On managing both sides of the bridge

I sometimes see the Project Manager as the bridge between the development team and the relationship managers (and other folks higher up in the ladder).

I have never seen the bridge “do any work” in the way that work is perceived by humans. Work, in the IT parlance, consists of writing code, testing, writing specifications, providing customer support and so forth. The IT manager hardly ever does any of these.

While the developers’ “work” consists of all the above, the relationship managers have their own alibi: customer presentations, proposals for new customers, marketing, customer management, funding for projects and so forth. 

It seems that while every one is busy, the bridge is just sitting there, doing nothing. That, in short, is the project manager for you.

Until you start thinking about how much “work” would get done if the bridge was not there. What would be the point of the developers and the relationship managers being busy with their “work” if there was no way to connect these two to form a coherent deliverable to the customer !

From my seat in the project manager’s chair, I see two conflicting world views, two worlds with a chasm neither wants to cross on their own. The developers are foreever gloating about their “work” being the cornerstone of the success with the customer. (“What would our relationship manager tell the customer if we refused to code !”) The relationship managers have their gloating specialities (“who would these developers work for if we did not slog to get that new business to our company !”)

From my seat, I see the two worlds refusing to see eye-to-eye (cliche check for the day !)

The project manager’s skills are adequately documented in the PRINCE2 and PMI websites. It is not for me to regurtitate those here.

But beyond the Earned Values and Gantt charts, there is a job description that is begging to be let out of the bag. That is the description of the negotiator, the reconciliator, the value deliverer. I would not mind if we rename the project manager’s role description with any one of the above.

To the relationship manager (and beyond), the project manager has to prove that he is in control of the development team. That he can deliver value out of the proletariat, the “silly people” who do not understand the “complex world of customer negotiations”. The project manager has to prove that he is getting the best possible out of the team of “misdirected kids”. He has to be there to explain every transgression of the “masses”.I have relationship managers threaten me with dire consequences if I did not “take care” of so-and-so guy from my team as if I was the father of an errant kid ! Trust me, every mistake that anyone from your team ever makes (past, present or future) will be held up against you in ways you never thought possible ! And I am not exaggerating.

To the developers, the project manager has to prove that he has enough influence in the organization to get them the rewards they “so deserve”. Developers have given me the most terrible guilt I have ever felt after their requests to the top management were turned down. Keep this in mind: if someone from your team asks you to forward a request on their behalf to the management steps-in-the-ladder above you and that request is denied by some guy at the top, the guy in your team will always privately believe – no matter your pleadings to the contrary – that you had recommended that the request be turned down. At the very best, they will believe that you did not push that request hard enough with the top guys. But, you are lucky if they believe that and leave it at that. The bigger threat is if your team starts believing that you just don’t have enough influence with the top management to get things done for them. That is when they start by-passing you. And that is when things start breaking down and that is when you should quietly step down.

And you thought the project manager had nothing to do all day !

I personally believe that project managers are capitalist and union leader rolled into one – like those 2-in-1s that were so popular in the 90s.The project manager is expected to understand the pressures that both sides of the bridge face. He is expected to relate equally to both the sides of the bridge plus he has to manage such that each side thinks he is batting for them. Without further lecture, some tips based on my own humble experience:

1) Talk the language: Learn the language spoken on both sides of the bridge. And I am not just referring to technical and management jargon such as webservices, repeat business, JSF, realizations etc. I am referring to the unique way developers refer to so-and-so manager and so-and-so customer. I am referring to the way relationship managers talk about business, proposals, sales figures etc.

2) Take a coffee break: I have found this useful after everything else failed. I have learnt to accompany my team when they went out for their coffee breaks. It gave me a pulse of what people were thinking. At first, they were careful not to spill the beans in front of me. But slowly, they started ignoring me and opening up. Not only did I feel a part of their posse, I also really understood why they did or felt what they did. I used the same coffee break idea on my supervisors and got a feel for their pressures.

3) Listen: This is so simple that it is easy to neglect it. When people come to you with a problem or a request, do not clog your mind with thoughts on how to respond – instead, just listen. More often than not, I have realized that when you let people talk without interruption, it gives them an outlet. Once they have said their piece, they feel lighter. Most often, what looks like a request (coming from your team) or a demand (coming from your boss) is just a pent-up frustration. They need to feel that someone is ready to listen to their side. If they corner you for a response, tell them you will need some time to think about it.

4) Take the emotion out of the discussion: Like no.3 above, this one involves a lot of listening. Add to that, some self-control. I have noticed that when someone brings something emotional to the table (such as a promotion, a customer escalation etc), as long as I do not react on the spot, things seem to work out fine. Once I let slip an emotional response, things start falling apart. Like I said above, sometimes it is just a matter of finding someone to listen. As a project manager, you have to set aside your own frustrations, emotions. When someone is having an emotional outburst in front of you, imagine that you are a journalist. You are taking notes so you can report the conversation verbatim in a newspaper article. Once it is done, tell the other person that you have understood that they have such-and-such grievance and they would like such-and-such action to be taken by so-and-so. Tell them you will get back to them. Never, I repeat, never make a decision on the spot. They are emotional, you are on the pot, things are on the boil. Your decision will only aggravate the situation.

 5) Be a chameleon but do not bad-mouth: I will admit that I am guilty of some of this. As a project manager, you have to maintain the perfect balance of changing colors every time you talk to one of the sides without bad-mouthing the other side. When talking to your manager, tell them you understand the pain of working with people who do not understand the business, but do not go ahead and say that so-and-so developer is no good. Repeat with developers: while you are empathizing with them about how management never understands the pressures of development, try not to pick  on a manager. I know, once you are in the flow, it is terribly difficult to control the urge to criticize people. (In transactional analysis, Dr Berne describes a game called “Isn’t it awful !” where players take turns in describing how pathetic a situation is without either trying to fix the problem at hand. The game is all about escaping responsibility. Check out Dr Berne’s excellent book  Games People Play )

I do not  know if you still believe project managers have nothing to do all day…maybe they do not. But I believe they are a critical hinge in the organization.

Do not agree ? Sigh !

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