We’re Humans, Not Robots.

Successful project managers exhibit critical thinking skills. But we are sometimes forced to make rapid decisions in situations for which we have never been trained. Why is it, that we so often demand absolute perfection of ourselves and our fellow project managers?  We’re human, not a robot.

The Project Management Institute does not demand blood when bad things happen on a project. No, we do this to ourselves. When we hear about a project incident, we look for all the mistakes those “incompetent” project managers made so we can tell ourselves it would never happen to us. But when I make a project mistake, the harsher critic is often…me. While that story-telling might help us manage the discomfort of situations not turning out as planned, it doesn’t make us any more effective as a project management professional.

When Self-Doubt Becomes a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

One of the privileges of my position as a management consultant is that I am frequently in the role of project manager coach. In that role I am asked to give client executive mandated remedial project management coaching to those who have had a project management incident. Many times, these project managers walk in, shoulders slumped, and the defeat is evident on their faces. But folks, one mistake does not make you incompetent. It makes you human. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I’ll tell you the very worst thing we can do is continue to beat ourselves up over a failed project gate or a mishap during a project status briefing. That self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, making us weaker instead of stronger.

“Can We Get Serious Now?”

So, when the latest long-faced project manager showed up in my office for a training session, we watched the courtroom clip from the film Sully before we got down to the business of dissecting the project incident that led to their remedial training and coaching. Captain Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles, are in the NTSB hearing, watching simulator pilots re-create the dual engine loss scenario—but instead of a water landing on the Hudson, the sim pilots make it back to LaGuardia and Teterboro. Sully states, “Can we get serious now?” and then turns the tables by eloquently delivering the point that the sim pilots are effectively robots, having the benefit of warning and 17 practice runs before the courtroom simulations. “You are looking for human error. Then make it human,’ he says. In the movie, this prompts the NTSB to agree to a 35-second human factor delay before the sim pilots can turn for the runway.   With the delay, the plane crashed every time.

The NTSB ultimately rules Sullenberger and his crew were heroes for managing to make a safe water landing and get all 155 souls out alive. But here’s the question: What if the NTSB had ruled pilot error? Would that make Sullenberger and Skiles any less heroic? No. They were proficient pilots who managed to maintain focus and form a plan of action in an extraordinary situation. 

Determine A Course Of Action

Back to the coaching session, the project manager watched the video clip with brow-furrowed intensity. I noted his long face gradually transform into a subtle smile. When the clip concluded the project manager turned to me and said, “So, I guess that I can decide if I’d rather feel dejected, or an alternative. I can instead decide to be confident and positive.” He got it! Rather than continuing to live the same old storyline again and again, he now saw he had the power to begin reshaping his reality. Rather than create a story of defeat, despair, and discouragement, with a bit of a reframe he was empowered and enthusiastic about continuing to become a better project manager.

As a group, we project managers tend to dislike excuses. We demand accountability and logical answers to problems. So, if something went wrong on a project, then it was obviously the project manager’s fault. And, if it was project management error, then he must not be a very good project manager. No, it was project manager error because that project manager is human. When things happen, we need to analyze the incident (minus the self-inflicted abuse) and determine a course of action that will prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

What Our Failures Teach Us

After a project management incident, someone sitting in a comfortable setting may come up with ways we could have done it better. We probably will even do this to ourselves. Was there a way we could have acted differently when the project execution failed? Did we miss something during planning that might have prevented the problem? Of course, we could have. And with experience, practice, more knowledge and healthy reflection, we know will do it better next time.

That’s what our failures teach us. They make us better for the next time. We are not robots, we’re something better. We’re human.

Scott Stribrny

An internationally acknowledged authority in project management, information systems/technology, systems engineering, and lean development, Scott is interested in the intersections of business, technology, and organizational risks.