For example, think about lessons learned. Are they about blame? While at times it may seem like they are, the answer is actually no, they should be about learning together. Lessons learned should be about discovering what went well, what did not go so well and what you want to repeat in the future.
When I was a young project manager, my boss came into my office as we were ready to conclude a project. We then had an interesting conversation that went something like this:
Boss: So… you’re about to complete the project. You are going to be doing lessons learned, right?
Boss: Good. It’s gone pretty well, but there were a few places where things could have been done differently, a few places where things could have gone better. So Tim, here’s what I’m wondering, who are you going to blame?
Me: Uh… no one?
Boss: Good answer.
Me: Why do you ask?
Boss: I want to make sure that you understand the correct way to do a lessons learned meeting and how to have the conversations that need to take place, but most importantly I want to make sure you understand who ultimately owns this piece of work — meaning who, ultimately, is responsible to make sure everything is done.
In project work, some of the problems you will encounter are due to your customer requesting, and at times even demanding, so many changes. That means the customer owns at least 50 percent of any related issues. The question is who owns the other 50 percent? You do. You allowed the changes to be implemented.
The customer is the customer; however, sometimes the customer doesn’t know what they don’t know. Allowing customers’ change requests to be implemented implies that you have fully communicated to them what could happen as a result of a change. That is part of your job. Even if you did that effectively, ultimately you own the project and you must take responsibility for the outcome, even if it came as a result of demands by the customer. Never blame the customer for something for which you are ultimately responsible.
Issues related to the work of individual team members should also be part of a lessons learned meeting. If individual team members had failures on the project, it may be tempting to verbally slay them in front of everyone. Don’t. When team members mess up, and they will, you should have a discussion with them to correct the issues, and those discussions should be in private. Good books to consult on the subject are “Crucial Conversations” and “Crucial Accountability.” Always publicly support your team, and make sure the private, corrective conversations that need to take place do take place in a timely manner.
Projects never happen in a vacuum. If there was a problem with the quality of a task on the part of a team member, the rest of the team knew about it before you did. Here’s the secret: Team members talk to each other. I know, who would’ve thought? But they do.
When you’re discussing an issue at the lessons learned meeting, they all know who was involved and what took place. The goal of lessons learned is to learn together and prevent problems from happening in the future by discovering alternative methods that would have led to better solutions. Even if there was a failure on the part of your team members, the project manager ultimately owns the project, which means you are the one who should take responsibility. When things go well, you say, “good job team.” You don’t need to pat yourself on the back publicly, since you’re also a member of the team.
A good leader always supports his team in public and gives them recognition and praise when it’s due. That doesn’t mean that they ignore issues and problems.
The Project Manager
What if there’s a problem with the project and it was due to a failure on the part of the project manager? What should the project manager do? Perhaps a basketball analogy will help.
In years past, when someone would commit a foul while playing basketball, they would hold their hand up high in the air. They did that because it was sportsmanlike conduct and it enabled the referee to know who to charge with the foul. When there are problems and issues to be dealt with on the project, it’s the responsibility of the project manager to make sure they are handled. Likewise, when there are failures, whether they come as a result of demands from the customer, poor work from team members or even your own mistakes, ultimately you are responsible. You should always hold your hand up high, in public, at the lessons learned meeting in front of everyone.
The Big Picture: The Emotional Bank Account
The reason you should take responsibility goes far beyond sportsmanlike conduct. It’s all about the emotional bank account.
You have an emotional bank account with everyone you work with. When you begin working with your team, you hopefully have at least 100 percent in that emotional bank account. It’s easily possible to add above 100 percent into the emotional bank account; it happens any time you do something that is, in their eyes, a good thing. Standing up in front of everyone at a lessons learned meeting and holding your hand up high, letting them know that no matter what, you ultimately are taking responsibility, is one of the easiest and best ways to earn a surplus in the emotional bank account.
On the other hand, the fastest way to go from a surplus to a negative balance is to blame others, especially in public. This is especially true if the failure was due to something you did or did not do. If you ever do that, I can promise you will go from a surplus to a negative balance in the blink of an eye, and good luck getting out of that hole, especially if you blamed the team members for your own mistakes.
If you do it the correct way, you will earn a reputation as a leader who listens to and respects their team, and as a result, you will begin to attract the best workers. If you don’t, you will also get a reputation, but it’s a reputation you don’t want. It’s the reputation of a leader who is only out for themselves, who blames others instead of taking responsibility and who will attract no one. The result is that over time you will find yourself working with only those who typically don’t want to be there, and the work results will reflect that.
Taking responsibility and not making excuses is an outstanding quality of a project manager, and it’s one that we should all strive to emulate.