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Everyone is always telling me that to be successful as a project manager you have to build good relationships with your project teams. I see it all over this forum and am told this by other PMs in my company. My problem is, I don't believe this is a real solution to many problems and I'm currently thinking this is just a BS default answer given when the real answer is "I don't know" or "I can't do anything about it".

Real world example - We have, from my perspective, a corporate culture issue where line managers are VERY protective of their teams and extremely hesitant to provide help with things outside the scope of their team's immediate job at a given moment. E-mailed requests go unanswered. In-person conversations often end with "I'll get you that by the end of the day" and the next day I'm in another conversation with the same person - "We were really busy. I'll get it to you tomorrow." and this can continue for months with escalations to their management giving me the exact same response ("They're busy. Tomorrow." and then tomorrow comes and goes with no result). As a PM, a lot of my job is getting these various teams to work together and it's just hell because they don't want to.

I ask my fellow PMs how to handle this and the answer I get is "You have to build a good relationship with them. They have to WANT to do things for you." Huh? That seems like BS to me. Aren't they getting paid to do stuff for the company? I'm just some dude that coordinates things. I'm not even really the one initiating the requests. Someone else asked me to get this information for them and they're going to hold me accountable for getting them that information. If they really are that busy, their line managers need to handle that. I'm running the project, not the individual teams and when you tell me "Person X is your guy" and then person X says they don't have time to do what I need, that's not a problem I can solve because I'm not their manager. However, I just keep getting told to build a better relationship with the teams. Honestly, I'm not even sure what that means I should do. It's not like I get invited out to lunch with these teams or hang out chatting in the halls. I don't even work on the same floor as most of them. Am I supposed to just randomly stop by all of their desks and try to strike up interesting conversations? I would hate if some PM stopped by to chit-chat with me while I was trying to work.

So is this a cop out? When is it ok to say "relationship building is not the problem here" and how do you get that across?

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Your interactions with team members are the key part of being a PM. You will always have some sort of relationship with them, good or bad. In the common case where a PM has zero real power in a company, having a good relationship with those who do have power becomes overwhelmingly important because if you don't have someone who is willing to back you up you will never get anything done.

So relationship building is always going to be an important ingredient for project success.

Having a good relationship isn't about being someone's buddy. It is about consistently showing your leadership by being honest, fair and open with everyone on your teams. It is about giving people a heads-up when something is coming down the pipe that can impact them. It is about asking if they have a minute to talk before you take their time. It is about showing real concern when they have issues and going to bat for them with senior management if you have to. It is about being honest with them about their accountabilities and how you want to help them look good. It is about involving the team leaders in your planning efforts and backing up their estimates when the estimated schedule isn't too rosy. And it is about taking the time to do all of these things, over and over again, consistently and persistently with little chance of getting an obvious reward in the short term.

But even though you may have good relationships your corporate culture can hamstring you. If there isn't clear accountability up to and including executive level on your projects you will have great difficulty getting attention. Remember that your team gets paid to do a lot of different things for your company, and if what you want them to do is low on their priority list you will have problems no matter how good your relationships are.

  • Thanks for the answer! I feel like what you're saying is correct, but is not ultimately what I'm being told when people tell me to build relationships. Being honest, fair and open means pointing out when project needs are not being met and no matter how nice and non-judgemental I am about it, ultimately I'm telling them they're doing something wrong. How do you build a working relationship with teams that never deliver and managers who protect them? I just think it's the wrong path. My job is to make sure projects get done as efficiently as possible, not to play social games. – NightMan Apr 25 '13 at 15:55
  • If your corporate culture fails to promote accountability I don't know if there is really much that you can do to make things better. You may just have to accept that projects involving the non-performers are not going to be efficiently executed. If that is the case you could try to account for it in your plans, bu that isn't a real solution. And you shouldn't ever play social games, you will always lose at some point. – Doug B Apr 25 '13 at 17:14
  • If you feel like building working relationships with under-performing teams is the wrong path do you have a feel for what the right path might be? If you don't have authority over staff I think your only option is to try and influence and negotiate. That'll still require building relationships though! – Willl Apr 29 '13 at 11:05
  • Honestly, I think the right path is process and, more importantly, process compliance tied to performance goals. I shouldn't have to convince someone to perform a task for me. I should follow a process to request the task and they should follow a process to schedule the task to be completed based on their other project priorities. Instead, the process is to ignore the request or stall as long as possible and the managers protect this behavior because they do it as well. Ultimately it's seen as the PMs fault for not convincing them to complete the task. – NightMan Apr 29 '13 at 18:17
  • @NightMan, I doubt relationships work without process but I know that process won't work without relationships. Assuming you come up with a good process you need someone in your corner who has real power to enforce adherence. Focus on figuring out who that person/people is/are and convince them of the righteousness of your cause. Use those relationships that you have built to get what you want. – Doug B Apr 29 '13 at 19:59
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It can be a copout, but in my experience, most of the time when someone says something like "relationship building is a cop-out", the person saying that really does need to put more effort into building relationships. Let's look at some hypothetical scenarios:

  1. Al's engineers need some mockups from Beth in graphics department. Al says to Beth, "I need these mockups for this project. Can you do them for me?" Beth says, "I'm busy. I'll get around to it tomorrow." Al asks again the next day and Beth says, "I don't have time right now. I'll do it another day." Al asks the next day and the next day and the next day. Beth still doesn't have time. End result: Al is frustrated that Beth won't cooperate. Beth is annoyed that Al keeps asking her to do something when she's clearly too busy.

