Don’t Warn – Fix!

I saw a bumper sticker last week on an old Volkswagen Beetle: “Warning. Manual Transmission. May Roll Backwards.”

It made me want to put my car within inches of his back bumper, facing uphill. Well, no. I’m not really that passive-aggressive. But I owned only stick-shifts for over forty years, including a succession of well-used VW Beetles when I lived along the steep hills keeping the Hudson River in her banks. And I never once rolled backwards from a stop.

(Set the emergency brake. Put the car in first. Then put your hand on the brake release and slowly lower it as you gently apply the gas and ease out the clutch. Yeah, it takes thirty seconds of practice, but if someone as utterly uncoordinated as I can manage it, so can the driver in the picture.)

Here’s the Legal Project Management lesson: Seek to fix problems rather than warn others to work around them.

When it comes to small problems, your number-one job as a project manager is Mr. or Ms. Fix-It. Don’t blame others. Don’t run around looking for someone else. Get in there and solve the problem.

Note that I said this is a job as project manager. Most project managers on legal projects wear multiple hats. If, for example, you’re managing a junior lawyer and she presents a document with problems, your job as a training-lawyer is to help her get better, which usually means teaching her how to fix the problem. (If you do it for her, you’re not making your job easier the next time a related problem occurs.)

Can You Fix All Problems?

Of course not.

Can You Fix All Project-Management-Related Problems?

Of course not.

Fix the ones you can. You can’t create more time in a day, or make a client act in a timely manner, or keep one of your team members from being poached by another project.

But note that each of these three examples does have a fix-it component.

More time in a day? Stop getting distracted by email. Work in longer, focused chunks. Delegate – and don’t micromanage. Learn these skills, and share them with your team. (For more examples, see my book The Off Switch, which contains some straightforward and easily implemented timesaving principles.)

Client recalcitrance? It’s harder once the horse has left the barn (or the VW has left the garage), so get out in front. Learn to manage the client from the get-go. Do you understand the client’s business objectives and business problem? How does your work fit into her world? Have you prepped her on what to expect and requested her buy-in? You can’t fix the client, but you can set expectations. (Caveat: there will always be certain clients who seem to take a perverse delight in making the work of others particularly difficult.)

Losing team members? Do you share your needs and schedules with other project managers? Do you help them understand why this project is important, and who’s critical on what dates? And do you listen to – and even seek out – the same from them? A reputation for sharing and a bit of horse-trading go a long way.

Most project management problems have solutions, and most of these solutions begin with the project manager getting out in front of the problem.

Fix Problems Before They Occur

I pity the car behind our unpracticed VW driver the first time he stops facing uphill. (Yes, it was a “he.”) That’s not the time to figure out the emergency-brake gavotte. If you drive a stick, find a hill and practice before someone pulls up behind you.

Likewise, learn some time-management tips before you’re slammed for time. Understand client needs, timelines, and proclivities at the start of the project, not an hour before you need approval on something. Start sharing project info with other project managers now, not after you lose a team member. (You can usually share project needs without compromising privilege or confidentiality, but you may need to give some projects extra thought in this regard.)

I have worked with too many project managers – in the legal world and otherwise – who focus to excess on schedules, deadlines, and the minutiae of managing projects while they lose sight of the big picture: client needs, business problem, needs of the firm or law department, etc.

Get your head up out of your laptop. Look around.

You can’t fix problems if you can’t see them.

And you can’t see them if you’re looking only at the tasks directly in front of you.

Bottom line: don’t put the responsibility on other people if you can fix it yourself.

Don’t be that guy in the Volkswagen.

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