Hiring Smart People Is Not Enough

From time to time, I come across someone who argues that they don’t need to know how to manage projects. They have hired smart people, and those people know what to do.

Even if we assume that those smart people are also reasonably nice and willing to collaborate with the rest of the team, hiring smart people is only the first step. You still need some project management skills. You don’t necessarily need to be the project manager on all the projects for which you are responsible, but you’ll have an easier time managing your team if you have some project management skills.

In some ways, project management skills are even more important if you’ve assembled a team of smart people who have the experience to know what needs to be done. These are exactly the sort of people who are most likely to be annoyed, and perhaps even insulted, by any hint of micromanagement or second-guessing from you. And yet, you as the boss need to be sure that the work that is getting done aligns with your goals, and you need to make sure you are aware of any issues that the team is facing.

Even if you are 100% certain that no one on the team would ever slack off or take advantage of a lack of oversight, you need to provide oversight. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • People may misunderstand the goals, and sometimes the only way to know that they have misunderstood is by the mismatch between what they produce and the actual goals. The sooner you notice that mismatch, the less time and money are wasted, and the less frustration is produced.
  • Sometimes two team members disagree on something. Sure, they might “work it out themselves,” but if this happens a lot, one of them is likely to leave, particularly if that person doesn’t feel like his or her voice is being heard when they “work it out themselves.”
  • Your team might run into a problem that you could solve for them, but that they don’t realize you could solve so they bash away at. Again, the sooner you notice this, the less time and money get wasted, and the less frustration everyone experiences.
  • Someone might be facing an issue outside of work that is reducing their productivity. You need to notice this so that you can find a solution that is fair to that person and keeps your projects on track.

And so on. People are human, sh** happens, and your job is to deal with it. It is almost always easier to deal with it if you notice it sooner. Noticing it sooner requires oversight. How do you provide that oversight without micromanaging? By applying some project management skills.

Here are the top three skills I think are most helpful for this purpose:

Train off the rails
Don’t let this happen to your projects! Image: Louise Docker. © Creative Commons license

Tracking progress against some sort of plan. This doesn’t have to be a Gantt chart or a work breakdown structure. There are many different ways to develop and capture an overall plan for the work you need to do, and which is most appropriate depends heavily on your specific situation. But if you can’t track your team’s progress against the overall plan, you will have a hard time telling when things are going off the rails, and chances are your first hint of a problem will be the inevitable train wreck.

Understanding dependencies. If Joe comes and tells you that he’s run into unexpected complications and needs an extra month to complete his current project, do you know how this will impact Mary’s related project? If not, you won’t be able to mitigate this impact, and you’ve probably just set Mary up for a load of trouble. Who will get the blame when that trouble comes? Probably not Joe, because you have no idea that his delay is what caused Mary’s problems. Not only is this a problem for Mary’s project, but if this happens too often, Mary is likely to get fed up and leave.

Having an overall communication plan. Communication is more than just talking. Your communication plan includes how you will get updates from your team, and how you will share important information with your team. If you have ane explicit communication plan and share it with your team, they are less likely to view check ins as micromanagement. Instead, they’ll see them as part of your plan for staying in the loop. This does not need to be anything formal or over-bearing. It could be as simple as telling each new hire “how things work.” If you don’t tell them, you might find they are interpretting your actions through expectations set by previous managers or their own management ideas. This may or may not go well for you.

There are other project management skills that I think are essential if you’re actually the one managing the project (e.g., risk management, managing competing priorities). However, I think that even managers who rely on someone else (or the team as a whole) to do the day-to-day project management should learn these project management skills, because they make it possible to manage the work, and not micromanage the people doing the work. Then the smart people you have hired are more likely to stay, and to coalesce into a team that truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

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