Project Management Isn’t About Tasks, It’s About Relationships

Crack open the PMBOK, the Project Management Book of Knowledge, and you’ll learn a TON about Inputs and Outputs.  You’ll learn about creating value for your stakeholders, with differing needs and priorities.  And you’ll learn about process.  The process of Project Management (PM) often attracts people and more so organizations to the field of study.  Have a large effort to accomplish?  Look to PM to help…it makes sense.  But PM is nothing on its own, it’s the people (us) that make PM live.  People build relationships.  When we SEE things that relate, we have the potential to take action to foster or prohibit that relationship.  That’s what PM is all about.

When we take action to foster a relationship, we see a new reality, an undiscovered pathway toward something larger IF we build on that relationship.  If we see harm based on a relationship, we also have the potential to take action to prevent that relationship from growing into an equally, less desired situation.  Notice, I haven’t mentioned PM as an effort to manage tasks.  There’s a reason for that.  While the PMBOK is about the driest read you’ll find, the value in the information is what you do with it.  If you can SEE that PM is about building relationships and not tasks, each paragraph can have a profound impact on your work and life.

Why is this distinction, PM as a relationship effort and not a task management effort important?

  •  We too often get stuck on what to do first.
  •   We  ask “Where are we?” more than “How are we?”

Here’s a great podcast from Todd Henry with David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done.”  They discuss the reality of how difficult it is to identify and act on the first thing we need to do to accomplish a larger effort.  If you’ve ever felt stymied when taking on a new project, you’ve been there.  That feeling of being trapped behind the “What do I do first”? wall is terrifying.  The effort seems SO big that knowing where to start seems impossible.  What I’ve learned over the years when creating something out of nothing (a project) is NOT to focus on what I believe are the first tasks, rather, focus on the first relationships that come to mind.  Who cares about this project?  A human relationship.  What systems will be impacted by this project?  Technical and/or process relationship.  What finances will be changed to address this project?  A cash flow relationship.  I could go on.  The point is, I think about the relationships as a way of helping decide WHAT (a task) needs to happen first.  The tasks evolve easily from this effort. Some would say organically. If the tasks aren’t developing, you haven’t thought enough about the relationships.  Keep digging, the tasks will come.

Last evening I watched Jurassic World for the second time.  Actually, a scene in the movie inspired this post.  Claire is flying in the helicopter with Mr. Masrani and he turns and asks “How are we doing?”  Claire being the stalwart manager she is proceeds to answer “Our year-over-year profits are up, while our visitations remain stagnant.”  That wasn’t what Mr. Masrani was asking so he asked her again, “Yes yes, but HOW are we doing? Are the guest and the animals having fun?”  Claire stumbles but offers the satisfaction rates of the visitors and explains they don’t have a way to measure if the animals are having fun.  Claire, responsible for managing tasks, had become SO focused on the WHAT and the WHERE (status), that she was blind to the “how”, the impact, the feelings, the RELATIONSHIPS.  In the end, glossing over those relationships would be the park’s doom.  Hopefully, that level of project failure isn’t something we all experiences in our work.

What can we do?

  1.  Adopt the mental model that as a PM you are responsible for managing relationships.
  2. Recognize you will oversee tasks, but those tasks should be built around relationships.
  3. Trust that HUMAN relationships are key in all PM efforts.
  4. Use practices and a PM tool that fosters relationships over tasks management.  My tool of choice,
  5. Use practices and tools to create ideas based on relationships.  My tool of choice, Plectica.
  6. Develop the skills to explain HOW your project is progressing by using storytelling.  (Feel free to email me for information on services and online courses I’ve built with my professional development partner.)

Thanks for reading.  If you have questions or additional thoughts, I would love to hear from you.


Mark is CEO and founder of THINK’ID8.  THINK’ID8 helps organizations build transformative systems to help grow programs and internal capacities.



Leading Creatives and You’re a Sole Proprietor

For ten years now, I’ve had the difficult job, probably my MOST difficult job, of leading a team of creatives.  That team is a team of one.  And, I am the team.  I’m not boasting.  I’m saying it like it is.  In my past, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and leading teams.  I’ve had some successes and a TON of failures in those efforts.  For the past ten years though, I’ve earned a “Leading Creatives” badge and I want to share.

