Project management is probably one of the most difficult roles in this industry to define. Countless articles, blog posts, and books will give you varying definitions. Expectations of project leads are likely to change depending on your organization, your team, and the project you are working on. If you were to try polling a sample group of PMs, they would tell you that they all entered this field along wildly different paths. For a long time, I kept asking myself the chicken and the egg question: Does a person become a PM because of their personality and their gifts? Or are their personality traits shaped through their experiences as a project manager?
When I first got into project management, I thought I could be successful in this role because of my organizational skills and attention to detail. I wanted so badly for my abilities to fit within the business’ structure and for them to boost the success of our projects. But after a while, I realized that “good project management” does not ask that I fit neatly within existing structures. In fact, the best project management that I can offer my team combines my unique skills and my unique shortcomings. It requires me to sit comfortably in my humanity even when I have to challenge the status quo.
Instead of striving to be more like the technology we are building and using, we should build and use the technology to amplify our humanity.
Reflecting on my work career, I realize that every job I’ve ever held has been service-oriented. From retail to restaurants, from marketing coordination to account management, I have consistently found my home in jobs that require me to be my most human self in service of other humans. And the longer I manage people and projects, the more I see project management—more than many others in this industry—as a role where humans are in service to other humans.
Project management is a job that requires an astute awareness of people. Good PMs must be able to understand non-verbal communication, to look beyond the immediate (and potentially emotional) reactions of the people they work with, and—most importantly—to understand themselves as people. We are doing much more than creating schedules, documenting risks, and enforcing deadlines. The value that we bring to project teams far exceeds our ability to track progress towards a budget. One of my most important roles as a PM is to remember (and to remind others) that the members of my project team are not task-robots; they are creative, unique, and flawed human beings just like me.
And just like me, they need encouragement. They need guidance, affirmation, and context. They need to feel included, valued, and that their work is contributing to something important. They need structure and they need to know how they fit into a larger picture. That’s where I come in. My responsibility is to let my team know the value of their work and how they are helping to meet the needs of our clients and stakeholders. The best and most valuable thing I can do for my team is to relate to them as humans and to validate their humanity.
As project managers, we can often lose ourselves in all the tasks, tools, milestones, and methodologies. After all, that is how the effectiveness of our role is often measured. But in defining project management by a checklist of PM tasks, we lose what makes us great project managers. I believe that we can define good project management by the measure of humanity that is in us as project managers. And I believe that we can get better by embracing the unique, special humanity that is different in each of us.
Looking back over my life, I realize how often I’ve diminished my unique humanity to fit into a mould that was comfortable for others. And that same mould informed my initial understanding of what made a good project manager. I attempted to fit the partially formed, frequently changing expectations of a project manager that required me to be small and taciturn, docile and acquiescent. But as I prepared for my final assignment at the end of the Louder Than Ten Apprenticeship, I saw unmistakable evidence that this goal of “meeting expectations” was actually self-deprecation. I re-watched videos from the beginning, middle, and end of our class series and noticed how my body language and my voice in early videos always said: “Be quiet. Be small. Don’t make waves. Don’t disrupt others.” While this may or may not have been perceptible to those around me, I recognized it as an unconscious mantra I had been repeating for a very long time.
I’m learning to insert myself into conversations that concern my team, to not be afraid of intimidating others, and to even relish the moments I am seen as “different.”
I am aware that who I am can overwhelm and intimidate others. Often times people are taken aback by those who do not apologize for their strong voices—especially when they are women. And people find it even more unsettling when they see strong women who aren’t run by their emotions. They find it difficult to understand and predict (and, for those people with less than good intentions, to manipulate) these people. This is why, over the years, I had learned to make myself smaller so as not to make others around me uncomfortable. I did my best to fit neatly into an existing system without causing any ripples, disruption, or discomfort. Reviewing those class recordings made this painfully visible.
But as a result of this realization, I am also gaining (or regaining) the ability to live in the fullness of my power. Making my voice smaller diminishes my effectiveness as a project manager. I am a skilled and well-trained PM; I am an expert in my field. As a member of my project teams (and the one who often has the widest view), I can see the pain points in our processes and communication that need to be called out and addressed. But making myself small and quiet defeats that purpose. It invalidates my knowledge, experience, and training, and sabotages the unique perspective that I have. Trying to fit into someone else’s definition of a “good project manager” will almost always exclude my special skills and experience—the things that make me good at the job I love to do.
Now, instead of trying to conform to others’ expectations, I’m learning to be disruptive. I’m learning to insert myself into conversations that concern my team, to not be afraid of intimidating others, and to even relish the moments I am seen as “different.” In my role as a project manager, I must be able and allowed to stretch my arms and reach the fullness of my capabilities. I don’t need to fit into what already exists or do what others in my place have done. In fact, I shouldn’t.
I am not pretending that I have learned everything; understanding my strengths involves understanding when I need to ask for help. And being honest about that helps me be honest with others. I can now be comfortable in situations where I may make others uncomfortable. I can now say the things others might not want to say (or hear) and I can challenge my team and my organization to be even better than we are. I can do this as a project manager because I know in my heart that what I am doing is always done to better my projects, my team, and the people’s lives we have committed to improving.
Lina delivering her first talk, The Importance of Asking “Why”, at the 2018 Digital PM Summit.
“Be quiet. Be small. Don’t make waves. Don’t disrupt others…” I recognized an unconscious mantra I had been repeating for a very long time.
The business world can be a cold, lonely space; the tech sector, even more so. Digital technology inherently makes it feel like there is a gap between ourselves and the work that we do. And when we are competing with robots and algorithms for our jobs, too often it feels as though, in order to succeed, we need to become more robotic. But in fact, the way we succeed is by becoming more human.
Instead of striving to be more like the technology we are building and using, we should build and use the technology to amplify our humanity. This is true for many roles in our industry, but it is especially true for project managers. We have to be careful not to make ourselves walking PM tools. Yes, it’s our responsibility to make sure that a project gets carried to completion. But it is also our responsibility to make sure that we are building the right thing in the right way and that it serves the right people. And this requires us to be people—to validate and encourage the humanity of our teams and to pay close attention to the humans we are designing and building for.
We will always hear different and potentially conflicting definitions of what it is to be good at our roles. But we will also always be able to look inside of ourselves and know that our humanity, our empathy, our flaws, and our passion are what truly make us good at this job. We are here to serve others–our teams, our clients, our stakeholders, and our end users. If we can remember that, if we can keep reminding our teams of that, we will help this industry move away from a blind worship and dangerous embodiment of the technology we use and create.
What is it that makes you a good project manager? What are the unique strengths that set you apart? What is it about your extraordinary and honest humanity that makes you a leader on your project team? Hopefully, for most of us, these are questions we never stop asking ourselves. This is an ongoing journey and we are continuously evolving to become more dynamic individuals. The most important thing to remember is that we are all just people in service of other people.