Ethics and the Project Manager

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Maybe the average project manager isn’t running a project or a company as large as an Enron, WorldCom or others that are beleaguered with accounting practice questions and investor doubt. The project manager’s reputation is a critical element to success however, and needs to be nurtured and cared for with great caution and personal scrutiny. PMI® addition of ethics to the elements discussed in the PMBOK is important, but is secondary to what your team members, peers and management sponsors perceive as the essence of your character and integrity. Here are some tips and thoughts on nurturing and enhancing that perception.

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As one of the primary “triple constraints”, financial tracking and reporting is a pivotal part of project management. Project managers often will rely on proven, ongoing corporate processes for reporting the financial elements of project performance – saving time and focus for other areas of the project. However, are there exceptions that need to be considered for accurate reporting on your particular project? Are the supporting procedures for creating and processing data for the financial processes being followed appropriately?

Taking the time to examine these processes early in the project lifecycle can save embarrassment and undue scrutiny from stakeholders and your direct management. Items such as time reporting, the establishment and categorization of cost codes and the separation of internal and external costs (when tracking expenditures on behalf of a client) should be carefully examined and understood in detail by the project manager. This will prevent any questions, misunderstandings and misinterpretations by stakeholders and members of the project team.

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“Padding the schedule” is a discussion we often get into as we engage in project management training sessions across the country. In an effort to appropriately perform “expectations management” many project management practitioners will arbitrarily add a percentage of time to all estimates received from their project team members – sometimes as great as adding 100% to the estimates they receive. In defense of this practice, project managers will report that it “serves them well” – often these “padded” estimates actually hit the mark relative to the time or resources it takes to complete a project. Feeling justified by the accuracy of this approach, project managers continue the practice as a matter of course. This practice has long lasting and deteriorating consequences however.

When the project manager asks for estimates and proceeds to arbitrarily add time to them, what does that say to the team member who came up with those estimates? How does the practice promote the education of your team members relative to their estimating techniques? What could the consequences be if you were questioned in detail about how your estimates were derived?

All this being said leads us to a question: How should the project manager proceed with estimation? The answer: maybe the practice doesn’t change much, but the process is done OPENLY, using standard processes, including a full-circle communication process. Standard practices, such as utilizing the PERT technique – asking for and processing individuals optimistic, most likely and pessimistic estimates, and providing conditions for the estimates (i.e. this task can be performed by a technician of average competency in two weeks if they are not interrupted by other work demands) promotes additional thought and consideration for estimates. Standard formulas, such as (Optimistic + (4*Most Likely) + Pessimistic)/6 can then be applied to determine a PERT estimate. Secondly, reviewing the actual outcome against the original estimate with the estimator and the person that performed the work demonstrates your dedication to the process and provides a means to educate and drive improvement for the task estimators. All this enhances your dedication to the process and importance of estimating accurately, demonstrates a well thought out approach, and upholds your integrity from a relationship standpoint. Have an approach, follow the approach and involve and educate your team members on that approach is the best way to maintain your integrity when approaching the estimation process.

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In addition to solid integrity in approaching the estimation process, there are a number of instances where interactions with your team, sponsor and other stakeholders can inadvertently alter their perception of you and your skills. One simple but often overlooked item: are you an optimist or a pessimist by nature? The impressions you give stakeholders about the status of the project or the impact of events – versus what actually transpires – can significantly alter how you are perceived, and how stakeholders will react to your opinions and impressions.

Status reporting – in particular judging when to share an issue with management or the project sponsor – involves a series of judgment calls that can be pivotal in forming perceptions of your abilities as a project manager. As a general rule communicating an issue will be more helpful, as long as that sharing is accompanied with a summary of the actions being taken and your approach for providing ongoing updates on the status of the issue. PM’s should avoid the temptation to focus on fixing the problems that surface without communicating them as a means of “not rocking the boat” or looking like you can’t work through issues. The odd situation that makes its way to your manager or the sponsor and “blindsides” them will set you back significantly. Carefully assess the possibility of an issue surfacing to your management; if a possibility exists, it is wiser to communicate the situation and the action you are taking to resolve the issue. If unsure, it is usually better to over-communicate than under-communicate.

Lastly, be consistent. Outside of being dishonest, the item that can do the most to erode the reputation of a project manager is being inconsistent or unpredictable. Setting expectations, including the basics of establishing roles and assignments to the format of reports, establishing when and how situations are communicated to you as the project manager, and when and how you interact with your customers is pivotal to the success of the project manager. Instances where reports from the project team are not provided on a fixed schedule or contain inconsistencies in references (i.e.. What exactly constitutes a status of green, yellow or red?) can quickly erode your perception as a person who is “in control”. Tools like project glossaries can come in handy to ensure the project team and the customer use the same terms in a consistent fashion, avoiding embarrassing and costly misinterpretations. Focusing on consistency can benefit the project manager, contributing to your perception for both the short and long term.

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Are you “transparent” when communicating your perception of your team member’s performance? Being transparent in this case means that anything you would say to a manager you would (and hopefully have!!!) said to the team member directly. Although you might decide to be more careful in choosing your words or take a coaching approach in how you communicate your perceptions when talking directly to the team member, ultimately stating the same thing you convey to any manager or sponsor to the employee as well is paramount to maintaining your integrity. Furthermore, receiving ongoing trust and support from team members – for this project and the next – requires open and frequent feedback that is consistent with actual performance. Spending time on this is something that many PM’s overlook. Accurately assessing individual performance not only provides a means to improve individual performance, but it also indirectly helps other team members develop trust in your leadership. Addressing sub-par performance helps the team be more effective, and eases the burden on well performing employees to “make up” for the deficiency of the non-performer. Neglecting to address these performance issues invoke a “triple threat” – the current project suffers, the dedication of your team members on future projects will not be forthcoming, and your perception as a project manager will deteriorate quickly. Focus on your team and their performance, and your integrity is more likely to be a positive one.

Bob McGannon is Vice-president and cofounder of Mindavation. Mindavation provides project management training and consulting, team building, leadership and creativity workshops to improve team productivity. Mindavation can be reached via the web at or by calling 1-866-888-MIND.


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