The Cast and Stage Make the Project
I introduce and manage roles and responsibilities on projects as if casting for a Broadway play or movie production. All involve many players who play specific roles to produce larger work. We get into trouble when everyone wants to be the star, but like a play, not everyone can be the leading lady or leading man. Every role is important and plays a part in the success of the production.
If plays are projects then meetings are scenes that move the production along. I’ve successfully managed projects and meetings by helping people understand their roles and responsibilities, and how collaborative individual contributions create a larger, greater production. The expectation-setting conversations and rigorous follow-throughs that I use can also help you manage your teams more effectively, and achieve the outcomes you want, rather than those you typically experience.
Ask your team to close their eyes and imagine their favorite movie and the character they’d want to play. When people picture the role or character, it’s usually a leading role. But, if everyone plays the lead or part of the star, then the other roles are left unfilled. It takes those different roles to make a movie or project successful.
A hopeful outcome of this exercise is that people have the realization of the role they’re expected to play, why that role‘s important, and how it contributes to the success of the project.
Scope the Role
Each of us conceives a role differently if all we’re given is a general description. But, often what we envision may not be what’s expected of us. As a leader, you need set people up to be successful and describe roles down to be practical, achievable, and give people clarity about what they’re expected to contribute. Be precise and clear about what the responsibilities are.
Key Actors for Successful Meetings:
- If you’re only meeting with project participants, your role is to seek and give information and solve basic problems.
- If you’re meeting with project participants and a recorder (note-taker), you’re there to deal with and facilitate complex problem solving.
- The primary responsibility is to take notes, capture decisions, action items, motions, and capture items for future discussion.
- If your team is generating a lot of information in a meeting, you definitely want someone in this role. A recorder is also useful where there’s been little initial investment in the project (first phases of a project or idea). It allows the project-team lead to focus on leading and enabling discussion.
- Facilitators are there to manage and resolve high-conflict conversation. The facilitator sets the expectations of the room by describing the desired outcomes of the meeting and rules of conduct beforehand. This is helpful when it’s been an issue in the past. The meeting facilitator should have little-to-no investment in the conflict (think Switzerland).
- If we go back to the Broadway play example, typically the star or highest-ranking person in the room takes a leadership role to mitigate conflict. With a facilitator involved, this high-ranking person gets to step back and converse with the team. Sometimes this creates conflict itself, as the highest-rank person wants to lead the charge. In situations where this might be an issue, the facilitator can pull this person aside beforehand to ask if there are specific things that they want the facilitator to touch on, or not, and to explain that they’re there to support and nothing else. This is typically successful.
Example of a typical pitfall in a meeting; the person on the team (let’s call him Jim) is responsible for communication, but he creates a financial plan because he thinks it’ll be the best plan for the project. After all, he’s not sure who’s supposed to do this. Well intended, Jim presents his fantastic financial plan in a meeting. He talks over the person (let’s call him Joe) responsible for creating the financial plan. Though Jim may’ve created a spectacular financial plan, this wasn’t his role or the team’s expectation. Unless you’ve clearly outlined parameters for people, they may jump into each other’s roles and possibly create inefficiencies, extra work, and conflicts.
Don’t simply write role definitions in your charter or communication plan at the onset of a project, which is the standard practice for many project managers. Keep roles and responsibilities visible, and enforce them. It’s like action lists; if you don’t check in and follow-up about the action items coming out of a meeting, for example they may get lost or not executed on. Similarly, you should check in with team members to ensure that their actions focus on their roles and responsibilities, not the roles and responsibilities of others. If your team struggles with this, revisit the roles and responsibilities of each actor yourself and then enforce them.
Reset the Course
When I’m in a meeting and people step outside their role, and interjecting will not take the meeting off course, I’ll ask Joe, if he’s the one whose been stepped over in this case, for his opinion. This opens the door for someone, like Joe, who may be too shy to speak up. It also (hopefully) subtly indicates to the person jumping lanes that they’ve done so. This is a part of basic project management and meeting management. If you can get people to own and stay in their role, they’ll do a better job.
Problems arise, eventually. When that happens I maintain a nice, civil personality, which allows me to better address and resolve issues as a project leader. I know conversations need to be taken to the side, and when I have done my due diligence to get to know my team and build trusting relationships over time, those tough conversations are much easier.
Project leads often have the greatest difficulty when acting in a support role because they know they themselves can lead, and sometimes think they can do it better than whoever’s in charge. When I’m in a support role, I expect the leader to set expectations up front for roles and responsibilities on both the project-level and before a meeting. If they don’t, I may mention it in a side conversation. They may not be receptive; in which case I’ll let it be, stay in my lane, and do the best job I can for the team. In best-case scenario, they’re appreciative and will help everyone else be successful by setting expectations in the future.
Conflict Mitigation in Action
Tough conversations with stakeholders of higher rank than you are often the most difficult. I recently had trouble with a member of a team who tried to change a past decision in the middle of a meeting. Rather than throw the authority card out, which never goes well, I decided to pull them aside later. I explained, “Hey, the team worked really hard to make this decision. If you need to be the final decision maker, then let me know and we can make sure that happens from here on.”
Again, it’s about two-way communication of expectations.
Set the stage for people so they know what to expect and what they’re supposed to do. And, as you outline roles and responsibilities and execute those in a meeting or project setting, never assume you’re the smartest in the room. If you’re going to dictate everything and not allow people to run with their responsibility, then why have anyone in the room or on the project in the first place?
Rhea Hefner is a professional watcher-doer and member of the Return Leverage team. She honed her ability to facilitate tough conversations and set clear expectations through her contributions and leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies, such as GE Capital, Starbucks, Washington Mutual, among others.
Her analytical approach and natural leadership abilities accelerated her career and blossomed her into a contributor we call upon to lead as the expert of our blended-model project teams and to support effective business leaders. She applies tact and rigor to all circumstances, and like all Return Leverage collaborators, knows that clear communication, which includes listening to understand, achieves the greatest outcomes.