Project, Product and People Management

Project oriented management ?

I recently came across a CTO job posting for a growing software company. One requirement surprised me: “your management is project-oriented.” This perspective, in my opinion, is outdated. I did not apply for the job, how could you be more wrong ?
In today’s dynamic business landscape, management should be People and Product-centric.

Let me explain.

Understanding Management Dynamics

At its core, management is about anticipating and mitigating risks to achieve desired outcomes. The goals set forth shape the risks managed, subsequently influencing an organization’s culture.

Let’s start with Project Management.

Traditionally, project management revolved around the Cost, Delay, and Scope “iron triangle”. Those KPIs being very quantitative, if you start to fall behind there is very few options to catch-up, the organization will develop a command & control culture and will look like what we call a feature factory with an emphasis on output over outcomes.

While this might seem a bit exaggerated, it’s a reality in many organizations.

The Agile Shift

Agile project management has transformed the narrative. 

The iron triangle has been inverted: scope is now flexible, while delay and cost remain constraints. This pivot is essential to shift the focus from output to outcomes.

Jim Highsmith , in 2009, encapsulated this by emphasizing value and quality over cost,  schedule and scope.

  • Value goal: Build a customer-valued, releasable product, I call this do the right thing
  • Quality goal: Build a reliable, adaptable product, I call this do it right

The mantra is now: Do the right thing, and do it right !

Yet, many still cling to the old ways, prioritizing scope, schedule, and budget. I would guess it is because they’re tangible and easily measurable while value and quality is much more qualitative and harder to evaluate and manage.

Enter Product Management

Product management introduces a holistic approach. While it acknowledges the importance of delivery, the emphasis is on strategy and discovery.

Marty Cagan, in his 2017  hit “Inspired,” highlighted four product risks:

  • Value risk (whether customers will buy it or users will choose to use it)
  • Usability risk (whether users can figure out how to use it)
  • Feasibility risk (whether our engineers can build what we need with the time, skills and technology we have)
  • Business viability risk (whether this solution also works for the various aspects of our business)

Managing those risks means you can’t jump straight into delivery mode, you need a strategy first and to work on some discovery in order to evolve your plan from a Gantt chart to an outcome based roadmap.

Now you are managing a Product, not a Project, you are no more a feature factory, you have escaped the build trap.

Again, this is hard, managing those risks, working on strategy and discovery  requires a lot of interactions and feedback, this is not something you can achieve with yesterday’s best practices.

Which leads us to the evolution of the hardest and most important management of all.

People Management

Pawel Huryn has a good summary of the kind of leadership needed to enable Product Management

A large part of it is based on Dave Pink 2009 book: “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

To be motivated people need:

This is key to motivate people individually but you also want to work on team dynamics, two more ingredients are needed:
Trust: Patrick Lencioni’s 2002 work, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”  is a seminal read on this topic.
Psychological Safety: Google’s 2014 Aristotle project spotlighted Psychological Safety as a defining characteristic of high-performing teams.

Modern people management requires Purpose, Autonomy, Mastery, Trust and Psychological safety. How do you do that ? 

Purpose: Derived from strategic activities:defining a mission and a vision will ensure alignment while fostering autonomy.

Autonomy: Empower teams, accept occasional failures, let people choose the how and build psychological safety.

Mastery: Recognize individual talents, position them for success and train or mentor them when needed. This is a critical management skill.

Psychological safety
: Showing vulnerability. A manager shows vulnerability by saying in public when he has made an error. It requires a good level of self confidence. 

Trust: Maintain trust by ensuring transparency and consistency in communication. You are allowed to change your mind but make sure you communicate about it. Applying the “Praising in Public and Criticizing in Private” rule of thumbs will go a long way in preserving trust.

I will conclude with one management capability that makes it easier to get all of that right. 

Management is all about anticipating and mitigating the risks of not achieving a desired outcome. In the case of people management the risks are that people might “quiet quit” and/or your teams don’t perform as well as they could because of a lack of trust and psychological safety.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is pivotal. It gauges motivation, trust, and psychological safety levels, enabling proactive management.

This article merely scratches the surface. Dive deeper through the provided links and share your thoughts for a richer discussion.