Dave Sawyer works as a Business Analyst and Project Manager for the UK Government.
Just get stuck in
My advice to project managers is to always be learning and to just get stuck in. Make mistakes, admit them, move on and get better. Don't cover up your mistakes, because everyone will become aware of it. Talk through problems and ask loads of questions. Be honest about what you do/don't understand and ask for help. Only idiots don't ask for help when they need it. In the early days, I felt overwhelmed by everything, but now I'm a lot calmer because I know that I can do it. To get there you just need to be patient and remember that it won't happen overnight. Keep learning and get a good mentor. When I left college, I thought 'well, that's it for learning'. How wrong I was! After another 20+ years, I have professional qualifications, a master’s degree and I have read literally thousands of articles on management, project management, leadership and strategy. I take great delight in reading all sorts of materials that I can apply to real-life. It also means that I can set a good example and give people the support and opportunities that I had. Taking the MSc in project management really changed the playing field for me. It taught me to think critically and to ask questions designed to give the brain a good workout. What’s also great is that the managers at work started to notice a big change in how I was working. As a result I now have bigger budgets, more staff and I'm certainly doing things much better than I was before. – Dave Sawyer, Project Manager, UK Government
Always act with the best intention of the organization in mind
I've seen so many managers who are seeking to feather their own nests; bigger teams and bigger budgets, often to fuel big egos. I have a small team that works well. I have a modest budget, but it's carefully managed to run the projects that I have. I work hard to try and benefit the organization, sharing new learning and helping to build the staff. I won't support anything that is 'selfish' and teams see that and understand what's going on. It's fairly simple advice really; act in the best interest of the firm! – Dave Sawyer, Project Manager, UK Government
Test and question the Business Case
I don't really like to deliver anything where there isn't an obvious Business Case. If it isn't obvious, I'll ask if I can test it and check that the benefits really stack up. If I can’t test it, and we’re not running a pilot, I'll flag up to senior management that perhaps they need to reconsider the project. Generally those types of projects go to a project manager who doesn't ask the questions. I've spent years building up a good reputation as a safe pair of hands and I'm not going to risk that by agreeing to deliver an absolute pig. We have to be selective and do the things that give the best bang for bucks. – Dave Sawyer, Project Manager, UK Government
Always keep an eye on the benefits
Many projects just focus on delivering technology without considering the change holistically or the cultural or procedural implications of the change. These projects almost never achieve the claimed benefits or end up getting culled because there is no user requirement. I'm aware of a fairly high value (nearly £100m) project that isn't being used properly because there wasn't a robust need for it and because the team didn't prepare the organization for its introduction.
I've been quite lucky avoiding this kind of thing because I tend to ask some really searching questions, and that often means that the main culprits steer well away from me when they're looking for a project manager. I'm not negative; we just have a really honest discussion and perhaps their plan has to be thought about some more. I always recommend the use of benefits maps which show the alignment to the organizational strategic objectives. If you can't see the benefits in what you're being asked to do, it's probably best to think about whether the project is worth doing at all. – Dave Sawyer, Project Manager, UK Government
Project leaders continuously learn and improve
Project leaders are not just thinking about the old 'time, cost, quality’ thing, but also about how to continuously improve and how to help their teams better. I'm constantly reading, seeking new information to fill in the gaps and I really care about doing things in the best way possible. It’s about continuously listening, reading and learning in general. I've met a few project managers that seem to think that just doing things is enough, but ‘competence’ = ‘learning’ x ‘experience’. You have to always be learning! Keep up to date with the best practice, and anything else you can get your hands on. Try out ideas on a small 'pilot' scale and see if it works. If not, why wasn't it successful? Ask yourself and others if it was the right thing to do, or if you could have done things better. Keep thinking, reviewing and asking questions. And accept that you're going to get criticize; that's inevitable.
Whenever we are doing new things, I tell my team that we are breaking new ground and that we probably are not going to get things right the first time. We plan, and then we change the plan as we go along; circumstances change and we learn new things about how we work and about the project environment. I expect us to make mistakes, and we need that room to explore and experiment. As time goes on, we tighten things up and by the end of the project we are running like a well oiled machine - but you have to go through that initial learning curve to get to the end point. – Dave Sawyer, Project Manager, UK Government
Act like the best leaders do
As a project manager you are either helping or you are in the way. If you are getting in the way of the team's productivity, or they are raising issues, which you are not dealing with, then you are chaff and not really contributing to the overall picture. I think of myself as the oil that keeps the machine going, and sometimes that means doing things that I don't want to do to make life easier for the team. I clear the politics and barriers, sort out ordering or delivery problems and generally try to make things work well. People tend to notice that kind of behavior and react well to it. One of my pet hates is managers who treat their staff like slaves. Staff hate managers like that, and will go to the n'th degree to make their life more difficult. Instead; be the best you can be, be clear about what your game is and communicate that. As Reginald Harling said, "Get ahead; then give others a helping hand to catch up". – Dave Sawyer, Project Manager, UK Government
Soft skills can be learnt
There is a big barrier out there because many people think that you can't learn soft skills and that you've either got it or you haven't. It's a total myth. People change throughout their life. One of the best soft skills which can be leant is active listening. If you don't listen properly, why would others listen to you? Doing a lot of requirements interviews helped me learn that, but I'm always striving to get better. As an ex-technician, I tend to give answers and it was really difficult to put the 'answer mode' on hold so that I could fully understand the problem. – Dave Sawyer, Project Manager, UK Government