Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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Are Your Project Managers Sheepwalkers?

There’s a phrase that I love in Seth Godin’s book Tribes where he talks about staff who are sheepwalkers. A sheepwalker is someone who has been raised to be obedient. To follow orders or the herd in the mistaken belief that this is what will make them successful.

I mentioned the concept of sheepwalking to a client last week.

We were talking about the prevalence within project management for organisations to ‘mandate’ process and methods as a mechanism to achieve consistently good project delivery.

In designing the program for the year, to take their people from administrators to leaders, we talked about the challenges we’ll face in creating a project department that is seen as unique, energetic, collaborative and a force for good within the organisation. My client summed up by telling me, “The challenge is to move them away from the process and over to their emotions.”

This challenge is not unique to project management. There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things in every profession. It’s just that, in my experience, project management seems to be the only profession where project managers have to be continually reminded about the ‘right’ way to do things. However, the ‘right’ way isn’t right at all.

This ‘right’ way - often written in a handbook or as a process on an intranet page - almost never describes the behaviours project managers need to exhibit, the collaboration methods they need to employ, how to include time for innovation or why making the team smile every now and then is great for morale.

Predominantly in project management, the ‘right’ way is to meticulously follow a process. This is sheepwalking in action.

In the PMI Pulse of the Profession Survey earlier this year, only 18% of organisations said that they had ‘high project management maturity.’

Achieving a high level of maturity should be the goal of every project management function and I don’t mean maturity of process, I mean emotional maturity of people. After all, this emotional maturity is one of the three most important factors in project success according to the 2015 Standish Group report (executive sponsorship and user involvement are the other two.)

To achieve this high level of maturity you need to lose or retrain the sheepwalkers.

You need personality, individuality, creativity, inspiration, uniqueness and a determination to be the difference. Project managers need to choose to be leaders, to set the best side of their personalities free and to take on board feedback about the stuff that isn’t working.

Project managers not asking stakeholders about the service they’re providing? Sheepwalking.

Project managers should be spending quality time building relationships with the people they’ll be working with and employing different communication approaches for each.

Sending emails to everyone all the time? Sheepwalking.

Project managers should know why it’s important to create a team, a culture and a plan before the work starts, not during the implementation phase. And they should know how to do it well.

Writing a schedule in isolation after the project has started? Sheepwalking.

Project meetings need to be the best you attend all week. Detailed agenda, action focused, no distractions, inclusive and respectful of time.

Meetings that start and end late with people on their phones the whole time? Sheepwalking.

Project managers should build in time for innovation and to encourage people to be creative in their solutioning.

No time for the team to challenge existing ways of doing things? Sheepwalking.

Project managers should take time out of their week to assess progress against their plan, ensure there are no new threats to delivery, that the existing ones are being dealt with and that their reports are honest.

More truth in the kitchen conversations than in the reports? Sheepwalking.

In his book Creativity Inc. Ed Catmull talked about how slavishly following process created big problems in the early days for Pixar Studios: “Trust the process had morphed into assume the process will fix things for us.” This is where project management is today.

Sheepwalkers believe that only through following a process can you be successful, however don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. Only through individuality can project managers ever hope to lead the team to success.

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