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The flexible project manager

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Some situations call for stubborn and rigid resource, customer and project management. Be stubborn, stick to your guns, be unwavering. You know the drill. But as a project manager you know that will only get you so far when you’re dealing with clients who are somewhat vague on what they need you to do for them. They’re relying on your expertise and creativity to guide them down a path that they kind of know they need to be on. At the end of that path may be a solution that they have no idea or concept of – but they’re certainly hoping that you do – or you will soon.

In the world of project management it is important to make good decisions and stick to them, but you’re going to have to be flexible on every engagement – it’s just how the world of project management works. But know the boundaries; with the right amount of flexibility, the customer will love you forever. Go overboard or remain unwavering and you may not finish out the current project.

Here are two scenarios that can be categorised as flexible examples...

Don't be thin skinned – be open to criticism. The ability to give and take criticism can actually mean that you’ve ‘arrived’ as an experienced project manager and IT professional. Once you have the confidence level with your project management or consulting expertise to be able give criticism where it is due and also take criticism constructively and use it to your advantage to better yourself, then you know you’re in a good place. Less experienced project managers may wilt when criticised and it may greatly affect their confidence level for the rest of the engagement. They may also be unable to critique and criticise others constructively because they lack confidence in their own judgment. 

I was being paid by a CEO of a small data management organisation to run several projects for him a few years ago. I adhered to the first point; to be open to criticism and thus flexible in how I worked. He wanted me to basically act in his role at times and lead weekly meetings for the entire staff to get status updates while also running these projects. My first inclination was to ask each person to prepare and submit a status report to me so that I could compile a company status report and agenda for the meeting. It's how I do things. He said, “You can’t ask them to do that – just hold the meeting.” Needless to say, I was flexible and ‘just held the meeting’ even though attendance continued to be as sparse as it was before, no one took it seriously and then, at the end of my consulting run, he criticised my project management abilities. All of this even though I successfully led projects for him for several months and all of his clients were satisfied with the outcomes on their projects. There are times when your customer is unpleasant and wrong. Be aware.

That engagement was a lesson because I could really see early on that the client was going to be a little difficult. But, I bent to their wishes and didn’t end up with a really satisfied client; I was, however, able to make good money while I was consulting for them. In this example, my openness to their criticism and flexibility paid off financially for me, but not in maintaining a long-term relationship with the client. In the end I was confident with that because I was able to take the criticism in the context it was given and move on to the next client.

Be open-minded to new ways of doing things. As an experienced IT project manager you undoubtedly have a set way you like to do things. You have templates for proposals, status reporting, invoices and meeting notes. You do things pretty much the same for each client to get things underway on an assignment. And if you’re part of an organisation or PMO and not working independently as a consultant, then there are definitely processes and templates that you are expected to follow. But every once in a while, you run across that client who has their own processes and plans for how things are going to go. Right? You won’t win them over by being inflexible. 

Rather than fight them, be open to their processes and how they want things done. How they do things may be governed more by accounting or business objectives than your stakeholders' desires. As your project progresses you can look for ways to show them how your processes or templates may enhance the engagement and drive the relationship to a more organised and successful conclusion.

Summary / call for input

Whether you’re working to satisfy that less than easy-to-work-with client in order to maintain the working relationship, or you understand there’s no pleasing them but you want to maintain the working relationship as long as possible to get the money out of the engagement that you had counted on, there are times when flexibility is necessary – and can pay off nicely.

The experienced IT project manager sees these situations in advance and acts accordingly. The new project manager begins to learn from engagements that just didn’t go very well and becomes more flexible when necessary for future projects. Either way, the key is to become aware, learn along the way and look for ways to keep those more difficult clients on your radar screen as long as possible.

Readers – do you agree with these two scenarios? Please share examples where you needed to show flexibility in order to get through a project engagement.



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