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I often work with the same PM on large application tasks. I am the main point of contact for all things technical. The PM is a bit of a disaster in that this person cannot keep anything straight, we don't have any sort of documented timelines, we get no actions after meetings and so on. Our projects are just several fragmented email chains.

This was not meant as a rant, just background. It is what it is and we are used to it. The common problem that everyone on my team is that this PM will assign their own path to do things. And they may require us to do something on the the technical side that has no use or purpose for the next 6 months but assigns it to be done in two weeks.

I am using an exaggerated example (but real) but most examples are pretty far off. So this PM emails us and says is XYZ done?

We email back and say no. We are not going to meet that date because of this. Does that hinder any other timelines or the project in any way? If it does we can help with an alternative to make sure that everyone is on task.

No answer. Couple days later. Can I have an update on XYZ?

No update. Again does this hinder the project in any way? Can you please let us know why this needs to be done right now?

No answer. Couple days later. Can I have an update on XYZ?

This goes on until one of my team members blows up (rightly) at the PM or the task is complete.

90% of the time these things can't be done in the time frame the PM allots because of vendor issues. The other 10% I am just making a choice that my team meets real deadlines and gets things done in the proper order rather than the fake important things induced by the PM team

So what can be done to stop this sort of communication back and forth? Really we just need to force the PM to tell us why something has to be done. What are some strategies when dealing with this?

(When I do have an employee blow up at the PM. The answer is always the same. The task has no need to be done anytime soon. It is just a nice to have. The task is always pushed to a realistic part of the project. In essence the PM doesn't want to tell their boss that they are changing timelines because they have no clue about the project or task and still don't. I don't like these after blow-up calls because the PM's management focuses on our group's professionalism over their PM costing of hundreds of hours of time. You know things that would never happen at a mid/small shop. Obviously I am in huge corporate America.)

Some sidenotes: The PM's boss doesn't care or even invested time to understand. Also getting on phone calls and hashing it out like you would do normally makes things worse. As the PM misconstrues everything from the call, doesn't follow up from anything on the call, and sends no actions.

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    Does it occur to you that the deadlines set by the PM are the real deadlines? They sure are where I work. Whether you agree with them is irrelevant. – HLGEM Nov 13 '15 at 19:20
  • @HLGEM - Haha no they are not. If you didn't get the hint this isn't like a real managed project. This is an upper-level PM with no PM experience who talks to upper management, vendors and me and devises a master plan - a completely random plan. Many people at our company think this PM is a saboteur and works for a competitor. But to your point no. If someone "agreed" to the deadlines they certainly had no idea what they were agreeing to. 70% of the tasks my team needs to do on the projects aren't ever mentioned - we just do them. – blankip Nov 13 '15 at 19:24
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    These things do happen at a small shop. – Amy Blankenship Nov 13 '15 at 19:48
  • This 'PM' sounds like a flaky customer. I would limit their involvement to prioritising a backlog and self organise on things like estimates (ie Scrum). – Nathan Cooper Nov 14 '15 at 22:29
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When faced with someone who a) doesn't manage and b) asks you "any update on XYZ?" at a frequency you don't like, the best solution is to do a little more managing yourself.

So, I assign you something that I need done by May 1st, but since it will take 2 weeks and isn't blocked on anything, I assign it to you now, due two weeks from now. You don't do it, and when I ask you if it's done, you just say no, I'm not going to meet that date because [reasons.] Maybe you ask for some sort of followup, like "what colour should the background be?" but maybe you ask a more generic question like "why do you want me to do it now?" and I don't feel like answering that and explaining myself to you. This could happen, though as you say it's kind of a mark of a bad PM.

However, since the only information you gave me is "no, it's not done yet" I am of course stuck asking "any update on XYZ?" in the future. You don't like it, and I bet your PM doesn't like it either.

So, stop doing that. When you're assigned a low priority task that is not really due for ages, and you don't do it because [reasons], decide when you will do it instead. Then when the PM asks if it is done, you can say

As you know, [reasons] happened this week and since I know this task can wait, I worked on [whatever] to solve the crisis. My new estimate for when XYZ will be done is [4 weeks from now for a 2 week task], assuming we don't get any more [reasons.]

