying goes “Honesty is definitely the best policy,” so with that in mind, here’s a toolkit that will defend you from harm and make you come out the other side unscathed and all the stronger a DPM for it!

Be brave and don’t bluff it

You wouldn’t go into battle without a sword. Don’t go into a meeting without the facts. If you think the project is going over budget or you’re not going to hit the deadline, use the resources around you to build up a case! It’s times like these when tools can be your best friend; dig into your time-tracking and project management software, analyze where tasks have taken longer than estimated, then look wider than the project—you might find that your team is stretched, juggling with competing priorities, or spending too much time in meetings. If you can, visualize that data in a way that your team and client will understand! Use reports and real data to show how far you’ve come, and use the information as a benchmark for any forecasts you put in place. Make sure you get buy-in from your team to ensure that any new goals are realistic and achievable.

Tools can only tell you half the story, though if I had to give you one piece of advice it would be speak to your team. They’re working on the project and, more than anyone, are likely to know why the project isn’t running smoothly. They’re your allies; encourage them to be honest and then make sure you listen attentively. In the midst of conversation, you may begin hearing the root causes of some of your problems or, even better, some solutions.

testimonial saatchi

Just remember that designers and developers are generally not employed to get stuck in the details; although they should be aware of the health of the project, they may not have seen the danger signs approaching. When you call a meeting to discuss your concerns, do your team a favor and know what you want to achieve; make sure the meeting is focused, has an agenda and doesn’t run over time, and give your team context about why you need the information and what the next steps are.

Call for backup!

You’re smart, and there’s no doubt that you can deal with this on your own—yet, as the popular saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.

I’ve really benefited from the support and advice of my peers, and therefore always strive to share both my triumphs and mistakes with my manager and trusted colleagues. I’m fortunate to work in a very supportive environment, so I’ve learned to use the expertise around my office to my advantage. If I’m sending an email to a client with figures or a list of actions, I’ll get someone to check that the figures are correct and that the information is clear. If a colleague understands it without the context of the situation, it gives me more confidence while sharing the information with a client.

Don’t delay

Once you’ve got the facts to hand, don’t delay an uncomfortable conversation with the client or your team. The longer you leave it, the harder it’ll be.

Tips for having difficult conversations with your team

Make sure you set the scene with your team and understand that people may feel defensive or responsible—so show empathy, put yourself in their shoes, and acknowledge the issues they may have and how those issues may affect them.

I always try and keep the prime directive in mind to make sure any meeting involving the whole team is positive and results oriented.

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand”
—Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews

After the meeting, make sure you follow up on ideas and actions promptly and keep the conversation open.

and with your client…

Sharing the problem with your client alone isn’t going to be enough. Make sure you’ve thought about why it occurred, how you’re going to rectify it, and how you’re going to prevent it from happening again.

Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared

It’s tempting at this point to bury your head, but you know better than that. Try and train yourself to see this as an opportunity, an obstacle to overcome.

Stand your ground

Demonstrating courage is the kind of behavior that fosters trust and sets an example to those around you.

Believe in your plan and stick by your team; in times of trouble, everyone has an opinion. Above all else, make sure that you’re happy with the plan, and be discerning when others offer you advice. You know your team and client best and you’re in the best position to make the right decisions.

So, when you’re next confronted with a difficult situation, make an active decision to choose courage over fear. You won’t live to regret it.

We’d love to hear from you! Tweet us, drop in a comment, or get in touch

Image Source: Gratisography

Holly is Delivery Lead at Deeson, Europe’s leading open-source software agency. She’s the founder of the UK’s largest digital PM Slack community and curator of Make Good, a bi-weekly newsletter for people who care about exceptional software delivery.