September 29th, 2016

Being an IT project manager today is more challenging than ever. After satisfying the basic requirements of having a currently active Project Management Professional (PMP) certification and at least five years’ experience with managing IT projects in areas such as infrastructure or application development, project managers are also expected to have technical experience in at least one of those areas. For those project managers that started their careers 20 years ago without certification, they may find meeting these requirements difficult. The Project Management Institute (PMI) recently changed how practitioners need to earn their Professional Development Units (PDUs) to maintain their certifications. Industries hiring project managers voiced their dissatisfaction with PMP certification holders, stating they were coming up short in several areas which needed to be addressed. Today, to earn PDUs toward maintaining certification a project manager can earn them under five different areas: Technical, Leadership, Strategic & Business, General Education, and Giving Back. Next-Gen project managers will need to be more well-rounded in these areas in order to not only achieve and maintain certification, but also to be successful in today’s workplace.

With all of these new skills, along with a certification, soft skills are also now in demand. If you asked 1,000 project managers what is the one soft skill that sets an excellent project manager apart from the rest you would receive 1,000 different answers. My answer to this question is creating a sense of urgency, and here is why. If you look at the typical answers most project managers give, they are things like communication, leadership/team building, stakeholder management, and negotiations/conflict management. Don’t get me wrong, these are all crucial skills needed in project management, but what makes creating a sense of urgency unique is that it is essential with all of these other skills. At some point, all of these skills will require a sense of urgency. Being a great communicator is essential, but what exactly does that mean? To me, it means understanding when it’s essential to execute a sense of urgency and not creating a false sense of urgency. Creating a false sense of urgency can be just as detrimental as not creating a sense of urgency at all, and learning this skill only comes from experience.

Let’s use communicating change in the form of a new enterprise-wide project to across the organization as an example. As a project manager one of the first steps in communicating change is creating a sense of urgency, and this requires gaining the cooperation and trust of management and employees. Creating a sense of urgency sends a signal to the organization that a change must occur. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by having senior leadership market the value of the future state while communicating that remaining at the status quo is not an option and could be dangerous for the organization. Senior leadership’s responsibility is to instill that sense of urgency within the executive team. The executive team’s responsibility is to introduce it to its management and employees, creating a trickle-down effect. Once the sense of urgency has been created in the top levels of management, it is the project manager’s job to assist in driving and executing that urgency on the project.

So what are some examples of how a project manager would accomplish this? It depends on the project. Let’s use the example of an organization moving off of one email platform and over to another. This type of project touches every user, every desktop, and every user’s mobile device in the organization. It’s highly visible and has the risk of being highly disruptive across the company if not executed correctly. With this type of change being introduced to the organization, it is essential for senior leadership to communicate the need to move off of the old email platform, over to the new system, AND communicate how it puts the company at a disadvantage or risk if this change is NOT made. Once the decision and direction have been established, senior leadership communicates the mandate. Having project ambassadors delivering this message is a great way to accomplish this across the lower levels of the organization. Their role would be to:

  • 1. Help employees understand the change taking place and why
  • 2. Help employees educate themselves and directing them to all available information sources for the project
  • 3. Provide project updates to department staff at staff meetings
  • 4. Be a positive advocate for change
  • 5. Assist the project team with local change management tasks

When it comes to leadership and team building, knowing when to apply a sense of urgency is critical. For example, if one of your project team members is not performing up to standards and is leaving some of his responsibilities for other team members to complete, stepping in quickly to address this issue is critical. If the matter is left to linger, or for the rest of the team to figure out or work around it, team morale can plummet and the work environment can become toxic. For a project manager, creating that sense of urgency is stepping in immediately to address the problem and communicate the solution. The sense of urgency message, in this case, is team cohesion.

For a project manager, understanding who their project stakeholders are, what their requirements are, who are the most important, the most vocal, and most dangerous to a project is critical to a project manager’s success. Every project manager must have a Stakeholder Management Plan to address this. Once a project manager understands who’s who by conducting a stakeholder analysis, then they can determine when and with whom creating a sense of urgency is necessary. One output to the Stakeholder Management Plan is the Stakeholder Map, which plots every stakeholder on a four quadrant map based upon individual levels of interest and influence on a project. Don’t be fooled by titles. Just because a stakeholder carries a certain title within the organization, it does not automatically equate power or influence. Let me give an example. A few years ago I was working with a client who had a large international presence on several continents. The organizational structure was diversified. Individual countries were managed by a country CEO. Regional Managers were in place to handle regional duties. A global CIO for the organization was hired and began to report to the CEO of the organization. Next, the Regional Managers began reporting to the CIO. The new CIO kicked off a portfolio of new infrastructure projects, hired a Program Manager and several project managers. There was one group of key stakeholders who were left out of these projects, Country CEOs. At the direction of the global CIO, who was also the executive sponsor of these projects, this was done intentionally. The end result was these projects ran into resistance, were delayed, and eventually paused indefinitely because a key group was left out. The CIO left the organization shortly after. The moral to this story is just because you carry a global title over other stakeholders, even if you are the executive sponsor, does not mean you carry more influence. Understanding where the political minefields are within stakeholder management is essential for any executive sponsor or project manager to learn as quickly as possible. In this example, the sense of urgency action was to engage the missing stakeholders on the project ASAP. How do you do this when your executive sponsor is deliberately excluding them? The answer to this question brings us to our last topic, negotiations and conflict management.

In this particular instance, a project manager would have two options. Option A would be to schedule a meeting with the executive sponsor and try to negotiate getting these stakeholders included/engaged on the project. If there are backroom politics at play here this may not be possible. At a minimum the project manager should at least communicate, with a sense of urgency to the executive sponsor, the risks to the project if those stakeholders are not included. Option B would be to contact the executive sponsor’s supervisor. If Option A was already attempted and it failed the project manager may consider Option B, but this is a risky move and it should be weighed very carefully.

As a consultant and project manager who has worked with dozens of organizations on a multitude of projects, the one thing that has always helped me be successful is bringing a sense of urgency to these projects. Bringing that sense of urgency means the client and project manager are working at the same tempo, and that paves the way to work on and arrive at solutions much faster. Using all of the skills mentioned above, along with knowing when creating that sense of urgency is necessary, will help any project manager deliver a successful project for any client for which they work.