Managing Upwards

18 September, 2014

For Project Managers, managing the team is a major responsibility. Many, especially those who have been promoted from technical roles, find this a difficult aspect of project management. Many technical gurus tend to have introverted personalities and have difficulty guiding others. However, experience helps and following the advice offered in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) will provide a framework for managing people.

Unfortunately, whether you are a Project Manager or a member of the project team, you still face the same problem: managing your manager. As with most aspects of organizations, problems between people can often be traced back to issues with communications.

The first thing you have to appreciate when you consider your boss is that s/he is operating at a different level to you. Their concerns are wider and shallower than yours. As a technical wizard, your whole world might revolve around choosing a material that absorbs impact in one direction, but remains rigidly solid in another. You may be wrestling with changing characteristics across a temperature range or excessive wear patterns. Your Project Manager wants to see a decision made by a certain milestone. S/he will also be concerned about the cost of your experiments.

But, in turn, the Project Manager has to report to the Project Sponsor, who might be fixated on quality and aspects of the product that will make it stand out from the competition. While the technical team member is agonizing about how to solve the problem, the Program Manager will looking at the marketing of the product down the road. S/he will also be worried about how easy it will be to manufacture.

Being a Project Manager allows you to see both sides of the equation and you would be wise to learn from the frustrations you have experienced managing your team. For instance, you might find yourself swamped with endless technical detail, when you only want to know when the product will be ready to test. If you find that annoying, spare a thought for your Project Sponsor and ask yourself: Am I swamping them with too much detail?

Another question you might consider is whether you are communicating in the same language. While your team are worried about stresses and strains, you are focused on deliverables and the triple constraint. However, at the program or portfolio level, these managers are thinking in terms of benefits and worry about Critical Success Factors and Key Performance Indicators.

For example, your project is to create a component for a larger product. This is a technically difficult task and your team have been experimenting with really expensive materials. While everything is fine in terms of your project’s budget, you really need to look outside your domain and determine what sort of unit cost the overall Product Manager is aiming for. If you have developed a component that costs €50 in materials alone and the target price is €10, it is unlikely that the project will be deemed a success. These are the sorts of constraints that you should have been looking out for in the Project Charter.

But, even being aware of the constraints, your team may have been forced to use more expensive parts. How can you justify this to the powers that be? More to the point: what will you do if they say that such an expensive component will not be accepted? Essentially what you have is a problem that needs to be addressed at your level. It is likely that you will have to conform to a quality standard, as well as a cost constraint. So you could present a component that meets the price threshold, but not the quality requirements and another that meets the quality standard, but is too expensive. Either way, you are saying that you did not do what was asked for.

If expensive materials are, genuinely, the only option, there might be scope for cost cutting elsewhere – simpler manufacture, a smaller design that uses less material. Of course, this work could take us past the end date for the project. If the Project Manager is obsessed with the triple constraint and supplies an expensive product exactly on schedule and within budget, that will not satisfy the higher ups. However, if the Project Manager reports to the boss that they will have a component ready for integration into the wider product on time but, to meet the cost targets, another month’s work is required, then that extra month is likely to be granted.

The important thing to understand when managing upwards is that the boss has a different perspective. No matter what level you are at, you need to understand that perspective. It is good practice, from the moment you start out as a junior team member, to learn what that is. Most of us have to fill in progress reports, so ask what your boss wants to see in these. Some managers rejoice in detail, but most prefer summaries. In general, anything that is going according to plan simply needs to be stated. However, if something is not going to plan, that too needs to be stated, but with clear descriptions of what you are planning to do to get it back on track.

Velopi’s project management training courses cover all aspects of project management. If you would like to develop your skills in this area, our project management certification courses are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway for your convenience. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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