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What Motivates a Project Manager?

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 13th July 2011

Much has been talked about and written about motivating people in all areas of business. Certainly, in a project team, a project manager who takes a personal interest in each individual and their ideas and concerns can contribute enormously to a well-motivated team. And well-motivated project teams achieve greater success than their disinterested counterparts. But much of what is discussed assumes there is a well-motivated project manager to instil enthusiasm into the team. But what motivates the project manager?
Wisdom has traditionally suggested that motivation is a combination of expected reward and worry about failure but this carrot and stick approach is becoming outdated as new evidence shows that individuals are far less likely to be creative in this type of punishment and reward environment. Since many of today’s projects require innovative solutions then encouraging creative thinking would seem to be a good thing.
The book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink questions much of what we might think we know about motivation and suggests that the ability to develop and realise our full potential are the greatest motivators.
So if anticipated rewards and fear of failure are less important than a desire to grow professionally and achieve our full potential, what exactly is it that will motivate a project manager who, in turn, will motivate the project team? Assuming it is difficult, if not impossible, for an unmotivated project manager to motivate team members, then a well-motivated project manager is the key to a successful project.
There are organisations (for example Google, IBM, Sun Microsystems) which allow some of their staff a certain amount of freedom when it comes to what they work on, when or where – providing, of course, that certain goals are met. This approach uses the power of inherent motivation rather than superficial reward mechanisms and recognises that an individual is most driven to succeed at something they enjoy.
However, it is a bold approach for a company to take and one that is dependent on a level of maturity and experience in the project manager and the team members. This type of Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) is an approach first promoted by Ressler & Thompson at Best Buy and produced dramatic results with increases in productivity, higher employee satisfaction and lower turnover rates. But can this approach work for a project manager within a project environment?
Projects need structure and, yes, of course, the results are important but only within the boundaries of a schedule and budget. How can a team work collaboratively if they, and the project manager, choose what to work on at any particular time? It’s difficult to see how this could be achieved if the project team are all working at different times and in different places. With less opportunity for impromptu discussions or brainstorming sessions there are also fewer opportunities for team-building.
An unstructured work environment may well encourage creativity, and creativity can certainly be good for a project but there is much more to a motivated team than the opportunity to be creative. And that includes the fundamental requirement of working as a team towards a common goal. Having a defined structure to both workplace and projects can, in itself, be a motivational factor for many people. Established project processes and methodologies provide that structure and define what is expected and when. They remove uncertainty, which can be de-motivating, and establish clear goals which is a motivational factor.
So the carrot and stick approach of reward and punishment is not the ideal way of motivating a project manager. But neither is the ROWE approach, although its attempt to give freedom and autonomy to employees is laudable.
Clearly a middle ground where the project manager is continually developing on a professional level and striving to achieve their full potential, but within a structured environment, would seem to be the best approach; one in which there are clear boundaries, goals, expectations and schedules. So could it be that the structure of formal project management methodologies is in itself part of what motivates a project manager and hence the project team?
As project management becomes regarded more and more as a profession and project managers have the ability to achieve professional recognition such as APM RPP for their experience, qualifications and project management training – these factors can only help in motivating a project manager. And a motivated project manager is the key to a successful project.

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