Project Reality Check #12: The Power of Powerlessness!

by Gary Monti on March 9, 2011

Powerlessness brings its own power.  A word of caution is needed, though. Using the power that comes with powerlessness can stir up a hornet’s nest. Having said that, let’s dive in.

“One Question” Revisited: The Short Version

In the previous blog, Frame of Mind, one question was mentioned as being central, “What happens when you follow the rules?” A variation of that question applies here.

What rules apply to this project, how do you see them used, and what is your part?

Ask this of the stakeholder population from client(s) to team members. Look at what is required for the project to succeed. Perform a gap analysis and, voila, you will have a picture of just how far the project can or can’t go. Publish the picture. Do what you can.

There, that was easy. Or was it?

“One Question” Revisited: The Long Version

An important character trait was left out of the mix, one that turns things on their collective head – Expectations. People want what they want when they want it. This includes expecting underfunded, understaffed, underspecified, time-pressured sows ears (contracts) being turned into silk purses (deliverables).

What to do? If the project manager has enough authority then that is sufficient to create the necessary change orders. Without that authority the project manager needs substantial power from another source – himself. The necessary character traits include:

  • Acceptance which answers the question, “What can we do with the committed resources we have? If you listen hard you’ll hear earned value in the background;
  • Willingness to speak honestly without being judgmental is delivering that picture mentioned above. The project is as it is;
  • Humility is very important. It simply is – stating personal, team, and project limits. It also has another aspect, which shows up when combined with the next character trait;
  • Courage is the ability to stick with all of the above in the face of expectations. Humility comes into play with courage when the bombardment of expectations starts raining down. The PM can speak something like this, “You seem very confident this can be accomplished and have stated the team SHOULD be able to do it. Why do you believe that? Who has succeeded at this before? I need to seek them out and learn.”

There is a responsibility with this last approach, i.e., efforts to do the ear-purse conversion have been tested and legitimate barriers have been reached or there is credible lessons-learned available that bring into doubt the probability of success. At the very least a good resource assessment has been performed and comes up wanting.

What To Do

Stay with the humility by avoiding saying, “No.” Simply state what is needed to achieve the goals.  Approach from a humble position. It shows respect and empathy. Keep the focus on the gap. Whatever you do, keep the conversation open and stay with trying to make things work. But also stay humble and avoid turning away from the limits of the situation.

Caution: Avoid Magical Thinking

I want to close this blog with words from one of my mentors from long ago, “When there is no project let go of the situation BEFORE you get the ulcer. No amount of badgering, whining, aggression, or anxiety can magically multiply commitments. Others have to pony up. As PM you are one person who can work maybe 50 or more hours for brief periods.”

It’s simple. Stay in touch with the real limits and don’t flinch. Now, that is hard!

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