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You know how children will play house? Or play doctor? Or play teacher? Generally, have some form of make believe play in which they assume the role of some adult function? It’s kind of charming when you watch a 5 year old play pretend. But what if you’re watching a 40 something year old man play pretend? MUCH less charming.

So, I’ve realized recently that some people don’t grow out of this phase in which they play pretend. Some people continue playing make believe well into adulthood. Some people play project manager.

Children play house often because they have some aspiration to be in that role. They start learning social and emotional skills, probably some language and thinking skills, as they play. They definitely explore how far their imaginations can take them. They can pretend and explore what it’s like to be someone else with relatively few bad consequences.

Why do adults play project manager? I assume because they aspire to be in that position? I’m not sure how well playing project manager helps them to develop the social, emotional, language, and thinking skills required to be a good project manager though. I’m sure it’s possible. But adults aren’t as malleable as children are and in my experience, middle aged men (I work in a very male dominated field) are generally pretty set. However, humans are adaptable; maybe they get some benefit there. But, I don’t think you can play project manager and not have any bad consequences. Because…you actually are supposed to be managing a project. It’s not pretend. You’ve been given a responsibility to manage a project. If you don’t actually manage, the overwhelming likelihood is that there will be bad consequences.

I got to see this up close recently. One of the engineers at clic was assigned a PM role for a critical project that affected the core of a process. It’s been one of his aspirations to be PM, so he was happy about it. Giddy even. I didn’t think much of it until he tapped me to be one of the engineers on his team. But he didn’t actually tell me. I realized this after a few weeks where he kept asking me to do small tasks related to his project. At first, I thought he was still a bit short staffed as he was building his team, but then I realized that he had tapped me to be a part of his team. He didn’t even ask, he just assumed. He wasn’t my boss, he wasn’t someone I reported to; I didn’t have any reason to believe I would automatically work on his project.  I was also already working on a bunch of other projects assigned to me by my boss or the client lead. You would think that you would actually ask an engineer, contractor or otherwise, if they would be willing to participate in your project. Or at the very least, if you feel you have the authority to just assign people, you would tell them (formally) that they would be taking on some role in the project and not just assume they already knew. Nope. None of that. Soooo…not really learning the social skills here.

Other things that I noticed was that when he would call meetings and put together project agendas and calendars, there would be very little thought behind them and no substance to them. A meeting would be called because that’s what you’re supposed to do. He saw other PMs call for planning and status meetings, so he would call for a planning meeting. And then he would present a Gantt chart and…there wouldn’t really be anything on it. The tasks listed were very general. It was hard to figure out what the milestones actually were. It seemed like his milestone dates were arbitrary and often, they conflicted with other dependent milestones. It was just…weird. His talking points were…not always related to tasks that needed to be accomplished. They were so general. He was trying to go through all the motions of planning and not really doing anything. Where are the thinking skills?

When some of the engineers would bring up some pretty valid concerns and talk about the risks involved, it seemed like he didn’t understand. There would be some handwaving and he would just say “oh, the vendor involved will take care of that.” Um…but how do you know? Did you talk to the vendor? And what if they don’t or can’t? Is there a contingency plan? Nope, he’d just reiterate that the vendor was going to take care of everything and then get angry when we would try to tell him in another way that we needed some kind of fall back plan. He had imagined how glorious his project would be and that’s what he held to. He pretended that he was going to get that glorious ending. Never mind there was no practical path planned on how to get to there. Not learning the emotional (and thinking) skills.

His project ended up a disastrous mess. Duck (who had also been tapped to be on his team without actually being told) and I were the least surprised. That PM though…he was sooooo surprised, the surprisedest. Then we would be called to meetings on how we would try to patch things up enough to get production running again as a stopgap to a permanent fix. But whenever we would raise legitimate concerns about the steps we needed to take or even just the steps that we needed to take, he still fed us the line about how the vendor was going to take care of everything. Um…obviously they weren’t; whether through incompetence, bad planning, and/or mismanagement on their side, it doesn’t matter. They aren’t providing what was asked for and it’s affecting our production. We need to do something at least temporarily on our side to fix the problem while the vendor gets its act together. This isn’t hard to understand. But yet, apparently it is…

I wish I could say that we all learned things from this project and how it was pretty much a disaster…but I don’t think we did. I mean, Duck and I did. We learned that we need to stay as far away as possible from projects this engineer is PMing. But nothing really directly related to the project. The PM…didn’t seem to learn anything. I don’t think his playing pretend helped with learning the thinking and language skills needed as a PM, nor the social and emotional skills. And anyway, you’re an adult now. Get proper training for a job and quit playing pretend. Ugh.


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