To a hammer everything looks like a nail!


One of the behavioral competences that a project manager has undoubtedly to build over the years is the ability to switch perspective in front of an issue and explore all the possible ways to correct it.

It might seems pretty obvious to consider such skill as innate in all of us. And yet it is not always like that.


HOW IT SHOULD BE


It should not be too difficult to put in customer's shoes if, as a vendor, we are not delivering as expected. In contrast, it would help to save the communication channel and to increase our chances to get acceptance of a proposed way forward.

Likewise, it should not be such a big deal to understand the difficulties of our suppliers, if we disrupt their business plan by changing unilaterally a key requirement during execution. In the end, a cooperative approach helps to keep the grip and motivate the resources to cope with new scenarios.

All in all it shouldn't be too hard to look at a project like a passenger looks at the landscape from an observation wheel, instead of entrenching and keeping unaltered the same point of view.



AN INSIDIOUS TENDENCY


And yet, if someone would ask all of a sudden to a number of project managers whether they consider themselves mainly as customers, suppliers or both of them, I would bet a bunch of bucks that, in a first instance, they wouldn't provide a neutral answer to that question, which is "I am both".


Despite it is just unrealistic that one can be a customer without being also a vendor and viceversa, I am quite sure that many PM, including myself at times.., would instinctively say something like either: "Well, I represent a manufacturing company specialized in this and that..., you know...I represent a reliable supplier, a leader in the market!" or something opposite, as: "I am managing the construction of a huge plant there...involving lots of partners...I am definitely a customer!".



Let's consider a project: an amazing combination of work packages that originate from a list of requirements. to be managed thanks to the efforts of internal functions and/or external suppliers.
You are the project manager, you need your vendors and your functions to deliver for you. In turn, you need to deliver for your customer. Not a new story, huh?

Say now that the project is turning really bad. Although, you can barely keep your head above the water, you are still required to drive people to the business goals, without excuses.


That's the kind of critical situation where people, to protect their own back, are tempted to track down the culprit and start to hound who is not performing well. Typically, the following attitudes come out to support the recovering phase:

  • the customer fanatic: "The customer is always right! Let's push the vendors and the internal functions. Do not want to hear them calling for extras or internal workload issues. We are right and they are wrong."
  • the war veteran: "Look...the customer is always to be guided, they don't understand or underestimate the issues. Our vendors and us have a schedule to protect. Let's defend the castle and use the contract against the enemies!"
  • the PM who let it be: "RelaxLet's put everybody in a meeting room and the strongest one will win. I don't care too much who wins, just to a winner and go ahead in a direction."

That sounds a bit ironic, but it should make my point clear. Many times, a large number of conflicts and the procrastination to accept what's really needed to solve an issue, particularly under pressure, are just due to a kind of blindness fed by presumption and pride.


CONSEQUENCES


The intent to focus on an objective and go straight ahead toward that goal sometime leads to make confusion in between what is a resource and what is an obstacle.


When we are burden by that pressure, the problems are supposed to be originated by a guilty party and that's the target for the weapons. People who stick to that adamant position keep thinking to solve the problem by identifying a unique offender and making such supposed enemy-of-the-project agonize until the failure is recovered, while they are just creating anxiety and persistent stress.
It's an innate human behavior, I guess, that only a proper education and a continuous self improvement can eradicate or mitigate.



THE CHAMELEON ATTITUDE


Misconducts and reprehensible actions to favor individuals, relentless customers, unreliable suppliers... they are all part of the game if we make business.

In managing a complex project it's much more likely to set things for failure by letting misunderstanding with the stakeholders grow over for weeks, with unrealistic expectations never clarified, by underestimations, stances, bad planning, inadequate control and missing communication.

Where the stubborn persists to look at the issues in a unique direction, persuaded to have the mission to identify the enemy to be defeated from time to time, the experienced project manager knows how to avoid prejudices and an obstructive approach. 

The open-minded project manager strives to nip in the bud any tendency to point the finger on the guilty man to the detriment of a correct evaluation of the circumstances.

S/he knows that in the morning is going to act a customer for a service, and probably in the afternoon is acting as a supplier. What will make the difference is the ability to wear the right hat depending on those scenarios, keeping in mind the objective and leveraging on the competences needed by this fluctuant context.


Conclusion

There is a dictum that says: "When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail". 
The real guru of project management knows that:

1) the evaluation of the same issue from different points of view is a good exercise to strengthen the relationship with the stakeholders and it helps to grow up from a personal standpoint;

2) the more you to strive to be respectful and impartial, the bigger results you are going to achieve;

3) human nature does not change: we all have the insidious tendency to point the finger against people who has obligations with us, while we are the first ones who would like to be fully understood and excused when we are in the opposite scenario and we fail or underperform.
The recommendation is to stay far from prejudices, focused on the problems!