  2. Al's engineers need some mockups from Beth in graphics department. Al says to Beth, "I need these mockups for this project. Can you do them for me?" Beth says, "I'm busy. I'll get around to it tomorrow." Al says, "Oh, really? What are you working on?" Beth explains that she's been given the task of redoing all the logos on the company's flagship products after a new branding strategy was declared, that she was explicitly told this was her top priority. Al then continues to ask questions like "When do you expect to be finished with this?" and "Is there anyone in the department with a lighter workload that I could maybe hand this task to?" Beth, knowing that Al appreciates how much work she does, tries to help out and give him helpful suggestions. Maybe she even volunteers to skip her lunch break or work on Al's mockups a little each day until they're done. Al's project only falls a little behind schedule, if at all.

That's not to say every instance of unaccountable workers is situation 2, but you'll never know if you don't try. In other words, if nothing else, better relationship building enables you to rule out the possibility that a manager is missing out on something he or she can only learn through informal channels of communication.

  • Thanks for the response! I have actually just made the jump from engineering to project management (not at the same company unfortunately or I'd have more engineering support) so I'm really familiar with the engineering side of juggling competing project priorities. Because of that, I honestly tend to favor engineering, accepting their estimates and fighting for the resources they need. I know first hand the hell of having a PM constantly pushing you for no good reason and thinking they know better than the engineers and I vow to never be that PM. Continued... – NightMan May 9 '13 at 14:08
  • What I've come to find now that I'm fully a PM, at least here, is that the PMs are generally open and accepting and helpful. We communicate very well and keep each other aware of our various project priorities. I know that some other project is higher priority, but my business/financial stakeholders just don't care. When other projects take priority from theirs it means they won't get in their feature updates and they won't make their big bonus for the year. On the other side, engineering takes 'top priority' to mean they can't even devote 10 minutes to another project to give estimates. – NightMan May 9 '13 at 14:14
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Relationship-Building is One Tool Among Many

Relationship building isn't a cop-out. However, in your specific case, it is the wrong tool for the job. In many cases, a project manager has no real power; he or she must perform duties through influence rather than command-and-control techniques.

In your case, you make the point that you can do neither. You have neither command-and-control authority over the project, nor do you have sufficient influence with the line managers or engineers to get things done.

Leverage Your Project Champion

A well-designed project has stakeholders, an executive sponsor, and often a steering committee. It also generally involves someone with direct budgetary authority.

In general, problems with scheduling or accrual of project resources (staff, equipment, or even hair gel if that's needed for your project) ought to be effectively communicated to those folks. It is ultimately their responsibility to see to it that the project is staffed, funded, and provisioned.

More specifically, the executive sponsor or project champion is the person who wants what the project is supposed to deliver. If you build trust with that person, it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to take appropriate action to ensure that the project remains on track, and to ask that person to leverage her relationships to exert C&C or influence where you can't.

Projects Without Accountability

Plenty of projects are run with no real authority or influence by any involved party. As has been noted in other answers here, around 68% of IT projects fail. There is a correlation.

In the end, in a blame culture the project manager will be held responsible for the project's failure anyway. However, the organizational responsibility for its success or failure always rests with senior management.

Make sure that you've assessed your own part in this process. If the project is failing because you aren't upholding your professional responsibilities or communicating status to the right people, take ownership of that. Otherwise, remind people that they own the success or failure of the project, do the best you can with the project you have, and polish your resume in the meantime.

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For me, it's somewhat of a cop out. It's like saying 90% of project mgmt is communication. No, 90% of pm is knowing 'how' and 'what' to communicate and why. Simply talking (communicating) about it isn't going to change anything, and it certainly not going to get the project done.

So yes, you have to build relationships. But you have to know 'why' you're building them, and then work on the how. You need these guys to do things for you, so you need to build a relationship where they want to help you, where they're interested in helping you and your team succeed. so work on building interest and support for the project.

You need to get them on board and supporting your project so they want to help. Anything short of that and yes, you're just telling them did something wrong. and non one's going to want to help then.

  • But there's always the ditch digging that needs to be done and nobody wants to do that or are interested in helping that effort when the guys next door are building crystal skyscrapers. Unfortunately one of my projects has a reputation for being a crap project from way before I was here. Every time I approach someone with something from that project I can tell they just want to punch me. – NightMan May 9 '13 at 14:20
  • Then this is where you need to bring the project sponsor or project board into it. You need to get them involved - either this is a crap project and it needs to be killed because no one cares, or if it's not and they (other managers) just don't understand the importance, then the sponsor needs to be involved and influence some people. If your project is one that no one wants to help with, everyone thinks is crap, and there's no support, then you need to ask everyone involved - should we really be doing this? If so, you need to support me. Again, 'how' and 'what' to communicate. – Trevor K. Nelson May 9 '13 at 21:28

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