How Working Together as a Team Diffuses Project Management Heat

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Things heat up every day on our jobs as project managers. Misunderstandings arise, dates are missed, and sometimes tempers flare. What can a project manager do to cool things down? The following article provides insight into areas that generate heat and how you can bring things down to a reasonable temperature again.
When a space shuttle reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, the friction exerted on its bottom surface creates heat up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit . To protect shuttles from these ridiculously high temperatures, NASA scientists developed heat resistant tiles. These ingenious tiles are made from compressed amorphous silica fiber (sand melted into glass fibers), which absorb, deflect and sufficiently diffuse the heat of re-entry. On average, each shuttle has 24,000 tiles protecting the vehicle and its crew, and each one is important.
On February 1, 2003 the Columbia space shuttle broke up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The cause of the disaster was traced back to a briefcase-sized chunk of foam insulation falling from the main propellant tank, hitting the leading edge of the left wing and damaging some of the tiles that protected the shuttle. Upon reentry, hot gases penetrated the damaged area and destroyed the internal wing structure. This resulted in the demise of the shuttle and all seven astronauts on board.
Foregoing this disastrous flight, the heat shields protected well over 100 shuttle reentries into the atmosphere without incident.  It only took damage to the tiniest fraction of tiles for all 24,000 to be compromised.

What Can Cause Heat in Our Project Management Jobs

Heat is caused by friction. Friction is the resistance
 that one surface or object encounters when moving over another.

There are plenty of opportunities for heat to be generated in our jobs as project managers. Most newly formed companies create heat right out of the gate, as the nature of business is to create the most value out of limited resources. This means that there’s never enough time, people, or resources to get the job done. People always want more for less, or want everything faster, which sets the stage for emotions to escalate in times of stress or conflict.
When other elements that create even more friction are introduced in the workplace, temperatures will quickly rise. For example:
  • Personality Conflicts – There are people that you absolutely LOVE working with each day. You share common interests, enjoy each other’s company, and genuinely look forward to working with them on your projects. On the other hand, there are some people that you absolutely DO NOT LOVE working with each day. Just seeing them walk into the conference room makes your blood pressure rise. Maybe their personality rubs you the wrong way, they are too loud or lack tact, or have a tendency to not follow through on what they say they are going to do.Guess what? You might not be their favorite person either.Every person in your company has certain feelings about everyone else, which can create a hotbed of personality conflict.
  • Hard to Please Clients – A large cause of friction on many projects are clients that are hard to please. These are the clients that start the relationship with “I’m not sure what I like, but come up with some options and I’ll tell you what I don’t like.”There are clients that don’t honor their own commitments but expect you to honor yours, even if your commitments are dependent on them following through with theirs. You will have interesting and heated conversations with your team as you work through unreasonable client demands or timelines.
  • Changing Direction – If your company constantly changes direction, that instability can be a very real source of friction.You’re scared to go in each Monday and hear what game-changing silver bullet the executive team conjured up over the weekend that will take the company to the next level…for this week at least. You can just hear the gears grinding against each other as you bring your project team to a full stop and make a 180 degree U-turn. Priorities must be shuffled around, gears changed, and you now must ramp up new teams on new projects.
  • Plain Ol’ Mistakes – Yes, plain ol’ mistakes 
    can introduce great friction and heat in a company.For example, a project may have been sold to a client but was terribly underestimated, and now there is some confusion about what is to be delivered. The contract was written so nebulously that it could be interpreted either way.You and your team are now stuck working on a dog of a project that is doing nothing but costing the company money.

How to Work Together to Diffuse Some of the Heat

There are plenty of opportunities for heat to be generated on our projects. But, like the tiles on the space shuttle it’s important for everyone to work to dissipate the heat. The following are some opportunities where you can make this happen:
  • United Front to Management – Let’s say you and some of the functional managers on your team are responsible for a mistake that caused some heat. Want to make the heat even more intense? Start pointing fingers at each other and try to blame someone else. That will be sure to create more friction.Rather, when a sizable mistake is made, it’s best to come together and take ownership of the problem. Meet with management as a team and explain the situation. Let them know what occurred, but more importantly, what solution has been developed to deal with the problem.The solution may not fix the problem 100%; however, it will definitely reduce the complications caused by the problem. Management will appreciate your upfront dealings, and your time won’t be wasted on blame-storming sessions.
    By the way, in order to pull this off, you need to have cultivated outstanding, trusting relationships with the key members of your project and extended teams (like functional managers).
  • Hold a Reset Meeting – Are your clients out of 
    Reset meeting
    control and not pleased with what you’ve done? Is nothing good enough for them? It may be time for a reset meeting to dispel some of the heat. This is a time when your company should work together as a team with the client to hit the reset button. Present a candid and united front to your clients. Let them know that you are aware of some shortcomings on the part of your company and what you are going to do to improve in these areas. Also, point out areas that your client can improve that will make the relationship work better. It’s always a two-way street, and you should never go in saying that everything is your fault.I worked with a company that unofficially included a reset meeting as part of the project plan! It was given a different name like “3-Month Regroup,” but the purpose of the meeting was to work together and reset expectations. It would take the heat off for three or four months until it was time for the next regroup.
  • United Front to Stakeholders – The reverse of a united front to management is for management to present a united front to all those who are all involved in a project. There may be a couple of executives who don’t fully support an initiative in progress, and are lobbying for the company to move in different directions. It’s important for them to keep these discussions amongst their executive peers and not with the rank and file of the project team. Otherwise, their disunity will divide loyalties and create more heat.
Just as 24,000 tiles must work together on the space shuttle to protect the ship and crew from heat, it’s important for the dozens of people working on projects in your company to work together.  Unity will keep everyone cool and protect against heat generated from both internal and external sources.


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