By Jim Congleton
In my role as senior director of project management at Verisys, I manage as many as 65 projects at a time, directing 15 project and implementation managers through initiatives budgeted anywhere from $6,000 to millions of dollars. With such a large variety of projects and people, projects can easily turn into checklists.
However, I’m not content to deliver just the expected or minimum requirements. Project management is so much more than processes and production; it’s about cultivating a leadership style that nurtures teams, communicates with clients, seeks understanding, and drives better results. The following four keys can help project managers become inspired to not just complete a project but innovate along the way.
Key No. 1: Inspire Ideas, not Fear.
Many of us invest millions of dollars and countless hours safeguarding assets important to our organizations, including patents, insurance, agreements, contracts, memorandums of understanding, trademarks, copyrights, other legal agreements, and more. Do we give the same care and attention to the people on our teams?
It’s important for team members to know they are valued, especially if your team is spread out geographically and/or works remotely, as is the case with the Verisys team. Here, we make time to integrate our teams through team-building activities, weekly team meetings, and leaving our comfort zones.
The members of your project management team may think and solve problems differently, but when project managers view the variety of roles, job histories, and personalities as assets rather than liabilities, fresh perspectives emerge.
By encouraging equal participation and collaboration from all team members — especially those who may not typically work together — you can see familiar problems in a new way. Your team’s attitude toward risk and failure is key. Innovation doesn’t happen from teams doing the same things they’ve always done. Creativity requires a willingness to explore new ideas in a psychologically safe working environment.
It’s true that some projects are more innovation-friendly than others. It may be more efficient for standard projects to follow an established routine. For example, when we work with our internal team to create a data extract, it generally takes three weeks to work with an external team and create a standard data extract that they can use. Recently, however, a client requested a custom application programming interface (API) from our team. This project required us to combine our experience and expertise in new ways, giving us creative freedom and opportunities to try new ideas.
Key No. 2: Communicate With the Client Often and Accurately.
Projects can succeed or fail depending on the effectiveness of your communication. When something goes wrong, you may be tempted to hide that information, thinking you don’t want to destroy the client’s trust by admitting errors. That’s backwards. Honesty builds trust more quickly than telling a client what you think they want to hear.
Most projects will hit a snag at some point in the process. Emergencies, unforeseen expenses, and global events can interfere with time and cost estimates. Your explanation to your client should detail what went wrong, what problems it caused, any revised estimates, and how you will fix the problem. It’s important to communicate early when things are changing. Even if a deliverable changes, it doesn’t mean that the overall project timeline will be impacted, but it’s still important to inform the client in a timely manner.
When you regularly give clients honest reports, you’ll build a stronger relationship as you assure them that you’ll follow through on your promises despite the challenges that have come up. A lack of open communication sends a message that you’re afraid of accountability, which will cause your clients to lose faith in your leadership.
Client communication is vital, but stakeholder communication is just as important during a project. At Verisys, we have regular project status meetings. All the key stakeholders are involved in those meetings, as well as the clients. It’s the perfect time to communicate any changes and updates, keeping everyone informed of what’s going on with the project so that everybody understands the expectations, even if they must be adjusted.
Key No. 3: Focus on the Problem and You’ll Find Your Way.
Communication closely relates to the success or failure of your project’s goals. Before you determine your focus and build a project roadmap, you must understand the client’s needs. Often, when a client doesn’t have enough understanding of the details of a project, they may ask for something they don’t really need. As a project manager, you need to gain a complete understanding of their requirements, or, in other words, the problem they expect your project to solve. This means asking the client a lot of questions.
When we start a new project, we interview the client to learn their expectations. Then we take those expectations and work with our internal team to build a process to make that happen.
Often the client will say, “This is what I need and how I want it done.” But when I talk to the team and we call upon our expertise from prior projects with our unique viewpoints, we sometimes realize that it’s better to meet their needs in a different way. When this happens, we’ll go back to the client to discuss the problems again with a greater perspective on how we can solve for them.
Once we are very clear on what the client needs, we create a project plan with that goal in mind. If you go straight to building a process without a clear understanding of the problem you want to solve, you will fall short of your client’s expectations, even if you precisely follow their directions. On the other hand, focusing on the client’s problem, with the flexibility to pivot when necessary, allows you to achieve the desired results rather than checking off items on a to-do list.
Key No. 4: Understand the Difference Between Accuracy and Precision.
How do you know if all your efforts to nurture your team, communicate with your clients and stakeholders, and focus on solving problems have been successful? Data measurement is an obvious answer. But which numbers mean the most for you and your team?
The answer depends on the specific project, of course, but many project managers are so concerned with precision – how consistently they achieve their results – that they neglect accuracy – whether they achieve their goals. According to Thought Company, you can imagine accuracy and precision as aiming at a bullseye. Precision measures how closely spaced the arrows land relative to each other. Accuracy, on the other hand, measures how close your arrows are to the bullseye.
For example, at a Southern China cell phone manufacturer, employees’ precision was carefully measured by their ability to follow processes exactly as instructed. But when their managers weren’t watching, employees’ productivity improved because they shared better methods for doing their jobs with each other.
When you and the experts on your team perform tasks proficiently, it’s easy to get caught in the precision trap. Your team members may write error-free code or consistently deliver projects on time, but are they hitting the overall target? You as a project manager may be successful in putting out metaphorical fires and controlling variables. But are you moving the project in the right direction or are you getting caught up in the minutiae?
When you understand your clients’ needs, focus on their problems, and create a safe environment for new ideas, it will be easier for you to determine whether your results are accurate because the target is much clearer and team members are more willing to share ideas. By following these four keys, you will do much more than manage projects. You will lead a team where innovation can thrive.
Learn more about how Verisys, a provider and workforce data management company, cultivates career growth and innovation.
Jim Congleton has led teams with a specific focus on provider demographics, contracting, and directory services for more than 25 years. As senior director of project management at Verisys, he handles project implementations at health plans, health systems, and government agencies. Both at Verisys and in his prior work with UnitedHealth Group, he focuses on improving efficiency, data accuracy, and provider relationships.