Project success requires a complete picture

"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, til he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern." William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

This a profound statement on humanity but when I read it, my first thought was, this is why managing projects can be so hard. I appreciate that it probably says far too much about me that I would read a William Blake quote and think of project managers! But the image of seeing our world through the ‘narrow chinks of (our) cavern’ really resonated with me when it comes to working across organisational boundaries.

Projects bring people together from very different areas of specialism. Those specialisms have their own way of seeing the organisation, what’s important, what’s not, how to solve problems, how to communicate effectively. Organisations often drive to minimise differences between functions but it is almost inevitable that sub-cultures will exist. As a project manager we, of course, carry with us our own assumptions about the right way to do and be in the work place. We are, however, also in a uniquely privileged position of being able to see, listen to and understand the perspectives of all of the functions our project brings us in to contact with. To deliver outstanding results in a complex, multi-stakeholder environment the ability to see beyond our own chink of light is essential.

It isn’t easy to open our minds up to alternative perspectives. Especially if we have worked hard on vision statements, business cases and project plans. However, if we really want to make a difference in an organisation; if we really want to see a project succeed; it is essential to be able to park our own version of reality and listen, open-minded, to what we are hearing from those around us who have a stake in the project. Those who have to deliver the project on the ground and those who are ultimately impacted may have a very different view of the current picture and the right course of action to get there. You won’t persuade anyone simply by banging your same drum and trying to convince them that you are right!

This makes the following skills essential for any project manager who wants to excel in their role:

the ability to:

  • listen without judgement;

  • be prepared to change ones view;

  • ask open questions;

  • actively and honestly listen;

  • accept that you don’t yet have the full picture;

  • be always willing to learn more.

And if you do this enough and with a truly open perspective you will learn more about the environment your project is operating in, the things that could throw it off course and the things that are most likely to support a successful outcome. You will be able to communicate effectively as you are communicating from the perspective of your stakeholders not just your own perspective.

Ultimately, you will find that you are one of the very few people that has a picture of the whole. This takes time and patience. It requires you to be able to adapt your style; to have the confidence to own your gaps in knowledge; to be able to accept feedback and challenge – more than this, to invite it; to keep gathering data, to never become complacent that you ‘know it all’.

By taking this effort and building this knowledge you can become the bridge builder. The enabler of conversations. You can find the point of connection between your stakeholders because you understand what matters to them and can demonstrate why this should matter to everyone.

Projects managers that create this common ground for delivery set the project up for success beyond the project boundary. They create the environment for sustainable change. Adding lasting value to the organisation.

Caroline Doran is a project management consultant working with non-profit organisations to help them deliver successful, lasting change.

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