What really matters in project execution

During our training as project managers, we have certainly all learned that projects are unique endeavours aimed at completing a complex task in a limited time and with limited resources. However, when it comes to the social dimension of a project, it is all too often limited to the formal roles and responsibilities of the project team and the interests of other stakeholders. Especially during the pandemic, when we often only work on projects virtually from home, we quickly notice that a lot of things are missing that are important for successful project realization. And this is less to be found in the area of project goals and tasks, processes, methods and tools, but above all in the personal and social sphere.

Particularly in the chaos of the pandemic, where a wide range of information from society, family and the professional environment is affecting us, the question suddenly arises as to the meaning of a project and why we should get involved. Does the project make sense? Can I identify with the project and its goals? Does the project help me to fulfil personal goals and expectations? If no reasonable answers to these questions are possible, then the commitment will be rather weak and with little energy. Surely the other people involved in the project feel the same way. An exchange at the beginning of the project is therefore extremely important, especially in the context of a pandemic.

What experience does each individual bring to the project? What expectations does the client have of the result and the process of project implementation? Which written and unwritten norms, rules, guidelines and values are to be applied in the project execution? Do these fit with the ones of the participants, or how are they reconciled? To what extent does the project team have a say in the design of the planning, the organisation or in decision-making? Questions like these are typically clarified at the beginning of a project in a kick-off or team-building session. In the context of a pandemic, this does not seem to be possible, or there does not seem to be enough time for this. Unfortunately, the consequences will quickly hit the project and cause additional turbulences.

What I think is the worst in a purely virtual project management is the lack of informal and interpersonal communication. What is driving us right now? What worries and fears do we have and how can we make the best out of the situation? Informal communication in the project is the glue for a mutually beneficial cooperation. It creates trust and acts as basis for cooperation. If communication is limited to formal aspects only or if there is no time for informal matters, then everyone does the tasks assigned, yet there is no real performance. After all, project management is not just about implementing planned activities according to specifications. Often a dialogue is necessary about how a task can be completed in the best possible way. In the process, the different experiences of the participants are incorporated, discussed and reflected upon, tried out in the project, confirmed or rejected. This social process is certainly more difficult in a virtual project situation and must therefore be actively fostered. It requires time, information and communication tools that allow a dialogue in the project and an atmosphere of learning, innovation and personal development.

Due to the distance between team members, it is also necessary to consciously express appreciation and praise for those involved, to give feedback on performance and generally to pay more attention to the personal well-being of the team. The climate of collaboration is what matters. By the way, this does not only concern the project team, but also the suppliers and partners involved in the project.

The pandemic has clearly shown us what is really important for successful project work. And this isn´t so much the formal side and WHAT we do, but above all questions such as WHY and HOW we do the project, WHO does it and how we can do the work together. This requires more attention to the individual, more time for informal matters and the arrangement of cooperation. In addition to questions regarding the use of technology, processes, methods and tools, personal and social competence in project execution is once again coming to the fore. Leadership gives orientation, takes care of people, their concerns and hardships in a difficult time, organises the process of collaboration beyond all obstacles. Regardless of how long this form of project execution will accompany us, we should use this experience for future projects.

Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Management Consulting

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