Choosing Your Battles


Somewhere along the way, I may have misled you into thinking that being a project manager is all sunshine and roses. But in reality, we truly need to have tough skin to get through our day and know which battles we need to fight and which ones we should just let lie.

As project managers, we understand not everyone has that bit of obsessive-compulsive mentality when it comes to organizing projects. In my role at Chicago Cloud Group, I also dig into document reviews and some back-end Salesforce work. When I’m reviewing a document, the slightest thing will catch my eye that could be as simple as noticing one paragraph is spaced at just more than single space while the rest all match. Could I make note of that and give my edits back? Or could I go ahead and make the update? That answer all depends on how complex or time consuming the task will be. It also depends on the document’s writer. By making a comment on the document, I’m allowing the writer to learn and better their own skills. As any of you know who have tried to edit your own work, we are better with a fresh set of eyes to help catch the little things we may have missed. When it’s simple things like paragraph spacing, a misspelled word or missing punctuation, I will go ahead and make the change. When the edits are more in-depth or need additional clarification, I choose to make note of it so the writer can then make the update. Editing a document is an easier scenario than most project management battles.

I’ve blogged before about knowing different personalities and styles. This goes for more than just conversations. Before I sit down to review a document or plan out a project, I make a few mental notes of whom I’m working with on said project. If there are multiple people on the project team, I need to know if I’m handling them all in a different way and, of course, which battles am I going to fight? Not all projects are a battle. In fact, I do feel that most of my job is actually sunshine and roses. Why? Because I truly love what I do and the people who work with me. I know, I know, we don’t all find that perfect job in the perfect location with the perfect co-workers. But I have found that, and I’m going to use it to my advantage.

Say we have a project task that is coming up due and I notice in our daily or weekly check-ins that this task has not been started. At this point, I will do a gentle reminder of the upcoming due date and review the proposed amount of time this task will take. Most times, we are able to give a span of time to complete the task. So, if I have a task that is due on Friday but I know it’s only going to take me two hours, and I’m able to spread that time across a couple of days, I can then schedule other tasks around that one and am still able to complete it by its Friday deadline. I take that same mindset into managing tasks for others. Our planned effort is how much time the actual task is going to take to complete while the duration is how long you have to complete that task. As in the example above, my planned effort is two hours, but I have two days to get those hours in for the task completion. Planned effort and duration can be very confusing to those who are not regularly using project management lingo. Leave that to the experts.

When I am reaching out to the task owner to discuss their upcoming or now overdue task, I am also looking at the slack I’ve given to the next task. Slack is the extra padding between duration and planned effort. If my next task has some extra padding that I am able to adjust, I’m going to go ahead and adjust the pending overdue task along with the next task all while still keeping the project on target for its deadline. However, if that successor task does not have much if any leeway, now is the time for me to pick the task battle. I’ve done the gentle reminder already but now we need to evaluate the other tasks and projects that are causing this task to fall behind. I make it sound like it’s a fight when I call it a ‘battle’ but really, it’s just a review. As the project manager, it’s my role to help keep projects on time. When I’m evaluating the other projects and tasks for this co-worker, I need to take into account their overall workload. Do I need to bring in additional resources? Can the other projects tasks be pushed? Or are we truly ok with the timeframe we have set and no further adjustment needs to be made? When one task falls behind, it can cause a domino effect for the remaining tasks and could potentially affect other projects deadlines as well.

It’s all a balancing act. Personalities, skill sets, available time, and workload are all factors that come into play when determining if I will need to step in to fight the deadline battle. We do not enjoy having to tell a stakeholder that their project is not going to be completed on time. Sometimes though, it is inevitable due to factors out of our control. The bottom line is that not every overdue task is a fire. When creating a project plan, the easiest way to avoid a potential fire is to create some slack. The task owner knows when the task is due and how much time it will take them to complete it. What they don’t know is I am giving them a buffer for any urgent tasks that may come their way.

Even though I am watching the project progress through the project plan, I will never pretend to be the drill sergeant coming after everyone about their tasks. There is almost always an alternative plan that can be created and still be able to meet the deadlines.

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