If [reasons] happen again, you can email the PM or update the ticket and set a new completion date for XYZ based on you pushing it off again. This can go on all project if you like, until you reach the date that XYZ really truly is needed. By working out the new delivery date yourself, you achieve several things:

  • you can set it for 4 weeks from now, instead of the 2 weeks the PM probably would choose
  • you won't get an "any update on XYZ?" email ever again if you always provide the updates before the new due date
  • you're saving the PM work and frustration, which may improve your relationship
  • you're showing that you understand the importance of having a plan/schedule that bears some resemblance to reality
  • you're laying down an audit trail that demonstrates how ridiculously early the original due date of this item was (as opposed to how ridiculously late you were delivering it.)
  • if for some reason it actually needs to be done sooner than you think, stakeholders who monitor the plan can throw a fit when the deadline gets moved to Feb 1st, and explain to everyone why it must be done by Jan 10th, and you'll probably be able to get that done and avert disaster

Taking the initiative to reschedule the task yourself would be interpreted as a good deed in most workplaces. Since you know this PM is a little unusual, the first time you do it you might want to phrase it more as a question: tell the PM it will be 4 weeks and offer to update the ticket yourself. Once you get permission to do that once, you can do it every time.

  • Some of this I don't like (taking more responsibilities) and some I really do like - setting my own timelines. The crux of what your answer is missing though is that I am not on all calls - just the tech related ones. Maybe there is a reason that XYZ needs to be done at a certain time - so I am trying to get an answer on what that might be. The exact example of latest case is elearning company is developing elearning (non traditional HTML5). My team is creating the platform and middleware. The PM wants dummy urls enterred in the LMS .... cont. – blankip Nov 13 '15 at 20:54
  • cont... so that the elearning company will see how it will work. This has nothing to do with the elearning company doing their elearning - which is what we are waiting on. The LMS vendor has to do dev work to set up a new way to view the learning from my tool. My team is totally done with all of our work. We have no idea why an elearning vendor must see the elearning on the LMS. – blankip Nov 13 '15 at 20:58
  • Well when you decide not to do it this week because [reasons] you're assuming that's ok. So you set the new date on the same assumption. If the PM has a big problem with it, they will be sure to let you know why it has to be done sooner than you think. – Kate Gregory Nov 13 '15 at 20:58
  • If I decide not to do it the PM just identifies that my team hasn't met that deadline - on some spreadsheet that we will never see but upper management will. Any other communication I give will also not be passed on. – blankip Nov 13 '15 at 21:00
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How to get/make a project manager answer a question?

Unless you're higher up in the chain of command you can't force them to do anything. Your situation sounds unreasonable and difficult to work productively in. In my experience a PM like this would get moved on in a results orientated company, but the reason they are not is that you guys are doing all their work for them. Otherwise you'd see clients complaining and blaming the PM which is something the top management pay a lot more attention to than the technical grunts (no offence)

If I was a team lead I would dump the problem in my managers lap and let him/her deal with making sure we have a proper plan. If I was the manager I'd be in the PM's office helping him come up with a coherent plan and I wouldn't be leaving it until he has or I'd escalate it. I wouldn't let an incompetent deal direct with my team (actually I wouldn't let anyone give plans to my team, that's my task as manager).

The one thing I WOULD NOT do, is take project manager responsibilities onto myself, so if tasked to meet unreasonable deadlines and work on irrelevancies, I'd just do them, it's not up to me if they're the right ones or not. I'd leave a paper trail a mile wide ensuring it's clear I have accomplished what I was told to do rather than what I think should be done.

  • Well if I could do them I would. I am not being obstinate or unruly and certainly recognize that just doing the task keeps me from having to talk to the PM. – blankip Nov 13 '15 at 21:15
  • if they're not actually doable then that's a terrible situation, but still a management issue I would say, so I'd escalate it. That is something concrete to bring up. It sounds like your colleagues have the same issue as you, so it's not a matter of you personally being unruly. – Kilisi Nov 13 '15 at 21:19
  • I am the manager. The PM's manager doesn't care or understand. And I gave an account of what happens when I try to escalate things. – blankip Nov 13 '15 at 21:23
  • ouch.... I'll think for a couple of minutes and see if I can work out a solution that doesn't involve a car accident or my dodgy cousin Bill and his baseball bat – Kilisi Nov 13 '15 at 21:25
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    I have gone so far as to send the PMs boss a list of basic PM things I would expect - Timelines, tasks, actions for my teams, very basic PM stuff. Nothing. If I hash it out with the PM the PM either agrees to do things on the call and then acts like these things weren't agreed on in follow up emails or just leaves the call if it isn't going their way. You can imagine how hostile follow up emails are after you think you agree to something and the PM just plays dumb. This is about the 10th project and same things every time. – blankip Nov 13 '15 at 21:31

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