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How to be a Project Manager, Not a Robot

By Abigail Galvin

Category Project Process

Date Published April 07, 2020

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“Sorry, that isn’t an option.”

“Oops, I didn’t quite get that.”

“Beep bop boop, cannot compute. Let's try that again?”

A Project Manager's role is to successfully guide a project from conception to completion, within a specific timeline and with a set number of resources. With experience, you develop a strong understanding of the project process and its cadence. And while we respect ‘the process’, it’s important to maintain a human touch. We are there to help find solutions - not robotically 🤖 respond when questions or challenges arise. Sometimes it’s the process that is causing the problems.

Sticking to a rigid process and canned responses will not only be annoying (how frustrating are automated bank service calls?!) but will prove to be a primary source for project challenges. It’s critical to identify when a situation is different or when a client's needs aren’t being met by the ‘typical’ process. We aren’t robots. If something clearly isn’t working - call it. Find a better way. We’re in this together.

Each of our clients come with their own personalities, team makeup, beyond-the-project workloads, and varying degrees of technical understanding. As PMs, this means we need to meet our clients where they are and help support and guide them in being a successful partner throughout their project. Sometimes we need to adjust the script and communicate differently, and sometimes the team has to adapt what they deliver to better resonate with a client.

Adapting your process doesn’t mean ditching project boundaries or timelines - it means finding a way to make it work. It means being tuned in. Having a finger on the pulse on what is happening with your client. Reading in between the lines of what is (or isn’t!) being said. Recognizing when the client is struggling and being the one to offer a helping hand.

How quickly a PM can diagnose an issue and pivot is critical, and styles vary. Personally, I focus on a human-first approach. This means human conversations. Video calls. Phone calls. Whatever it takes to listen, troubleshoot, and help find solutions together. This means less of a reliance on process for processes sake (because that’s how we’ve always done it! 🙃) and most definitely a reduced reliance on endless email threads.

What are some signs that your client might need something different?

Here are a few scenarios I have experienced in my years as a PM:

MIA Client

Is your client completely MIA? Time to pick up the phone.

  • They are out sick.
    • This comes with the territory - we are all human! Send them best wishes for a speedy recovery and offer to rework the schedule when they are back. This will be one less stressor on their plate as they recover.
  • They could be dealing with an organization crisis.
    • If this is the case, let them know you understand the urgency for their team’s attention to be elsewhere and you are there to support them where we can.
Overwhelmed Client

Is your client missing deadlines? Time to pick up the phone.

  • They could be overwhelmed by what is being requested.
    • Is it how things are being presented?
      • Offer an alternative method moving forward.
    • Is it the deliverable itself?
      • Offer a call with your team to talk through any questions or concerns.
    • Is it the timeline?
      • Share schedule options and talk through impacts.
Client struggling with feedback

Is your client struggling to give actionable feedback? Time to pick up the phone.

  • They may have never gone through a process like this before and feel lost.
    • Offer guidelines and prompting questions for their team to consider as they review the deliverable.
    • Share good examples of clear, actionable feedback.
  • They could be grappling with internal politics and struggling to get consensus.
    • Restate the previously agreed upon project objectives so personal opinions do not cloud judgement.

Remembering that there is a human being on the other side of the aisle is so important, because at the end of day we are all working towards the same goal - a successful project. 🙂