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Empathetic Project Management

July 14, 2015

Traditionally speaking, Project Managers have a set of dual responsibilities that can be at conflict with each other. They are responsible for ensuring the overall success of the project while keeping it within its budget and timeline. At the same time, they act as the customer’s representative to the development team and are responsible for ensuring customer satisfaction. In an ideal waterfall project where the budget and timeline are predicted perfectly and there are no changes in scope or desired features, this dual role for Project Managers makes perfect sense. Of course, this ideal waterfall project doesn’t exist except in myths and daydreams. In reality, Project Managers often perform a balancing act between keeping a project within budget and satisfying a customer’s desires.

If we see the Project Manager as a tightrope walker, project success looks like survival. A successful project is one in which the Project Manager makes it to the end without falling. Merely surviving to the end of a project, however, doesn’t say much for the quality of the outcome. If a Project Manager is balancing between competing goals, then that balance is usually going to be achieved by give and take. Those involved may accept the outcome, but there is usually some underlying dissatisfaction on one or both sides.

As Mediacurrent’s first Customer Success Manager, I firmly reject the idea that there needs to be two sides with competing goals in a project. In order for a project to truly succeed, we need to partner with our customers, not compete with them.

Now, I know that this isn’t a new idea. Many Project Managers have adopted agile planning and development processes specifically because they give customers tremendous power in determining the path of a project, making them the primary prioritization decision makers. Agile almost immediately increases a customer’s satisfaction with the development team, because the team is implementing her plan. Similarly, the development team is kept happy because they have reasonable, achievable goals and the Project Manager’s job is made easier because sprints are predictable in terms of time and budget.

This sounds great, doesn’t it? Everybody leaves happy.

Or do they?

Note that I said that agile processes tend to increase a customer’s satisfaction with the development team. This doesn’t mean that, at the end of the process, the customer is going to be happy with the decisions they made or the end product that those decisions resulted in. 

Agile processes are, perhaps, most likely to fail when the Project Manager maintains the mindset of the tightrope walker. For many Project Managers, agile is a seductive process. Maintaining balance is no longer a burden, not because the Project Manager has abandoned that mindset, but because it is easy for a Project Manager to let the customer and the process take on the burden of customer satisfaction. 

Balance-focused Project Managers may provide guidance to a customer, helping her to prioritize and simplify desired features, but they do this in a way that focuses upon fitting these features into sprints. It is often easy for them to focus on what the customer says they wants without considering whether these features actually serve her underlying goals and business needs. The judgment employed by these Project Managers is process oriented: it focuses upon fitting the customer’s expressed desires into the agile process. What is needed, though, is empathic project management in which that judgment is applied with an understanding not only of what the customer is asking for, but what they actually wants out of the engagement. 

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. It is an important skill for any customer-facing position. For a Project Manager responsible for bringing a customer’s vision to life, it is essential. A balance-focused Project Manager is necessarily limiting his ability to empathize with a customer. An empathic Project Manager, instead, places an understanding of the customer at the forefront.

This mindset works hand-in-hand with agile processes. An empathic Project Manager embraces the agile framework to deal with time and budget concerns and focuses his energy on helping the customer to make wise prioritizing decisions. The difference here is subtle but important. Where a balance-focused Project Manager might listen to the customer’s desires and propose a technically simpler version of the same feature, an empathic Project Manager learns why the customer asks for a particular feature, comes to understand what it is trying to accomplish, and may propose alternate features that focus in upon the customer’s goal. Thus, at the end of the project, the empathic Project Manager has helped the customer reach an end product that achieves her goals rather than one which merely looks superficially like what the customer envisioned. 

So what do we need to engage in this sort of empathic project management?
    •    A willingness to both understand the customer’s underlying goals and to work towards those rather than technical specifications;
    •    Sufficient time to focus on achieving this understanding;
    •    Enough knowledge of both the system (in our case this is Drupal) and digital strategy to grasp the available options reaching those goals;
    •    A discovery process that supports learning about the customer’s goals and business problems that need solving rather than ideas about solutions;
    •    An agile development process that allows exploration of alternate features that meet those goals without lock-in to proposed solutions.

Just as empathy itself is most powerful when embedded in a strong relationship between two people, empathic project management can’t be one-sided. It requires a customer’s openness, partnership, and active participation. The more clearly a customer shares her goals and feelings, the more likely an empathic Project Manager is going to be able to guide her project to true success.

Additional Resources

Help Ensure your Website Project is a Success | Mediacurrent Blog Post