A few years ago, I was called in to take over a project that was in trouble: the Project Manager left suddenly and there had been no direct leadership for over a month.
In my first walk around the project area, I noticed a dollar bill thumb-tacked to a wall. I was curious but had other priorities so didn’t comment on this odd sight.
Weeks went by with the typical flurry of ramp-up activity: Who is responsible for each area, what are the requirements, how are we tracking them, where are the gaps, etc. When I stopped to catch my breath, I remembered the dollar bill, so I asked about it.
“Oh, that,” I was told. “The old PM said it was our project bonus.”
I was horrified.
What the devil was their PM thinking? How did he expect the team to stay motivated with a symbol of negativity in their face day after day?
Apparently, the PM was trying to make a joke.
It was not funny.
The fact is, the team was extremely de-motivated when I got there. They felt unappreciated, stressed, and a bit hopeless in the face of all they needed to do.
I think of that dollar bill not as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as a perfect representation of how that PM ran the project. His negativity made a difficult project that much worse. He let the team know he thought management saw them all as unimportant and unworthy.
And it took me months to turn things back around.
What that PM failed to understand is that people respond to our attitude and actions more than our words. If we want respect, we need to treat our people with respect. If we want the team to give 100%, we don’t simply tell them; we give 100% ourselves (if not more).
Just because we are in a tough situation doesn’t mean we need to infect the whole project. Difficulties happen all the time: We’re being pressured from the top, or there’s a really tricky issue we haven’t resolved. Maybe we’ve missed a milestone or something’s happened at home that takes us off our stride. While we shouldn’t pretend the world is made of cotton candy, it’s important to find the positive and use that to keep the team motivated.
And there is always something positive, even if we need to hunt for it.
Bottom line, a project team is made up of people. Human beings who are smart, creative, and want to do their best. Our job is to help them get to the goal line. We are here to remove barriers, not to be the barrier!
I took down that dollar bill as soon as I found out why it was there. And I let the team know how I felt about the old PM’s “joke.”
At the time, they may have thought my reaction was a bit over-the-top. But as the project progressed and we gained momentum, the mood improved and it wasn’t such a bad place to be anymore. The project continued to have its challenges, but it wasn’t due to a poor atmosphere.
As for the team’s project bonus? Let’s just say it’s too bad that old PM quit when he did.