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Whether or not one is a natually paranoid person only one’s closest friends and family can really judge. However when it comes to overseeing projects, a PM – in my opinion – has to develop a healthy degree of paranoia, regardless of their natural predisposition. And I think that’s the right – no, the essential – attitude to have in this job. Let me explain what I mean by that.

It’s really a combination of things: attitudes and qualities such as “close attention to detail”, “leaving no stone unturned”, and most importantly, “never making any assumptions”. This does not mean the PM has to do everything on a project and be everywhere at the same time, constantly breathing down people’s necks - that would clearly be unrealistic as well as annoying and unworkable for the team as a whole. PMs can and ought to delegate tasks. But even with delegating, a PM must invest a serious amount of effort to establish a reporting feedback loop and an accountability framework which then creates an environment of open, transparent and constant communication across the team and with the stakeholders. And when not delegating, a PM must make it their business to fully understand the subject matter or seek reliable expert help to ensure success.

Project management is as much as art as it is a process. Much has been written about the process aspect of project management, and there are excellent tools available for PMs. However a part of the art of successful project management is to have this gut feel, this instinct for sensing potential future trouble when there exists at least the tiniest lack of clarity about something the team is engaged in. And a healthily paranoid project manager should realise that if there is a little bit of scope for something going wrong as soon an a little gap in understanding opens up, things will indeed go wrong given half a chance.

So working with this instinct, a project manager should be continuously checking and validating any assumptions they might have made, confirming everyone’s understanding of tasks and deadlines, bringing people together to talk to each other if they have not done so already, and work on ensuring total clarity throughout the project lifecycle.

The other day, a client with whom we’ve been working for some time asked us to proceed on a piece of work by sending me a quick note saying “please commence the work”. Some specification documents have been written, and a summary of estimated costs has of course also been presented in the past. But the client has not signed off on these in an explicit way (we are not using a document approval system with them at this present moment).

To a project manager, this lack of an explicit approval should be a concern – and my gut instinct tells me that this needs to be sorted out. Even though documents have been swapped at the same time as the informal approval, such a situation can be misconstrued in future and perhaps someone could claim that sign off has never been given. We would not want to risk such a situation developing, so – call me paranoid – I am seeking to have a more formal written acknowledgement of my documents. And maybe this is a bit formalistic – and perhaps even a bit annoying to our customer whom we know well and for whom we’ve successfully delivered projects in the past. But as long as everyone is clear on the implications of this situation, and the risks that both parties expose themselves to, then I think we will get the project kicked off properfly in the very nearest future.

Ksenia Woodgate
Director at PointBeyond Ltd

Tags: Art, Attention, Checking, Clarity, Communication, Instinct, Paranoia, Process, assumptions, detail, More…management, of, project, to

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You make great points. A good PM sniffs out risk, senses dangerous assumptions, and addresses unclarities in peoples' minds, etc.

Risk identification, assessment and mitigation are our tools for putting healthy paranoia into action. When not performing risk management in formal way, we can challenge assumptions and ask probing questions to instill this mindset in those around us. It's essential that we get the whole project team to be on the lookout for risk and then communicate them.

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