The Cure After Diagnosing a Bad Project Manager

Jan 23, 2014
15 Min Read

Project managers need to be great traffic cops, coordinators, and problem solvers. When they do their jobs right, they make everyone around them more effective. But when they’re bad — ouch. They can become the worst sort of bottleneck. How can you identify when it’s the project manager who’s the problem? What causes it? And what do you do about it?

Now, of course, I’m not talking about you, dear reader, but maybe the PMP one cubicle over, or the battleaxe from your last company, or that one guy on the Hardware team. You know the kind of person I mean, because their projects grind to a halt, create all kinds of collateral damage in the organization, or both.

Diagnosing a Bad Project Manager

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Our mythical bad project managers (let’s call them Dave and Marcy) might be the nicest and hardest-working people in the whole company. Dave might be someone you’d love to sit and watch a football game with. You might trust Marcy to take care of your pets while you’re out of the country for a month. But none of that matters if they create these problems consistently.

The work isn’t getting done. Project managers can be the victims of dysfunctional teams, policies, and even companies. Specs are changed, budgets are cut, people get shuttled on and off of the team. But what if Dave’s projects are consistently overdue? What if the stalled areas of his projects never seem to get unstuck? The art of project management is really the art of keeping things moving on a good cadence, come what may. Whether this is innate or learned, I’m not sure, but long observation tells me that some people have it and some people don’t. The fact that the work just keeps not getting done could be a good sign that Dave doesn’t have it.

Confused or angry stakeholders. If Marcy has to deal with that one sorehead from Purchasing who makes everyone’s life Hell, don’t blame Marcy. If Marcy is a high-touch manager while the executive sponsor of the project is severely hands-off, the difference in styles might be crippling. But if the problems are more widespread — and especially if they center around communication across the project team — the simplest place to start is with Marcy. My rule of thumb: If good, competent people coming at the project from various sides repeatedly express frustration, confusion, and even anger, it’s probably a sign of a real problem. One tell-tale sign is when you encounter negative body language, tone of voice, or back-channel conversation about how the project is being handled from both internal tech staff and external participants such as clients or vendors.

A trend, not an isolated incident. Dave gets a pass if he’s merely the latest victim to be handed that “snakebit” problem that no one has been able to solve. And Marcy can’t be blamed if she’s the fifth person in two years to inherit the orphaned project that can’t ever find a dedicated executive sponsor or budget. But if Dave and Marcy are bad project managers, you’ll see the signs over and over, even on fresh, well-funded projects with plenty of high-level backing.

Possible Roots of the Problem

There are probably as many ways to screw up complex problems as there are project managers running them. But from my experience, these three causes stand out.

1. Control-freakery. Being the project manager doesn’t mean you have to personally own — or even fully understand — every single aspect of a project. Sometimes, for example, if an engineering discussion is over your head, it’s enough to know that the engineering leads are clear and upbeat about their joint approach. Good project managers have a sort of intuition about when to dive into the details; they even (constructively) micro-manage the team to navigate through the tightest spots in the project plan. The good ones also know when to let go: If the business owner says something is “probably out of scope for this project” in two different meetings, a good project manager takes the hint. By contrast, the Marcys of the world keep driving everyone crazy with their control-freak tendencies.

2. “Busy”-ness. Yes, of course everyone’s schedule is super-hectic, and project managers often get it the worst. But it’s possible to over-identify with being “so busy” to the point that busy-ness turns into a crutch. A project manager should take the time to understand all aspects of the project adequately, and to listen to all stakeholders. The good ones often do this via super-short check-ins with key stakeholders, either one-on-one or in small standup-type meetings. If Dave can’t manage that, (a) the project needs to be reduced in scope, (b) he needs relief from other duties that are chewing up his time, or (c) he’s the wrong person for the job. You’ll know this one is a real problem if it takes Dave two weeks to slot half an hour to talk through your concerns about where the project is going.

