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Interview: Project management with Tomáš Gregor

Tomáš Gregor originally studied dam construction. However, he has spent most of his career managing large projects. In this interview, we talked about why the most important aspect of project management is the human factor and how to handle tense situations.
Jan Škrabánek

8. 8. 2022

Tomáš Gregor originally studied dam construction. However, he has spent most of his career managing large projects. He now manages IT services and selected projects at the Ostrava University Hospital. He lectures on project management at the University. We talked about why the most important aspect of project management is the human factor and how to handle tense situations.

Your original profession was building dams. Was it a good training ground for project management?

That depends. It is true that those who are engaged in project management often have a technical background, and so quite logically their brains tend toward dealing primarily with technical parameters, such as timescales, quality, and budgeting. But the older I get, the more I think the human factor is the most important. People are significantly more complex than a software program or a reservoir dam, and a good project manager must primarily be able to manage expectations. Each project impacts various stakeholders who come to the project with their specific expectations. If we manage to make their expectations realistic and manage them so everyone is envisaging the project the way it really will turn out, then we have a success. Rescheduling then ceases to bother anyone too much.

Straightening out unrealistic expectations may not always be straightforward…

Unrealistic expectations tend to have underlying business reasons. It seeks to reach a consensus, often a less than clear-cut wording is chosen for the project assignment, one that both parties may interpret differently. Then, when the project manager starts with the project, s/he realizes that one side meant A and the other meant B. That leaves no choice but to invite everyone to meet at one table and agree on how things will get done. Any vague wording in the contract or project assignment can evoke unrealistic expectations. Someone may feel that they’ve scored a win on some specific part of the assignment with their particular sentence. But other stakeholders may see it completely differently.

That’s why the preparatory phase of the project is the most important. The aim of the first steps (project definition, project charter) is to reveal any vague and ambiguous formulations, remove any question marks, and clearly say ‘No’ it cannot be both A and B at the same time. We have to come to an agreement because we will implement the project.

When the list of stakeholders is defined in advance and it is clear who has what interests, the skillful project manager together with the guarantor manages to get to the stage where what people expect is what is actually likely to happen. Then everyone will be happy.

The project manager has to be able to say ‘No’. People don’t like to hear that. How do you bring them round?

A cardinal rule of the task is not to trample on the big chief’s ego. Take, for example, managerial expectations about an early deadline. The chief says it must be within one calendar quarter. Say that’s unrealistic; your task is to marshal such reasons that s/he won’t wave aside, while not trampling their ego, and to be convincing. When it comes to vendor projects, such as deploying a major, ready-made software solution, the bottleneck is seldom with the vendor. Most of the time, other problems crop up, on the customer’s part: people whose cooperation is essential lacking the time, the input data being a mess, and so on.

Such situations can stir up a lot of emotions. The project manager is often skating on thin ice. How do you go about conflict resolution?

If people with great egos go head to head, a major conflict can arise in no time. It’s advisable that project manager’s ego should not be excessive, but at the same time, they need to be able to meet challenges head-on, guide everyone to follow the rules, and play fair. A project manager is that annoying person who wants to get money for their work and yet wants a written record about everything, they’re acting as a judge and trying to get people to cooperate, not fight with each other. They try to be reasonably fair to all concerned. In the long run, this always turns out to be the best strategy and the way to get results.

If the project becomes a battleground, it will count against you. The goal is not to fight. When people fight, they don’t work.

Large projects involve a significant number of people. Who is most important for project success, apart from the project manager role?

The most important is the guarantor. This is the person who’ll be in trouble if the project doesn’t work out. For example, if we implement a system for a clinic, it is the clinic’s head physician. One huge benefit is a guarantor who gets the cooperation of other people. If you have a strong guarantor, then, say, people won’t refuse to go to training. The guarantor drives things forward, and a project without a guarantor is a disaster.

That is why we at the FNO don’t do projects without a guarantor. Without that, the person tasked with the project is not even sure of its merits. Such projects carry a great risk of failure. People do listen to what the boss says, but most importantly watch how s/he behaves. If the boss doesn’t stand up for the project, they won’t accept it either. It’s just extra work for them. Sometimes someone tries to convince us to introduce a great new thing or make an important change. If the project does not have a guarantor, we don’t go for it.

There are projects that assign work to one department, while another gets the benefits. These are very complex projects because someone has to force those who have to carry it forward to work for those others who’ll benefit. If there is a well‑chosen guarantor, it can succeed.

Each project means an extra load on the team. The mood in the team can fluctuate in various ways. How do you respond to resistance and dissatisfaction?

First of all, you need to work with the people. Proven experience says that people go through several phases in relation to the project: enthusiasm, concern that it will not be easy, trepidation that it will end in trouble, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. When the mood in the team is approaching stone-cold rock bottom, the project is at its most vulnerable. If you take the wrong approach to that, you can end up with a complete fiasco. For the success of the project, you need an island of people who are positively inclined toward change. If you can get that together, then in a moment of crisis those people will stand in front of others and say: ‘No, no, we think it will turn out fine. Stick with it.’

If you don’t manage to create a positive island of people well-disposed to the project, the project may go under, and that can be painful. That’s a lesson for everyone to learn before they realize the hard way just what a project needs to go forward.

Complications are a standard feature of projects. How do you talk to people about them, when their mood is approaching freezing point?

Here, too, I’ve always found it pays to play fair. Once you have some experience behind you, you can well imagine how much work you still have to get done. At that point, it is worth setting things straight. If you treat people fairly and earn their trust, they will better accept the message from you that they still have a lot of work to do. Whereas if people see you as a wishful thinker, you won’t convince them in a crisis.

The root cause of such problems is that working on a project is additional to one’s standard hours. Yet if cooperation with the guarantor is well-founded, that need not be a problem in itself. Take the example of when we did a project of approving invoices digitally. That was, of course, a huge change for the staff. But the team was given the time to digest it. When voices were heard calling for a postponement of the deadline, so as to get the financial statements out on time, that was no issue, the guarantor accommodated them. If the guarantor is reasonable, listens to users, and wants to gain a lasting result, then it is a pleasure to work with them.

How do you define a successful project?

At the beginning of her career, the architect Eva Jiřičná is said to have asked her mentor how to recognize a successful project. Legend has it that he answered her: That’s simple, by having made new friends. And that is truly how it is. When you manage to reach out to people, the project becomes your joint progeny. Of course, we can define success in technical terms, as a project that has met its deadline, budget and achieved its qualitative parameters. In practice, that is not so often the case. 80% of projects do not meet the deadline, do exceed the budget, and the quality parameters are rarely set in such a way that they can be accurately gauged. Consequently, you judge its success by the human factor. When the expectations of stakeholders are met, the project is successful.