My first task has been to learn what a creative is.  That started with a lesson in what creativity is.  I long thought creativity was all about inspirational moments and butterflies flying around my brain creating vibrant ideas with pixie dust.  Ahh…no!  Creativity is the result of THINKING.  Deep thinking, scientific thinking, computational thinking, social thinking, systems thinking and other labels are fine.  Thinking, and the resulting ideas are the foundation of a creative’s work.  Creatives can’t wait for a moment to be inspired.  Ideas won’t just appear at the wave of a wand.  So, what we do as creatives to ensure ideas CAN happen is my next lesson.

In past jobs, I would spend the majority of my time tracking things that needed to get done.  I had spreadsheets of operational efforts that I would monitor and make notes on.  I would walk around (you know, that Manage by Walking around method) and talk to people.  I would ask how they were and about their work.  I could come back and fill in my sheets.  Tracking was king.  But, over time, tracking became my worst professional enemy.  It filled my days, but was it filling a purpose?  As a sole proprietor, I’ve learned the answer is NO.  We often fool ourselves into thinking being busy operationally equals value.  As a team of one, I can say, being busy means little.  Productivity means nothing if we equate it to keeping up with the influx.  We must get to the point were we are managing, that’s right, managing our creativity to ensure we are moving forward, innovating, ideating, evolving…CREATING.

So, how?  I think of two things to guide my day.

Be Pragmatic & Product Oriented

Being pragmatic as a creative means building an actionable, adaptable plan for everything I do. I use a project management tool for all of my work with clients and personal projects.  Clients expect me to be creative or they wouldn’t hire me.  For my own work, I don’t have much time, so I need to be efficient.  I once heard a quote by an famous author (I forget who).

“I have to be creative Monday through Friday, thank God it happens each of those days at 9:00am.”

I love this quote.  It’s how I feel every day.  I have to be creative, it’s my work.  If I had to wait for inspiration or the butterflies to feel inspired, oh man…I would be in trouble.  Leading creatives means kicking off creative efforts as needed.  “Ok gang, let’s create.”  That statements makes me cringe, but it is real.  Work begins each day and that’s reality.  So, creativity needs to do the same.  In my project tool (, I have a goal when I start something new.  I capture the first task quickly.  I don’t think about all the task, just one.  I type it in, add an ESD and ECD (earliest start date and earliest completion date) and then I add a few notes.  Typically by then, I start to map related tasks. I don’t worry about dependencies, or order, priority, urgency or any of that at this point.  I just capture tasks that represent relationships to other tasks that support the goal.  If there are three, there are three tasks. If there are ten, I capture ten.  When those thoughts seem complete, I start on task number one.

If I’m doing this work more closely with a client, we do this work together and build a shared understanding of the tasks.  We hold each other accountable for efforts and take ownership of specifics.  When our ideas end at that time, we break and get to work.

In either case, is the plan right?  Well, the definition of a project is “an effort that is new and has not been done before.”  So, yes, the list is right as far as we know.  I trust it.  I use it for all it’s worth.  I obey it and do what it says.  But I am it’s boss.  I change it as needed.  But, I don’t devalue it by ignoring it. I don’t delete items without considerable thought.  I don’t let it limit me or the work.  I add what is needed and consider additions deeply. I keep the creative work in focus and appreciate the power of the PM tool to keep the details out of my head and in clearer view in print.

Being Product Oriented means each day, I produce a product, a complete or incremental version is the goal.  Products are things that are tangible and could be delivered to a customer at some level.  When working with clients, I just think “what can I show them today that is different than yesterday?”  This is where my philosophy of just keeping up with operations isn’t valuable comes from.  Even in the most operationally oriented work, creatives strive to build a product that looks different today than yesterday.  Maybe it’s a report, a dashboard, a narrative about the day’s events.  This is what makes leading creatives hard yet rewarding.  And, as a team of one, playing both roles incredibly complex yet fulfilling.

There’s more to my story than this.  But, I wanted to share the starting point.  Much like my creative effort, my first task was to share the big picture.  With that complete, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and to build on these ideas.