3. The Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is a potential death knell for any project, and must be addressed as soon as it’s detected. In case you’re not familiar with this phenomenon: Dunning and Kruger were two Cornell psychologists who studied people’s workplace competence — and especially people’s understanding of their own competence. People who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect are “unconsciously incompetent.” In other words, Dave and Marcy can’t do the work well, but they think they’re doing just fine. (Contrast this to the work of the best performers you know, who typically always look to improve their efforts.)

When you encounter the Dunning-Kruger Effect, take any steps necessary to change the situation. In one formative experience from my own career, my team lead took some unspectacular but solid work that I had done and, in his incompetence, completely botched it before shoving it out the door. I was at a loss for what to do, since I was young and hadn’t been with the company long — yet I knew that his work wasn’t even marginally acceptable. Finally, I quietly brought it to the attention of his boss; she took care of it like an expert. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone who worked with that team lead when he left the company a few months later.

(And by the way: if you ever get cocky and think that the Dunning-Kruger effect couldn’t apply to you personally, keep in mind that that’s exactly how its sufferers think.)

Can a Bad Project Manager Be Cured?

What do you do with Dave and Marcy – or if you figure out that you are the Dave or Marcy of this story?

Change perspective. Project managers, I love you, but you have to realize that you’re prone to let yourself get caught down in the weeds of details. Gain some altitude so you can survey the whole landscape. If you’re the project manager — or if you can influence the project manager — focus on reconnecting the project’s details and timeline to its broader business purpose. These aren’t just dates and deliverables; they ought to mean something to the success of the business.

Sometimes this has to be achieved with a bit of management leverage. I remember one dogged PMP who kept banging on issues that the business owners kept telling her were A-OK. Finally, the senior executive attending a check-in meeting politely but bluntly said words to the effect of: “[Marcy], you need to take this one off the agenda for future meetings. It’s out of scope, and I’ll take it from here.”

Foster an environment for listening. Stay acutely attuned when smart people keep saying, “I don’t understand” or “Why are we bringing up this issue again?” Even more important, be willing to pull the emergency brake, whether you’re the project manager or not, when you realize that communication has broken down. Maybe the greatest commonality I’ve seen is that the best project managers listen and the worst ones don’t. Dave and Marcy might not like it, but they must make time to listen, or the project will fail.

Escalate artfully. Let’s assume that you’re a team member having to deal with a bad project manager. What do you do? I suggest these steps, taken in this order:

  1. Share your concerns in an informal 1-on-1 meeting. Do this face-to-face if possible. Sometimes people respond very well to a private word along the lines of, “Dave, do you get the sense that people aren’t on the same page with this project?” Heck, Dave may express relief that you see it, too — and even ask for your advice or help.
  2. Make your concerns even clearer with an informal tag-team approach. If step 1 doesn’t work, recruit an ally — ideally a respected project member such as an engineering lead. If you and the lead go to Dave to share your concerns, along with constructive ideas for next steps, that might take care of it.
  3. Copy out, then copy up. If the steps above haven’t worked, be sure that key peers are seeing your correspondence as you make good suggestions or ask clarifying questions. This allows others to chime in constructively, even with something as simple as, “I had the same question, Dave. Thanks for clearing this up.” If that doesn’t work, start to copy in the most relevant higher-ups, and frame their inclusion in terms of possible needs for more resources or overall project guidance. (You can be pretty sure you won’t get anywhere if you attack Dave directly.)
  4. Send up a signal flare to the higher-ups. If it comes to it, involve the boss, or even the Big Boss. I suggest doing this over lunch or by phone so that you won’t find your written words coming back to haunt you out of context. You can always frame your concerns in terms like, “There’s a lack of good communication across the teams” or “Dave seems to have a lot on his plate” or “I’m not sure Dave has the context he needs for this project.” But make sure that the bosses understand the bottleneck.

The moral of the story: Don’t sacrifice an entire project because of a project manager who can’t do the work.

If none of this solves the problem . . . things may be worse than you think, and it might be time to reevaluate everything — even your own role on the team or in the company.

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