Healthy Relationships Manufacture Project Success

Jan. 13, 2007
Apply the right mix of people, skills, attitudes and tactics to a project and you get what? “Good things,” states Scott Berkun, author of “The Art of Project Management,” published in 2005 by O’Reilly Media Inc. ( But within projects, Microsoft alumnus Berkun (, who’s now a software-industry consultant based in Redmond, Wash., considers people the principal challenge a project manager (PM) faces. And that, he declares, means a good PM first must see his or her work as a set of relationships.
Building those relationships starts with questions, Berkun says. “How do I get these people to work together? Who should I talk to first? Who is the best person to handle this issue? How do I earn their trust?” He predicts that PMs who think about people first—before schedules, technologies and promotions—will succeed more often than those who don’t.

If project management is a social job, as Berkun observes, how do technical skills fit it? “You need enough knowledge to understand the issues and facilitate good decisions, but project management is not primarily a technical job,” he says. What, then, is a project manager’s core function? Maximizing value of the technical knowledge of the team’s experts, he contends. “The PM has to be the synthesizer, the orchestrator, bringing all of the team’s minds/talents/powers together in the best possible way.”

Born or made?

But what a PM doesn’t have to be is the smartest, most knowledgeable or even most talented person, Berkun stresses. While reassuring, that raises questions: Do good PMs innately have the right skills, or are such managers created? Berkun’s seen some who lacked the charisma or communication skills that are typically expected.  “But they so deeply understood the [PM] role and worked so hard at using their strengths to their advantage, that they made for better PMs than the ‘naturals,’ ” he remembers.

Agreeing that people, not technical, skills make PMs successful, Managing Director Fumiko Kondo, of New York City-based Intellilink Solutions Inc. (, believes that essential project-management skills can be learned. Planning tops her needed-skills list. “The more a project manager can anticipate potential pitfalls, the better he or she can plan for what to do when they happen,” she explains. Tied for second place are communications and basics of organizational change management. She includes conflict management and negotiation in third place, to handle problems that unfailingly arise in every project. “The successful navigation and resolution of them is the difference that a project manager can make,” Kondo notes.    If a social network’s health prevents project failure, then the PM has the most natural role in building and maintaining that network, Berkun believes. “But doing this doesn’t require an extroverted, game-show-host personality, nor does it demand a brilliant sense of humor or magical powers,” he quips. Instead, Berkun says success starts by admitting that communications and relationships are critical, and that there’s room for improvement by everyone. “Project managers are only as good as their relationships with the people on the team,” he adds.

Success comes, too, only by the PM adding value through team members, he observes. “This doesn’t mean micromanaging them or becoming an expert in those skills [they have],” Berkun explains. “It’s about seeing the PM role as amplifying the value of those other workers in any way possible.”         

C. Kenna Amos,  

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