7 Useful Tips for New Higher Ed Project Managers

Estimated Read Time: 11 minutes

HigheredPMsAs many of Optimal Partners’ articles point out, Higher Ed is different. My introduction to the field took place at Harvard University when I was working on projects in the area of Research Administration. Needless to say, I had a lot of learning to do in a short period of time. The culture, environment, and subject matter were dramatically different from the corporate world. Here are a few useful tips for project managers (PM) who are new to Higher Ed.

Respect Your Coworkers, Project Members & Peers

The world of Higher Ed is based on collaboration and relationships, so make it a rule to always demonstrate a healthy amount of respect for everyone you encounter, no matter what their role or level in the organization. You’ll soon learn how important your network is once you understand the extent of the number of people you need to work with to accomplish your objectives. It’s also important to be consistent on this point in all forms of communications: interpersonal, presentation, and written. Always be polite, professional, and respectful, even if you disagree. As a PM, you should also always be on time, prepared, and organized for all meetings.

True Story Example: While entering an unfamiliar building to meet a Director I hadn’t met before, I held the door for a woman, smiled, and said “good morning.” As it turned out, she was the Director I was there to meet. The meeting and the relationship that followed went very well.

Maintain a Positive Attitude

It may seem like a cliché, but you should always try to demonstrate a positive attitude, even when dealing with difficult situations or people. Staying positive builds stronger relationships (see above) and will earn you respect and admiration. Try to start every day with a smile when you greet others, and always keep your cool when dealing with challenges. It’s also important to stay above the fray of negativity and not instigate or participate in bashing others, even if those around you are doing so. You may very well encounter people with strong attitudes, opinions, or superiority complexes, but you should never allow yourself to become drawn into that way of thinking. If you experience others trying to draw you in, go to the solution side of the argument by asking questions like:

  • “Will you help me to understand why you feel this way?”
  • “What can we do to turn this around?”
  • “How can we help this person see our side?”
True Story Example: Early in my involvement, I innocently tried to explain someone else’s approach by using a humorous analogy. They weren’t amused. It took months to regain the trust and respect I had tarnished.

Facilitate Positive Outcomes

This is about knowing your place. As PM’s, we frequently don’t own the resources or decisions that are needed to reach our objectives, but we do own the process of facilitation to get to those outcomes. This is even more challenging in Higher Ed due to the different cultural and decision making processes. As a PM in the world of Higher Ed, you should focus on:

  • knowing which issues or questions need a broader decision making discussion. It’s a delicate balance to ensure that you don’t bother people with trivial matters or make unilateral decisions without proper vetting. One way of doing this is to ask, “who is, or will be, impacted by this issue or decision?”
  • being sure you have the right people involved in any important decisions by asking your team the question, “who can undo this decision if they disagree?” These people need to be added up front.
  • thoroughly framing the decision that is needed during the meeting. Offer examples of the possible implications (yes or no), stay neutral while allowing the team to debate the topic, and don’t judge or comment on differing opinions.
  • documenting what was decided once a decision is reached and publish your notes back to the team with the corresponding action items that resulted. Keep a log of decisions for future reference.
True Story Example: The most difficult situation I facilitated was a build vs. buy technology decision that was highly contested. After starting the meeting by outlining the decision and encouraging each voting team member to fully express their views without holding back, I pointed out that, as a team, we must all support the decision after the meeting regardless of how we voted.

Research In Advance

It is important that you do some level of homework before important meetings or discussions.

The world of Higher Ed is very diverse, and it is highly likely that you will encounter subject areas, business functions, and organizational roles that you did not encounter in the corporate world. Therefore, it is important that you do some level of homework before important meetings or discussions. Research who people are and how their roles tie into the administrative or academic side of the organization. Understand the reporting structures to be able to ask who the decision makers are (see above). Understand the business functions, processes, and technologies of the people you will be talking to so that you can ask meaningful questions. Basically, you should be preparing to be able to speak the language of the groups and functions you will be dealing with. This goes a long way towards building the respect and trust you will need later.

True Story Example: I was asked to run a project to implement new software for a business function that I had never heard of before, Escheatment (unclaimed property, like un-deposited vendor checks, that need to be reported to the State). With a few hours of research on the State’s website, I had enough information to drive a meaningful discussion.

Respect the Value of Time

Time management is a basic skill for PM’s. However, in this example, I am referring to the need to respect the time of others, especially senior administrators and faculty. To better appreciate the need for this, it’s important to know that many senior members of the administration and faculty hold multiple “appointments” (different roles and/or responsibilities which they have committed to as part of their overall employment and compensation package). Why is this important? It’s important to understand as most of these people are extremely busy and don’t have time to spare on nonessential matters. Therefore, as a PM who must rely on these people to achieve results, you should try to make their lives easier by:

  • being very specific with what you need from them and why
  • being concise in your verbal and written explanations (where possible)
  • restating complex issues or decisions for them; giving them extra time to read materials before meetings or to decide on important matters (a few days at minimum)
  • and finally, always send out agendas and meeting minutes and end meetings early if possible.
True Story Example: I would never forward an email and say, “see below,” thus making the recipient read a lengthy thread to get to the issue at hand. Instead, I would restate the issue or question and say “supporting detail below.”

Work with the Consensus

Decisions take longer and involve more people than is customary in the corporate world, and this isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Many people have expressed their frustrations with how Higher Ed is driven by consensus management, and they aren’t wrong. As described in this series and others on this blog, decisions take longer and involve more people than is customary in the corporate world, and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. So, how should a PM who is new to this world deal with this challenge and try to achieve a consensus vote on an important decision? The short answer is, don’t try. True consensus implies that everyone’s needs are met and that they are happy with the outcome. This is never the case. Instead of thinking of things in the black and white terms of yes or no votes, reframe the discussion in terms of a continuum. In other words, instead of asking, “do you love it?” you should ask “can you live with it for now?” The latter approach implies that you are only asking them to approve something in the current day and that things can and will change in the future, which is almost always the case. You are therefore asking them to see the current decision point as a version 1.0 with a roadmap of future possibilities yet to be realized. This can disarm the resistance of people who are refusing to accept a decision and gives them a voice on future enhancements.

True Story Example: During a university-wide IRB implementation, one area felt that a few of their specific business needs weren’t met by the proposed solution. Using the “can you live with it for now?” approach, we were able to get past the objection and move on with the project.

Listen Carefully

To say that listening skills are important for PMs is not newsworthy. In this case, however, we are referring to listening for some very specific things: perceptions and expectations. This may not be specific to Higher Ed, but it is most certainly important in this field if you want the next project. The true test of success takes place at the end of the project, and that’s a bad time to find out that what you have delivered does not match what the customer perceived or expected they were getting. Of course, we don’t want to wait until the end of the project to find out that we have missed the target. So, the best way to ensure alignment is to lead with some revealing questions early in the process. Beyond validation of business requirements, it’s a good idea to ask questions like:

  • “What’s in this for you?”
  • “Why do you want this solution?”
  • “What’s your definition of success?”
  • “What problems does this solve for you?”

Then, listen very carefully to the responses (it may be necessary to ask a few different questions). If the customer’s answers don’t align with what you are delivering, you should urgently address the gaps.

True Story Example: During a university-wide Effort Reporting implementation, one area responded that they were expecting that the new system would completely eliminate the need to use “shadow systems” like Microsoft Excel to track certain information. We quickly clarified that it would not and made preparations to continue the use of the shadow systems in conjunction with the new system.
Are you new to Higher Ed? How have your experiences differed from your work in other fields? Is there any advice you have for new Higher Ed project managers? Let us know in the comments.
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