Managing projects

Many project managers are busy on trivial things such as company meetings and paper works and often do not monitor project's progress. They rely more on status reports from subordinates rather than personal observations. This is where “surprises” occur because they do not know what is happening in their project. Many project team members do not want to report bad news so they hide them until they cannot keep them hiding anymore. By that time it is too late to do anything.

Thirty years ago, when I worked at Hewlett Packard (HP), the company required every manager must personally come to the project and talked to team members about twice a day. The method is called “Management by walking around” where managers must walk through the workplace at random, to check the ongoing work. The company owner, Mr. David Packard believed that the best way for managers to know about their projects is by randomly reviewing the work on a daily basis. At that time, I was skeptical until I left HP to go to work for GE than I realized the wisdom of Mr. Packard. Since then and throughout my career, I always follow this practice and find valuable information by doing that.

By randomly meeting with team members on a daily basis, I build good relationship with them. Once trust is built, I get accurate information about the project. Team members can tell me anything that they want without worry about whether I like it or not. It also makes my job as a manager more effective as I can make quick decision based on what I know. If there are “sensitive issues” that teams members do not want to discuss at the workplace, they can come to my office to discuss it in private. Most sensitive issues are personal issues rather than technical. By understand it; I can solve it as quickly as possible so it will not spill over to the entire project.

A personal issue often happens when team members do not agree on something and it gets emotional. It that case, the most important is to identify all the facts to determine the cause of the conflict. When team members disagree, they want others to take side with them and without quick solution; it could escalate to serious problem. This is where the “listening skills” of the manager is important. My techniques are to listen to their arguments in private, not in front of the team. By carefully listen without any comments, I allow them to reduce their anger and calm down. When both sides are calm, it is easier to discuss for a mutual solution. Many project managers do not like to deal with personal conflict. However, sometimes conflict is a good thing. Especially if it opens something that needed to be resolved. It may “wakes up” team members if they are not active enough in project works. Getting information from a conflict discussion can get the team members thinking more about project related issues.

Every company requires project teams to report project status on a weekly basis. Weekly status reports are document of the project progress and it is helpful for senior managers to track progress if anything goes wrong. However, if you practice the daily “walk around” and solve problem immediately, at least you do not have much in the weekly report. It also means that the project progresses smoothly.

It is the project manager's responsibility to lead. If they fail to manage and help the team get the expected result, they are not doing their job. Project managers must be certain that they know what is needed, when is to engage, when to listen, when to take action, and actively manage everything in the project. In most companies, when a project failed, they fire the project manager, not the engineers.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University