Ask A PM: How Do I Feel More Confident When I Don’t Understand the Project?

Elizabeth Harrin | October 22, 2019

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“Dear Elizabeth: I’m working on a project with subject matter experts, but I don’t understand the subject. I can’t always follow the discussions; I find it hard to challenge, let alone help the team overcome objections. I don’t feel like I am adding much value. What can I do to be useful when I can’t contribute anything to the tasks at hand?”

 

First, if you are a project manager for this team, you are already adding value (even if they can’t quite see it yet). Your role is in the coordination, tracking, and, monitoring of the work, not the doing. Let’s talk about some ways you can feel more confident in your contribution.

 

Manage the Process

As the project manager, you are the guardian of the process. You are the expert in the room on your subject matter, which is the management of projects. You have a seat at the table and influence and authority to wield when you need to.

Help team members follow the correct process or take on doing it for them if their time is better spent on other tasks. If you have the time, you can be the one who helps the project team stay compliant with policies, processes, and guidelines. Shape how the work gets done by guiding people to the correct processes, such as managing scope changes or tracking financial information at the project level.

 

Manage the Progress

Next, you have a crucial role to play in managing progress. You track, monitor, and control the way the work is done – with their input. You don’t need to understand what a task is to know that it is 50% complete. Your management intuition will tell you if you believe the person can finish the rest of the work in the remaining time. 

People like to be able to see that they are making progress, and it’s a natural human inclination to do more if you know you are moving forward. That’s why so many projects carry on when logic dictates they should be closed down – people don’t like to stop things if progress is being made, even if it is the wrong kind of progress!

You can capitalize on that by being the person who reports on progress. Status updates are naturally part of the project manager’s role anyway. You can add value to the team and the project by taking the burden off individuals to report separately to their management and reporting through the project structure coherently. Set up times to meet with each person and collect their status updates, so you can update the plan and produce relevant reporting.

 

Polish Your Facilitation Skills

While you might have nothing much to contribute in terms of task knowledge, you can shine at keeping the team focused and efficient. Use this opportunity to brush up your facilitation skills. Test out all that knowledge in your meetings. Even small things like saying, “We’ve only got 20 minutes left of this session, so let’s move on to the next topic,” can make a huge difference to whether a meeting is productive or not. And you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in whatever you’re delivering to be able to use your natural PM organization skills for everyone’s benefit.

In your role as a project manager, you can still provide what we call at work “respectful challenge.” You might not fully understand a topic, but you can ask if that’s the only way to do something, or whether other options were considered and rejected before the person made that recommendation. 

You can also ask the team to think about how others will respond to the proposals or decisions. Here are some phrases to test out with your teams:

  • “What will the sponsor need to be aware of if we go down this route?”
  • “Are there likely to be any objections from Department X?”
  • “Is there anyone else who needs to hear about this before we make the decision?”
  • “Are we able to make the decision here, or does this feel to you like something we need to escalate for approval?”

You can ask the room if anyone has objections, even if you have none of your own. Then facilitate a discussion where everybody has the chance to speak. Use your facilitation tools like nominal group technique (where you vote for preferences) to bring a debate to a close with an outcome everyone can live with.

 

Shield the Team

Another thing you can do – and probably already do without them realizing it – is protecting the team from management confusion and drama. You can take on all the conflict management, all the grievances, and miserable stakeholders. The team needs space to be able to do their work without getting involved in any of that.

It’s hard to shield your team from negative office politics, and they won’t know you are doing it. But it’s a valuable way to make sure they can move ahead unimpeded, while you clear the roadblocks out the way for them. 

 

Handle the Communications

Beyond project reporting, you can take on other types of project communications. This has the added benefit of helping you understand the subject matter better because you can’t communicate what you don’t know. 

Team members can draft articles for newsletters or create slide decks. Then you can revise them for a non-expert audience, simplifying the message so that the key points are made. You can always have the subject matter expert on the team review the content before it is issued.

 

Don’t Worry – Knowledge will come

I remember one of my first projects in healthcare technology; it was installing a very complicated computer system in an environment I didn’t know. There was so much jargon, and I was working with both technical experts and clinical professionals – and I was neither. It was a steep learning curve, but three months into the job and I understood what we were doing and could speak the jargon as if I was a native.

Be open to learning. Keep listening. Ask questions. One tip that helped me was to write down every phrase and abbreviation I didn’t know during a meeting and then ask about all of them later. It felt less disruptive to everyone else than interrupting the meeting multiple times! I created the glossary that I referred to for years afterward.

You’ll never have the same depth of subject matter expertise as people who have trained and worked in a field for years. But it takes less time than you think to pick up enough to hold your own in meetings. 

 

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

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