Project Managers Should Share Their Stress

Project managers tend to hold their cards pretty close to the vest. Sure, they may post or circulate some sort of general progress chart. But the telling, nitty-gritty details — percent complete, cost overruns, and so on — usually stay on a private little spreadsheet, safely tucked away in the PM's files.

Sometimes this I'm-in-control-here approach is well intentioned. PMs feel they should shield their team members from potential bad news. Other times it's a power trip. PMs make it plain that they're the only ones who know the full story, so naturally they get to call the shots.

Whatever the motivation, the result is the same: acute stress. We know too many project managers with prematurely gray hair and a serious addiction to antacid pills. And no wonder. If you're the only one responsible for results — and the only one who's aware that the results might not be what everyone (including the customer) is hoping for — of course you'll be stressed.

It doesn't need to be that way.

Instead, try an open-book system: Every week, put key numbers for each project on a whiteboard to discuss at a regular team meeting. The idea here is to share not only percent complete but also detailed financial information about the project, such as gross profit per hour compared to budget. This will reveal problems lurking in the shadows, like technical inefficiencies that could be easily addressed if only people actually knew they existed.

It'll take a little while for new hires to get used to a transparent system like this. We've found that, at first, they're mystified by the sea of numbers on the whiteboard. But we walk them through it, and pretty soon they acclimate. The more experienced technicians in our plant zero in on problem areas right away. They can see at a glance when a project is being delayed, because the rate of gross profit earned per hour tells the story. And they recognize immediately when costs aren't in line with projections. In other words, they share the PM's stress.

Even better, they know that part of their job is to reduce that stress by coming up with ideas to fix things. On one memorable occasion at our company, a veteran member of Team B happened to take a look at Team A's numbers, which at the time were pretty ugly but posted for all to see. He suggested that Team A change their technical approach on a tricky hydraulic problem that had stymied them for days. Members of Team A bristled at the suggestion, and a spirited discussion ensued — but the friction was productive. Soon three other techs on Team A came up with ideas of their own, and it wasn't long before the project was back on track.

Many eyes on a problem, many brains applied to it. That's the chief virtue of the open-book approach. But a huge side benefit is sharing the stress, which means that the PM isn't bearing the whole burden alone — and popping antacid pills like M&Ms.

This is the third post in the authors' blog series on project management. The series draws on advice from their book Project Management for Profit.

Post #1: The Dirty Little Secret of Project Management

Post #2: When Tracking Projects, Ignore Your Accountants

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