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What can Project Managers learn from Coaching?


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Being a Project Manager in my opinion, is more an art than a science. Although there are global standards about best in class Project Management practices like the PMI or Prince 2 or lately Agile philosophies, at the end of the day it comes to the same struggle: How can we as a team achieve successfully  the delivery of a desired product or service that is satisfying the needs of the customer? How can we do so without dying on the intent, on the vast sea of unpredictable events, stakeholders, organisational universe, customers, governments and alike?

Is it a matter of doing a perfectly and detailed project plan including all potential risks seen and unforeseen? is it a matter of defining the whole product to the best of the detail and follow the execution to the letter? Is it then more a way of finding the right sponsor and get enough support from senior management so we get not so many limitations when we need to do unpredictable project changes? is it about us?

Where else can a Project Manager really add value, apart from the traditional coordination and controlling roles? I remember once, I received an advice from a fellow Project Manager regarding what is the central aspect of this role: “To be a Project Manager, you don’t need to know a lot about the product or the industry. All you have to do is to know who needs to do what and by when, and make sure everybody follows the plan”. Even though part of it is true, I had the feeling something was missing from this definition.

In recent years, the concept of “Servant Leadership” has become popular, specially in the Agile world, but actually it is expanding as well to the classical Project Management. The concept of Servant Leadership was first used by Robert K. Greenleaf, and the definition goes like this:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature”.

This new way of seeing leadership opened my mind and my awareness of what really means lo lead in a higher level of awareness- away from the Ego, away from the material things, away from the need to proof anything. We as Project Managers, often fall into a “Victim” role which is also passed to the Team, when things don’t go right: “It was the fault of the customer who gave late the requirements. It was the fault of X department that did not delivered on time what we asked. The supplier Y increased the cost last minute so we had to increase our project budget”. We invest more time analysing excuses and problems, find someone to blame, and making plans to avoid them instead of confronting the issue and moving rapidly to action- what can we do to fix it? What can we do to serve our client better, our suppliers, our stakeholders better? What do we need to do to CHANGE?

Recently, I started my journey as a Coach. As I’m digging into this world, I reconnected to some of the classic- yet often forgotten- skills, that can be very powerful when are put in practice. This simple skills can completely change your relationships your clients, your team, your organisation… And really unlock the collaborative potential and move faster into action driven goals, with faith and enthusiasm.

I find personally the following four Coach Skills the most powerful to apply as Project Managers:

1. Active listening

In order to be a powerful listener, you have to be able to focus in what the other person is saying without getting distracted. It requires a very intense focus and to put yourself and your own thoughts aside, to listen to another. Seems easy to do, but in reality is much harder to really implement. How many times have you caught yourself in the middle of meetings, “listening” to your team, when they are discussing the status of activities, and  before they even finish, you are already thinking what are you gonna ask or respond next? and analysing if what they say fits with your idea or definition of things done right?

As Bryan Bell says: “A little recognised value of listening and inquiring relates to the realisation that in human relationships, it is frequently not what the facts are, but what people think the facts are, which is truly important”. If we would listen more than talk, you give a genuine sign of respect to the person we are talking to, which automatically generates the other person to be more receptive and empathetic as well.

This valuable skill would greatly benefit our Project Management practice. Some good tips about how can we become active listeners are:

  1. Listen attentively, with no distractions, and give your complete attention to the person speaking.

  2. Paraphrase- Verify what the person is saying by summarising and repeating back their own words. This is also a great strategy when dealing with unhappy customers. “What I heard your concern is….”; “What I understood you saying was…”.

  3. Identify perceptions- During a conversation, you can observe as well the emotional side of the discussions. Changes of energy and tones of voice, which often detect what is NOT being said.

  4. Wait few more seconds before responding. Never interrupt someone before finishing speaking. The space we allow ourselves between what is being said and your response allows you to wrap up your thoughts and gives you a better chance to respond accordingly instead of rushing a random answer as reaction.

2. Powerful questioning

This skill goes hand in hand with active listening. As human beings, we develop a certain pattern of thought, which dominates not only our inner thinking, but also our behaviour. One of our best skillsets as Project Managers is our ability to ask the right questions during a Project Meeting and during the entire Project-Life cycle, in order to get the best information possible about the Project status and the forward actions for completion.

