Why You Need a Sense of Urgency to Be an Effective Project Manager


If you want to be a stellar performer and a good project manager, don’t treat every assignment as if it were an ultra-high priority, but keep a sense of urgency. Finishing tasks and finishing projects is a sign of a professional. Don’t let yourself get distracted or put off too much.

Last year, I met with a young project manager over a period of several weeks. His manager had asked me to provide coaching and assistance as the rookie took on the project manager role for a technology refresh project.

The rookie seemed pretty sharp. He had a good technical background and was maybe ready for more of a leadership role. The project was interesting, but didn’t seem overwhelmingly large. It had gotten off to a bit of a slow start, but that happens on projects and I recognized some of the delays as unavoidable.

In our first meeting, I asked the project manager what he expected the next steps to be over the next few weeks. He told me that there were some hardware-selection decisions to be made, the paperwork needed to be shepherded through the organization’s procurement process, and customer departments needed to be contacted when the hardware would be installed. This all seemed pretty straightforward to me. The project manager had a crude plan in place. More details would be available when the procurement was wrapping up and he had information from the client departments. I figured we could build detailed plans later.

The following week, I asked about progress. Had the hardware decision been made? How was the procurement paperwork coming? What was the outcome of the initial customer outreach? The young project manager seemed a little embarrassed, saying that not much progress had been made. The hardware decision was close, but a last-minute alternative had turned up and they were going to get demos from that vendor the following week. He had sent outreach e-mails to one of the client departments, but hadn’t heard back yet.

I checked in again the next week. The hardware demo had been delayed once more because the vendor wasn’t ready. The client department still hadn’t responded to his e-mail. The procurement process couldn’t be started without a final hardware decision. I knew that the money allocated to the procurement needed to be spent in this fiscal year to avoid a bit of administrative hassle, but the rookie PM shrugged, saying in effect, “These things take as long as they take.”

I pondered what he said for a while after I spoke with him. Sometimes, a big part of my role is explaining exactly that message to impatient senior executives who don’t understand that there is a limit to how quickly some things can be accomplished. As author Fred Brooks so famously observed, “If it takes a woman nine months to have a baby, you can’t get a baby in a month by putting nine women on the job.” On the other hand, something about our exchange was troubling me, the lack of urgency.

What didn’t feel right?

Let’s agree that not all projects are urgent. I am a firm believer that successful professionals are thoughtful about their priorities and selective about which issues constitute a crisis. It took me a while to realize that this person, who I’m sure was intelligent and a hard worker, was allowing himself (and his project) to be distracted and, in some cases, stymied by minor setbacks and trivia.

One of the guiding principles of project management is that most projects are better done sooner rather than later. This doesn’t mean speed is desirable for speed’s sake, but project schedules establish expectations about when the value of the investment in the project will be realized. When the preliminary schedule for this project was proposed, it had a completion date well before the end of the fiscal year, so no one was particularly concerned about the delivery time. Senior managers in the organization knew that it was a hassle if money had to be moved from one fiscal year to another. It is one of a thousand bits of trivia that drive project dates that don’t get explained to rookie project managers on day one, but usually emerge as part of on the job training during their first couple of years. This sounds like keeping information from the young PMs, but really it’s more about trying not to overwhelm them.

The young PM was sanguine about the project delays, believing that the technology refresh he was running had no hard due date (it didn’t from a technology perspective). He wasn’t aware of, or was unconcerned about some of the other implications of the slip, both administrative (budget hassles), and executive perception (his project seemed to be dragging on for no apparent reason). He didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency.

What does a sense of urgency look like?

When people don’t reply to your first e-mail after twenty-four or forty-eight hours, send a gentle reminder. If your reminder doesn’t generate a response, try calling to follow up. Don’t be a jerk about it, try something like, “I sent an e-mail inquiry a while back and we haven’t connected yet. I know how cluttered e-mail can get, and I wanted to follow up by phone to make sure we connect soon about the hardware rollout. I want to make sure I’m addressing your concerns and minimize surprises for your organization.”

When you think you have made your hardware choice and a new vendor comes on the scene in the eleventh hour, triage the information, and unless there is a compelling reason worth delaying the project over, don’t include them. If you feel you must include them, tell the vendor representatives that you are late in your evaluation process and if they wish to be considered, they will need to make an effort to get you the information you need promptly.

Treat your published dates as if they were important, not sacred. There are good reasons for missing dates after expectations have been set; make sure the reasons your project is delayed are good ones.

If you want to be a stellar performer and a good project manager, don’t treat every assignment as if it were a ultra-high priority, but keep a sense of urgency. Finishing tasks and finishing projects is a sign of a professional. Don’t let yourself get distracted or put off too much. Many executives treat your performance on small tasks and small projects as an indicator of your ability to take on larger and more substantial responsibilities. This rookie project manager has potential, but his career will likely be limited until he learns this lesson.

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