The secret skill every project portfolio manager should have

by Jan Schiller

Ever wonder which project portfolio manager skill is essential? If you are a project portfolio manager (PPM), you are talented. PPMs must be objective, credible, multi-taskers, great with ambiguity, authentic, capable, curious, and organized. Of course, PPMs are experts in all things project management and relationship management. There is one essential skill every project portfolio manager must have, yet is rarely discussed: the ability to hold people accountable.  

Accountability is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. You say what you mean and do as you say. As a PPM, you are taking responsibility for the success of the portfolio and should expect your team and stakeholders will also be accountable as well. 

The catch: not everyone wants to be held accountable. 

Here are ten signs that accountability is being resisted and some remedies:

1. You never hear from them.

They rarely acknowledge their role. Responses to phone calls and emails, and chat messages are almost unheard of or incredibly brief. This is rarely a sign of acceptance. Articulate how the portfolio will be successful with their engagement or how it will be unsuccessful without it. Start looking for their replacement if necessary. 

2. They are incredibly busy.

 This may be the reason why you never hear from them. Or they routinely arrive at meetings late and with great fanfare about how busy they are. Tasks assigned to them are also late or maybe on time but of poor substance and quality. Never reward people for being late by waiting for them. Clearly prioritize their work. Reiterate their target due date with a small, unobtrusive yet noticeable indication of how many days have passed since then. 

3. They never have enough detail.

Does your executive want to understand the ins and outs of the software or to know everyone’s birthdays? Do you feel like your communication or deliverables are being graded by a dedicated instructor? This may not be interesting; they may be stalling. Listen and respond while maintaining boundaries. Know when you have provided enough detail. 

4. Agreement abounds.

Whatever you say, however you say it, they always agree with it. Any and every solution option will be acceptable. This is not engagement. It could be a sign that the result of the project portfolio is of no interest or importance to them or that it will not impact them. If this is truly the case, reevaluate your stakeholder impact analysis; they may not be a stakeholder after all.

5. The process is never good enough.

Questions about how and why you are approaching the project portfolio’s result or environment seem endless. They may have an incredible and tenacious focus on a relatively small or low-priority element of the project portfolio. Uncertainty prevails. Questions are normal. Curiosity is to be appreciated. Explain once; answer clarifying questions once or twice. They do not have to worry because you and your teams have things covered. 

6. Aloofness.

Their situation is unique. You cannot possibly begin to understand it, and they are reluctant to explain their situation. Asking them to explain it as if they were talking to a five-year-old might work but also might be unnecessarily self-deprecating. Consider creating a minor crisis to get their attention long enough to reveal where their interests lie. 

7. Academic inclinations.

Theory and vague ideas are explored far more than the reality of the project portfolio. Redirect them by asking them to clarify how their explanation, theory, or idea relates to the topic at hand. Tell the project portfolio’s story from their point of view. 

8. Agitation.

They fidget a lot when meeting with you or pound the table to make a point. Discomfort and disagreement usually point to something significant and is just as valuable as unabashed support. Choose your moments wisely. They may be resisting a perceived loss of control, vulnerability, or a difficult situation. 

9. Overly analytical.

Every possible solution must be considered and evaluated, and another better solution option is just about to reveal itself if they could only have another day to investigate. Sell the problem and demonstrate how the recommended solution solves the problem and delivers expected benefits. Emphasize the importance of staying the course as it relates to schedule credibility, quality, and financial goals.

10. Aversion to the critical path

They are on the critical path and do not want to be. Having the team rely on them for crucial results may be burdensome or scary. Proper planning that reveals the critical path may contribute to their unease. Time on the critical path is usually temporary and ends when they do their part.

Knowing that the one essential project portfolio manager skill is accountability isn’t the end, it’s the start. How do you recognize resistance to being held accountable? What techniques do you use to hold people accountable? You can diffuse resistance by acknowledging it. The key is to hold people accountable whether they like it or not.


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