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The project manager as a coach – think about the GAME

Projects and project management are about delivering change that your organisation values.

Doing that needs task orientation: you focus on what needs to be done, by when and to what quality – the founding pillars of project management.

That same task orientation can lead to a ‘directive’ style of management; you tell people what to do because time pressures or circumstances reduce the time to let the team explore options and find their own way.

Directive management has its place, especially when there is a crisis that needs quick resolution. However, use it too often and you risk the team becoming disempowered, disengaged and looking for their next role.

Methods, such as PRINCE2®, and how you adapt them will define the processes that support successful delivery, putting in place processes and refining them to give you the right information at the right time. It’s an essential part of the DNA of a project manager.

But how much time do you spend establishing the structure, support and leadership needed for your team to connect with, and draw purpose from, your project?

The longer the project, the more team members are committing their career prospects to it. Even if the organisation chart says you’re not the line manager it will likely be you, the project manager, who can best support them in their daily environment. Keeping everyone engaged, committed and performing optimally means finding how their personal motivators and aspirations align to the project, then investing your time in coaching and supporting them to achieve them. Direct and your team will undertake, for a while; coach and you’ll help them excel.

Just as you think of the best approach for managing a risk or getting a decision, think of the “GAME” – ie, Goals, Ability, Management Style, Environment – that will support every individual in your project team. Let’s look at each area in more detail:

  • Goals – understand what drives and motivates your team.  
    This might be wide ranging, personal and happen over several conversations. Keep the questions open and create trust to help them explore their motivators and career aspirations. This is about listening and finding that point where both of you can see how personal goals and motivators align with the project and business goals.
     
  • Ability - coach and guide growth of their skills, knowledge and experience.  
    Once clear on goals, the question becomes “do you think you can reach them?” If not, what experiential, observational or new knowledge do they need? Agree what’s needed and support them to put it in place. 
     
  • Management style - how you interact with each person in each situation. 
    Your style will affect how your team works and their chances of being successful. Adopt different management styles deliberately. For example, be directive because they have low experience and need clear guidance to build confidence; be collaborative because you can both learn from each other in the situation and achieve more; delegate because they have the ability and need the space to do it their way; challenge because it could lead to fresh thinking and so on. 
     
  • Environment – create and monitor the system and culture.
    Your team is surrounded by the project organization, its processes, people, culture and the wider business. The latter you’ll need to influence positively where you can but you can change the project environment. Are the processes restricting or enabling? Does the team culture support people, let them try new approaches and propose fresh ideas? If things go wrong how does everyone learn from it?

If a more supportive and coaching-based approach isn’t your natural style, then adopting it will take time and practice; even if it is, you’ll still be learning each day. You’ll need patience, to cope with the uncertainty that comes from this approach and to guide people to an answer not your answer. Enable your team to do their best work with more coaching and help them achieve what they want while aiding project success.

First published by AXELOS, Capita’s joint venture with the Cabinet Office.

Photo of James Hiett

James Hiett

Principal consultant, Capita Transformation

James is an experienced programme professional who has worked on complex public sector programmes across local government, central government and transport services. He is currently working as programme manager in central government and believes passionately in the need to support and develop programme staff, both for the individual and to support successful programme delivery.

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