How others think you are project managing is how you are project managing.

Crossfunctional projects are often the some of the most dynamic and interesting. You get to talk to lots of different kinds of people, access new tools, and tap into a diverse set of skills. These are also the projects are particularly susceptible to inefficiencies. And, these inefficiencies are often exacerbated as the company, and lattice of cross-team dependencies, grows.  

Over the last several years, I’ve worked on cross-functional projects of all shapes and sizes across many, many different kinds of teams. I put together a handful of guiding, and perhaps less-contemplated, tenets to keep in mind for project managing.

The better we are at project management, the more productive we can be and, as a result, the more satisfying the work will feel.

1. Trust > Buy-In

If you find yourself on a mission to ‘get buy-in,’ change your mission. ‘Buy-in’ is cheap and lends itself to bargaining and politicking. (Plus, doesn’t the term ‘buy-in’ give you the ickies?) Trust is ultimately much more powerful and enduring.

At the outset of the project, earn trust by doing research, talking with experts, understanding stakeholders (not just decision makers), and earnestly exploring the challenges. Explicitly time-box that process. Then, from this place of understanding, clarify your own point of view and use that to guide and communicate the direction of the project. Once the project is underway, you can maintain the trust by taking responsibility for not only the vision, but also the day-to-day work required to get things done.

Gut check: At the outset of a project, are you doing more talking or listening? During the project, does your team come to you for input and advice?

2. Deadlines are motivating

A less obvious benefit of clear and explicit deadlines is that they provide a construct to rally behind. Above all else, each team member is accountable to the objectives of the project and deadlines help the group efficiently get there. Context for the deadline will also help—is there external pressure to hit a date? Why? Does other work depend on this work?

The expectation is always that deadlines are hit and that everyone should work together to make sure that happens. This means that missing a deadline feels bad and that hitting a deadline feels good. Relatedly, stretching for and hitting a deadline feels really good. A project manager can push the team to stretch for a deadline, but should be judicious about doing so. You can only provide your team with celebratory cookies so many times.

Gut check: If you pulled one of your stakeholders aside and asked them what the next deadline was, would he/she know? Are you consistently hitting deadlines? Missing them?

3. You can’t beat the weekly update

The project manager is going to know more about the state and progress of the project than anyone else. Get the information out of your head and into the hands of your stakeholders. The weekly update (or, whatever cadence works for your project) is always the best way to keep stakeholders and onlookers informed. Content and structure can vary, but the weekly update always wins. It just does. Don’t worry about over-communicating or over-informing, especially at the outset. Most prefer over-communication for work they’re invested in.

When you do write your weekly email, ensure your email is informative and compelling by writing it for your audience, not for yourself. What does your audience care about? What do they need to know? What happened since the last update that you found interesting?

Gut check: Do stakeholders respond to or cite your email? Have you noticed it being forwarded to others? If an onlooker were to seek state, would they be able to quickly find it?

4. Meetings are not the only accountability mechanism

Before you schedule that weekly meeting, consider whether the content benefits from in-person communication. As a general heuristic, a decision that requires discussion benefits from a meeting, while a status update is better handled asynchronously. If you do have a meeting, make explicit (in advance) why the group is gathering and what the expected outcome is.

Gut check: If you have a weekly meeting, do stakeholders attend? If so, are they engaged? Did you send out the meeting agenda in advance?

5. How your stakeholders think you are project managing, is how you are project managing

Include introspection and feedback-gathering into your own process as a project manager. Periodically revisit overarching questions—how are we tracking against the plan? Where is our time going? Who haven’t I heard from in a while? Who am I hearing from more than expected? Periodically collect feedback, and not in a ‘check-the-box’ kind of way. Ask specific stakeholders specific things you are thinking through. (This had the added benefit of helping to establish and maintain trust). From there, don’t be afraid to change up the process!

Relatedly, when a stakeholder or onlooker offers you feedback, try to get to the root of what he/she is telling you. Make a decision about whether the feedback should precipitate a change and communicate that decision back.

Gut check: Are you getting the same questions from multiple people? Are you requesting generic feedback by saying ‘let me know if you have any questions/feedback’? Or, are you asking for feedback on specific areas from specific individuals?

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