Own it, don’t groan it.

A personal retrospective on what it means to be a project manager.

Recently I partook in a fireside chat with a bunch of seasoned project managers from around the country. OK it was a pub but there was a fireplace. Plus lots of beer.

Inevitably discussion gravitated to all the problems and heart aches that we have each been apart of over the years. War stories if you will. At first it was fun to talk about what went wrong on this project or who had the hardest time doing this particular job or that one. After a while though I found myself getting frustrated. I think in part this was due to the lack of rum in my glass but mostly it had to do with the fact that almost all of the stories revolved around the project person feeling as if they were never in control of the destiny of the production.

Typical anecdotes were things like, “ I told the Producer that was a bad idea. They didn’t listen and look what happened”. I am sure that all project managers have been in a position like this. One where they feel their voice is not being heard and that they know the s**t is going to hit the fan but feel powerless to stop it.

Like everyone else there I agreed and would pat them on the shoulder in an attempt to comfort them. I of course had a few of my own experiences to add into the pile. At this point I started an internal reflection process. This is where my frustration began.

Years ago when I first started managing projects I had a sign above my desk that said, “I am at the mercy of forces beyond my control”. At the time I started I knew of no schools or books that taught how to manage projects in the world of entertainment. I think I took on the job because A; I wanted it and B; no one else did.

Like all jobs in the industry I learned most of what to do by working under others with more experience. Learning both the good and the bad. I suspect it took longer to realize what were the bad habits than the good.

The reason I had that sign was many. Mainly I felt that I was only paid to do the task that I was given. I had no real control. The task being, managing large teams and budgets within a timeline that was immovable. The problem that I constantly came across was that the timeline/budget often seemed to be unrealistic or even impossible. No matter what, we had to get the project done with the budget and people allocated to it in the time that was given yet this rarely seemed to take place.  Delays or costs would increase. Stress was palpable among us all.

I read a paper recently that stated over 60{f2e86ea6af82e2bb048871abf045622abf0ed27fb513932dc1ee8c05a54cbefd} of all projects fail in some way, either due to cost over runs or delays. This isn’t an excuse. Just some perspective.

The great thing about making mistakes or being part of them is that, if you can weather it, you can learn from them. At the end of every project I would do a post mortem on the project as well as what I thought I did or didn’t do on it. I tried to be as objective as possible. Not an easy task if you have any sort of self-confidence issues.

The first big mistake I had to own up to was the simple fact that I was the one that needed to take ownership for the processes that I was put in charge of.  The key words there are IN CHARGE of.  My boss may have given me a schedule/budget that I don’t think was doable. That doesn’t mean I have no say in what needs to happen. You have been put in that position for a reason. You hope that the reason is because you are trusted to get it done. If that is the case it is up to you to come up with, what you believe to be, realistic solutions to the problem that you have been handed. Of course you can’t go doubling the costs or staff but you can take the time to produce realistic criteria that will need to be adhered to in order to make the end dates and costs.

If you are not listened to you have a few options available.

  1. Suck it up and do the best you feel you can, knowing that it won’t be enough.
  2. Leave.
  3. Stand by what you believe. Even if you end up being wrong. Own it. Do what you have to, to make your points stick and be aware of what the consequences may be.

Most of us had done the first. A few had done the second but sadly few had done the third.

This may sound like a simplistic view and you would be right.

Fear plays a big role in what you do at this point. You may feel strongly that you know that what is on paper is not doable but how do you let the powers that be know without losing your job? The fear of failure rears its ugly head yet again. You may bring the issues up in the next production meeting only to have them put aside by those above you who say things like, “I know and understand your concerns but this is the hand we are dealt. Make it work”.

What took me a long time to realize is that I had to be the one to own the processes that I was put in charge of. I had to get beyond my own fears of failing and do what I believed to be the right thing. No matter what the outcome. I was put in that position to make things work. It was up to me to make it so. When I made this decision things took on a different perspective.

Yes there were still times where I failed but I made the effort to point out those failures and what could be done to avoid them in the future. Both from my perspective and the perspective of future project milestones.

I no longer have that sign above my desk. There are days still where I feel I need it but then I remember my family motto.

Stand sure.

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