Project managers have to be willing to be the bad cop.

It’s not easy to manage projects and an effective PM sometimes has to play the bad cop role. In other words, the PM is sometimes the least popular person at a project team meeting because the PM is supposed to say what needs to be said.

For a range of reasons, people show up to project team meetings without having done the work they were asked to do. Sometimes, they are subtly (or not so subtly) trying to limit their own workload or they are legitimately busy with other responsibilities and did not make the project work a priority. Often, they are uncomfortable with change or afraid to take risks. Other causes are not knowing how to get started or underestimating how long it takes to do an assigned task. Regardless, the PM must address slippage and incomplete tasks to keep a project on schedule.

As proof, consider this scenario. The project team hasn’t met in two weeks; but at the last meeting, the PM reviewed the list of action items and assigned tasks to members of the team. There was clarity; we all left the room knowing what we had to do before the next team meeting. And, we all know we are down to the wire on two milestones that simply can’t slip. Meeting day arrives and two on the team have not completed assigned tasks – one promises to “spend some focused time on it in the next day or two.” The other maintains that the task “can slip a little because we can, after all, make up some time on other aspects of the project.” Enter the bad cop PM. To say it, or not to say it? The best PMs are willing to be the least popular person in the room and say what needs to be said.

The only way to complete a project is to accomplish the tasks within milestones on the critical path. So if “photography complete” is a critical milestone for a website launch, then tasks like hiring a photographer, developing a shot list, reviewing photo options, and cropping and optimizing photos are to dos that need to be checked off in order to complete the milestone. It is the responsibility of the project manager to lead a discussion about who’s doing what and by when at every project team meeting. Sometimes, this means saying the uncomfortable; but a fact-based conversation about where things stand is critical for the adjustments you’re bound to need. Let’s not forget, knowing that the PM will be talking specifically about who was supposed to finish certain tasks, means team members are more likely to show up at the meeting with their work done.

Keeping it real with individual members of the project team is only one aspect of the PM’s bad cop role. The PM must also be the person most vocal about where the project stands at any particular point. So as others on the team are referencing the “great progress we’re making,” it is the PM who will say (out loud), “Actually, we are two weeks late completing that milestone.” Or, “If we can finish this bit a day early, then we will have the time to add to the project scope. Otherwise, we can’t even think about adding that new feature.”

Really, the bad cop role is a huge value add for the team. Next time you are part of a project team, give your PM permission to be unpopular. Then, say thank you.

Next up in this series of posts about project management? How to get people on a project to do what you need them to do.

Read other posts I’ve written about project management.

2 thoughts on “Project managers have to be willing to be the bad cop.

  1. Great post! As a beginner, PM, this is probably the hardest part of my job because I started out as the “web assistant” and now I’m overseeing the team on almost every project we take on. We developed a very relaxed sort of rapport as a team from the beginning, so being the bulldog at meetings is hard to do, especially when it comes to being specific about who is behind and how it’s affecting everyone/everything on the timeline. Thanks for reasserting that it is a PM’s job to crack the whip!

  2. Well said. My hope was that the post would encourage project team members to realize that this is what the PM is supposed to be doing and that we should rely on her for that very thing! I have a feeling you’ll like my next post about “getting people to do stuff they are supposed to be doing even though you aren’t their boss.” Stay tuned. Thanks for your comment. Say hi to Matt – working with him means all’s good.

    Going to check out your blog now…

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