First Time Project Managers Need Failures

By Paul Glen

Nothing succeeds like success, except in project management where nothing succeeds like failure.

Managing an IT project is very difficult; especially the first time you try it. The project managerís days and nights are filled with stress, worry, dreams, aspirations and fear. Some first timers are overwhelmed by their newfound power while some are weighed down by the responsibility. But for most, the overriding concern is to avoid both personal and project failure.

This fear is often instilled and/or reinforced by the project managerís supervisor. The new assignment is often initiated with comments like, ďDonít screw this up.Ē ďThis is your big chance to shine.Ē Or, ďdonít make me look bad and regret giving you this opportunity.Ē Trust me, those sorts of comments really help first timers succeed.
For the project manager, this sort of fear is not only counterproductive, but also misplaced. In fact, I think that every first time project manager desperately needs to fail. Thatís right. Iím not just saying that itís ok to fail; Iím saying that if they donít fail, they may never learn to be effective project managers. In fact, complete success may set their management careers back by years.

As a manager, consultant, trainer and coach, Iíve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of first time project managers, and Iíve become convinced that one of the greatest impediments to their success is their need to succeed. If against all odds they do manage to succeed, they fall prey to the twin career killers, arrogance and self-confidence, depriving them of the opportunity to grow and learn.

Project management is such a complex discipline that it is completely impossible for a first timer to have mastered all the subtleties of task, people and risk management. In fact, itís impossible for anyone, no matter how experienced to have mastered it all. The successful first timer is invariably lulled into a false sense of security that they know much more than they really do. They become convinced that they are now fully-fledged managers and can take on anything.

Whatís more dangerous is that they get brain freeze. They stop learning. Why learn when you have mastered a topic?

It can take two or three failed projects to undo the career damage inflicted by early success, before a new project manager reclaims the humility and open-mindedness that they started with. Unfortunately, by that time, their careers have probably absorbed major damage. It is one thing to be seen as making a few mistakes as a first timer. Itís another to have demonstrated a pattern of failure. Both the managerís image and self-image have been irretrievably damaged.

So what does the first timer need?
  • A few big mistakes
  • Permission to make those mistakes
  • Coaching and introspection to learn from them
If you are a first time project manager, be prepared for some problems along the way. Relax and enjoy the ride. No one will lose respect for you.

If you are the manager of a first timer, give them permission to make mistakes. When they do, make sure that they learn from them and donít make the same ones again. Coach them about the sources of problems and the meaning of their failures. Itís normal for them to have difficulties, but make sure that you view them as training investments and not as screw-ups. Your job is to ensure that you get the maximum return on investment for the training that mistakes offer.

Becoming a project manager is hard work, but a little failure will help make the transition from individual producer to manager more successful.

About the Author:
Paul Glen is the author of "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology" (Jossey Bass Pfeiffer, 2002) and Principal of C2 Consulting. C2 Consulting helps clients build effective technology organizations. Paul Glen regularly speaks for corporations and national associations across North America. For more information go to http://www.c2-consulting.com. He can be reached at info@c2-consulting.com.

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