Ordinary questions, result in ordinary answers. Powerful questions, triggers groundbreaking answers. As Project Managers, it is of vital importance to find the “Truth” of actions, getting to the heart of a matter, to really understand what is going on in the Projects. When we can find the “Truth”, we can trigger powerful action plans that are better aligned to reaching the desired goals. Powerful questions are the drivers of changing strategies, sharpen visions and build the change platform needed.

Some good questions you can use in your praxis:

  1. If you were not to hold back in your life, what would you be doing?

  2. If you knew you were vital to this organisation’s success, how would you approach your work?

  3. If you were to become chief executive, what problem would you solve first, and how would you do it?

  4. If things could be exactly right for you in this situation, how would they have had to change?

  5. If you would have no limits on resources, how would you solve this particular problem?

As important as it is to ask powerful questions, we must create as well the right environment for them. A good environment for powerful questioning is to keep yourself free of judgement. Perception of being judgemental disables the team ability to respond with the truth, and the whole value of questioning loses its purpose. Allow as well enough time for people to think through the question and respond. Silence can be your best friend. In western cultures, silence is perceived as something awkward or negative. However, silence is highly valued in other ancient cultures, which relate silence as a sign of wisdom and inner calmness.

3. Acknowledgement

When was the last time you gave a sincere, meaningful compliment to someone? when was it the last time you received one?

Acknowledgement is a gift. It is a pure giving act where you put yourself completely out to recognise the wonderful capabilities of other people. If used properly, this skill can be very powerful to the growth of individuals and teams. This is also linked to the concept of reinforcing strengths and focus on them rather than spending time in talking about your weaknesses. But Acknowledgement can go a step further: It helps people feel appreciated for their work and their efforts.

Acknowledgement is different than praising. When you praise someone, it carries judgement. When a team member meets a desirable expectation, defined by your own terms, you provide a praise: “Bob, you did a great job by delivering that report on time, complying to the project timelines”. That carries an expectation that has been fulfilled, an affirmation of the job being done and a judgement. When you acknowledge someone, you recognise something extraordinary about a person, without any form of judgement: “Bob, I would like to acknowledge your capacity of dealing with multiple tasks and manage to deliver them all on time and in quality”

This skill, can be at the core center of Coaching and Project Management. When you reinforce people’s talents and capabilities, people will act at their best and will look for opportunities to grow. Their personal grow will result in the collective organisational growth and success.

4. Release individual judgements

We judge all the time, consciously and unconsciously. We have always an opinion about what is good or bad, a good KPI or a bad KPI. Good weather or bad weather. Where does this comes from? How can you tell one team member performed better than the other? When is a project considered success and another a failure?

Expert judgement is a core process and skill in Project Management. We value expert judgement in times where there is no other reliable data available to assess specific situations in an organisational or environmental context affecting the project. Judgement is provided by experts from those specific areas we look for more specific knowledge and understanding ground for action. This is a type of judgement that is very often needed and accepted in order to execute projects with the best possible information available.

However, when it comes to Team Management, judgement of people’s capabilities as  individuals can harm the Project in ways that are not easily visible and often neglected.

When we as Project Managers develop performance measurements focused on people’s individual performances, based on a standard definition of performance, that person will be driven to achieve results that reflect his/her own achievements, but not necessarily will look that the collective Project objectives are met. They will have enough pressure to keep a certain reputation, and level of performance, that there will be no room left for thinking beyond one self.

To release individual judgement in the Project Management praxis is challenging and requires a new mindset in a way projects are driven. However, is worthwhile to think that when we focus our energy on judgements, we are putting a lot of attention in what is separating us, instead of what is holding us together. Our roles as Project Managers should be to find what is holding us together. Shared accountability of goals without looking at specific individual performances.

A judgement-free environment, energises and mobilises the teams to reach common objectives. You create an environment of creativity, innovation and persistent action, guided by a collective desire. To empower people you need to let go judgements or so called “success-factors” that are individual driven.

As quoted by Tiela Gernett: “The only way we can truly assist anyone in a challenging process is by releasing all judgment and seeing her or him for the empowered being that they truly are”.

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