Advice for Junior PMs – #10 – Manage the project, not the sales process

This is a special professional services edition…

“Jenkins, we need you to manage this bridge building project.”
“Got it.  I’ll get the team together to meet with the client and spec out some requirements, and then get back to you with time, cost, and scope estimates.”
“No need.  You have $100 and 2 months.  But definitely collect their requirements and make sure you deliver to those. I think I heard something about them wanting it to support tanks and allow boats to go under and maybe have some color changing lights on the side.” 

Sound like a familiar set of circumstances?

As a Project Manager, it is not your responsibility to try to meet ridiculous scope, cost, or schedule requests.  It is your responsibility to represent the truth, to do what is right and honorable, and to act in the best interest of your project.

The first, and most obvious thing to do, is to challenge Business Development on what they are trying to sell.  In a formal setting, using documented facts (not conjecture), and always in a respectful manner, communicate your concerns with the unrealistic expectations.    However, this often fails given that almost every single project manager in professional services has been put in this position once or twice before.  Someone in business development has made a commitment to a client, who has made a commitment to their superiors, that something realistic can be delivered in an unrealistic amount of time to an unrealistic budget.  And you wonder why consultants get a bad name

So what do you do as a Junior PM stuck in this position?  Manage the project, not the sales process.  Once Business Development has sold the project to the client:

  1. Communicate information early and often.  
    It will do you no good at the end of the project to say “see, I told you so!”  Someone will try to punish you for making Business Development look bad (because they are the golden ones who wine and dine clients), so you need to ensure that you have covered your ass from the outset.  Formally document your thoughts around delivery, and communicate them to your senior manager (be it a PMO lead, line of business lead, or practice lead).
  2. Work to build your client’s trust through your expert project management skills.
    This means not just being a glorified project controller, but rather working as a leader of both your team and your client.  Involve your client in planning activities so that they can see what is required for successful delivery.  Invite them to status meetings to hear what the team are working on.  Be honest in your status reporting.
  3. Lead by example.
    Ensure that your team are focused on delivery and not complaining about how the budget sucks or the timing is ridiculous.  If you demonstrate the “we can get it done” mentality, your team will start to as well (within reason.  They are not dumb, after all…)  However, ensure that your team are recording the actual hours they are working, and what they are working on.

Indeed, this is a tough spot to be in.   Do not worry too much about the project economics.  Either your firm will be ok with eating some hours to ensure successful delivery (likely through you ghosting some hours in activities like “learning and growth” or “general management activities”), or your client will be ok with a Project Change Request to increase your budget once you start to deliver like the rockstar you are.

It may be stressful (and not the good kind) to go through this type of experience.  But a lot of us have been there before, and have lived to tell the tale.

Have you been in this uncomfortable position before?  What other advice would you give to Junior PMs?

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About Jason H Zalmanowitz
I am a nerdy Management Consultant / Project Manager with a MBA, have spent the majority of my career working for consulting firms in Calgary, and I race in triathlons because of (and thanks to) my wife. As a Project Manager, I have managed field implementations, strategy development projects, software development projects, and hardware implementation projects. As a consultant, I have helped companies articulate how and why they are going to implement and interact with sustaining technology to support their business.

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