As Covid-19 continues to accelerate the digital transformation that was already underway before the pandemic, project management skills will be more indispensable than ever before, according to the Global Megatrends 2022 report by the Project Management Institute (PMI).
Organizations have long looked to their IT project managers to turn their digital strategies into measurable business value. The critical role of IT project managers will only become more important in the coming years, as technologies like cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) become a ubiquitous part of our everyday life.
Throughout our collective careers, we have worked with hundreds of great IT Project Managers, from our clients and partners, to successfully deliver some of the most complex technology projects. We have observed that all highly effective IT Project Managers share a common characteristic: they have adopted five essential mental habits. We have come to call these the five habits of highly effective IT Project managers.
1. Mindset Mastery vs. Technical Mastery
Before transitioning to leadership role, most IT project managers spend many years mastering technical skills as individual subject matter expert contributors. As they develop their technical mastery, they develop a sense of confidence that they can control the forces at work in their professional practice. It is not surprising that having this kind of control, real or perceived, was identified as one of the most powerful drivers of our well-being.
But as they transition to a leadership role, they learn to let go of the control they gained through mastery of their domain of expertise and begin to focus on a different type of control: mastering their mindset. They develop the habit of observing their inner thoughts, inner dialogue, and language as they make sense of the various situations they encounter.
Shifting the focus of one’s attention to attend to the inner working our mind is crucial to developing the emotional resilience and emotional mindfulness to be able to monitor and be aware our mental states. This also happens to be a prerequisite to being able to understand the mental and emotional states of others, which is essential to helping people navigate the emotional lifecycle of the project.
Valuing mindset mastery over technical mastery is a crucial transformation that helps highly effective IT Project Managers develop situational awareness and the ability to “read the room”. Conversely, IT Project Managers who don’t make the transition struggle in their new role, because they develop blind spots and fail to notice obvious problems.
2. Technical problems vs. Adaptive challenges
Before transitioning to leadership role, IT project managers developed expertise that enabled them to solve a variety of technical problems. Technical problems can be diagnosed and solved with procedures, solutions, and subject matter expertise that already exist.
Complex technology implementations require effective organizational change management because they often force people to change the way they think, feel, and behave. They also push people to make tradeoffs which often elicits resistance to change. Resistance to change is an adaptive challenge.
Unlike technical problems, adaptive challenges as those that have no easy answers or ready-made solutions. Ron Heifetz describes adaptive challenges as requiring change in people’s priorities, believes, and habits. Change comes with loss and, in turn, with fear. Ron Heifetz warns that one of the most common failures of leadership is treating adaptive challenges as technical problems. This is why they adopt the habit of paying attention to when adaptive challenges are misdiagnosed and addressed as technical problems to protect people and avoid conflict.
3. Living with uncertainty
Neuroscience is showing us that our brain craves certainty. According to David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, our brain processes uncertainty as a threat. Yet, IT projects are synonymous with uncertainty. In fact, we believe that the entire project management body of knowledge is about helping the project manager reduce uncertainty as the project progresses through its lifecycle. Therefore, how the IT project manager copes with uncertainty drives their decisions and in turn shape the course of the project.
Highly effective project managers adopt the habit of embracing uncertainty. They see uncertainty as an integral part of project work. Instead of letting uncertainty drive their decisions, highly effective Project Managers trust themselves, their project management processes, and their teams.
4. Embracing Failure
Every project, even successful ones, has at some point encounter one or more setbacks. And throughout their careers, IT project managers will face a number of setbacks and even failures. If they have never failed, it is possible that they may not have taken risks or pushed the limits of their competence. It is at that limit when learning often takes place.
Project managers understand that failure is an integral part of developing the skills to deliver successful projects. They understand the dichotomy of success and failure. That to succeed one often must experience and learn from failures. The key is how the project manager deals with setbacks. Setbacks are inevitable. It’s only a matter of when not if a project manager will encounter challenges and may experience failure. What differentiates highly effective project managers from others is that over time they develop a healthy relationship with setbacks and failure and adopt a growth mindset.
According to Carol Dweck, people with a growth mindset believe failure as a temporary setback and an opportunity for personal growth. In contrast, a fixed mindset is believing that setbacks and mistakes as a result of character flaws and lack of talent. IT Project Managers adopt the habit of regarding failure as an integral part of the learning process and becoming an effective project manager.
5. Healthy relationship with formal authority
Ask any project manager what the biggest challenge is that they face and at some point they will mention the common “responsibility without authority” problem. This refers to the perception that the Project Manager role comes with a great deal of responsibility without commensurate level of formal managerial authority over the people doing the project work. Such perception can often breed a sense of helplessness.
However, effective IT Project Managers adopt the habit of distinguishing between formal authority and leadership. They know that being an authority figure can undermine their ability to lead effectively. Authority figures are expected to provide protection, avoid conflict, and maintain order and control - but the work of project management is helping organizations implement change which is work that is rife with conflict and uncertainty.
Effective IT Project Managers do not try to protect people from facing difficult questions or choices. They also don’t help people avoid conflict or the disruptive nature of technology changes.
Ironically, while most people strive to gain formal authority, highly effective IT Project Manager learn to see formal authority as a potential barrier to leading change effectively.
Bringing all together
IT project Managers who don’t adopt these habits often struggle and some never reach their full potential. What always surprises us is how these 5 habits are interdependent and build on each other. By focusing on mindset mastery, IT project managers become more aware of their mental and emotional states, which enables them to be more responsive and less reactive.
This allows them to focus more on developing the essential leadership skills required to address adaptive challenges and avoid misdiagnosing and treating them as technical problems.
Developing these skills gives them the confidence to be able to live with uncertainty and embracing failure as an integral part of learning and growth. Finally, they come to develop a healthy relationship with formal authority, while keenly aware of how misusing it can undermine their ability to lead change.