“Curiosity is the engine of achievement.”
― Ken Robinson
Contracting to a business or organization for the expressed purpose of “getting a task done” can be extremely challenging. Because the project is not your own, you have to develop an uncommon ability to be curious about the project and be motivated to accomplish it.
There are 5 fundamental disciplines that good project managers engage in on a regular basis in order to succeed on any project. Within each of these, curiosity plays a major role.
Being curious is critical to knowledge, and knowledge is critical to success. The poet Walt Whitman intuitively knew what it takes to succeed when he wrote, “Be curious and not judgmental.” This idea applies today as much as it did in 1861. In project management, it is imperative to develop a healthy curiosity about a project while avoiding judgment of the client’s previous efforts or the environment of the organization.
The delicate balance is to be assertive about getting your questions answered, but to not to overstep your position and become disparaging. Remember this is the client’s project, not yours. The job of an outside contractor is to be the facilitator of the project, not the visionary. This is easy to say yet hard to accomplish.
So how can we use curiosity to ensure project success? By being curious as we learn, practice and engage in the five fundamental disciplines of an effective project manager.
1) Communication. We’ve all experienced the effects of poor communication. It is the cause of more than half of failed projects. As an outside contractor, you have a unique opportunity to break down typical channels of communication within an organization and to share information. The best way to do this is to ask lots and lots of questions. The “cat-like” approach of asking neutral, nonjudgmental questions of everyone on the team is a great way to start. Ask them often and get feedback as frequently as you can.
2) Organization. Project success also heavily relies on the ability to organize and coordinate tasks, deadlines, meetings, risks, issues, and reports on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. This discipline is not easy and demands our constant attention. Make sure everyone has ready access to the schedule and keep people on track with regular meetings and updates. Steady, frequent group-wide communication is your best tool for building relationships and completing a successful project.
3) Negotiation. This skill is required from the beginning to the end of any project, and sometimes even beyond closeout. Negotiation is a true, but learnable art form, and if you have ever watched a master at work, it can be like a symphony playing out in front of your eyes. Any project manager will greatly benefit from mastering the ability to formally and informally negotiate and navigate a variety of situations and environments. Study, learn, and be aware that every conversation you have is a negotiation of some form or another.
4) Collaboration. Having a collaborative and mentorship mentality provides you with a great perspective and enables you to partner with and coach members of the team as appropriate. However, it also requires awareness and caution, so that you avoid taking on the project as your own. Personal judgment can creep in very easily here, and it is important to remember that you are serving the organization ahead of yourself. Check in with yourself regularly to ensure it hasn’t become “your” project.
5) Technical skills. Notice this is the last skill on the list, and contrary to popular belief, it is far from the most important requirement for success. True, a solid project manager needs to have an understanding of the technology and skills needed to complete the project. However, it is not required for you to be the “expert in the room” on every technical subject. Contributing in your areas of expertise and being open to learning things you don’t know will build respect and understanding from the organization you are serving.
We have all heard the phrase “curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” Good project managers are like curious cats—they ask questions, become inquisitive, and seek solutions a project’s problems and challenges in order to find a way forward and the feel satisfaction of success.
In the words of another Walt—the Great Walt Disney, “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”