Caring about the customer’s project more than about the customer

About 10 years ago my stock-in-trade changed. I started managing projects. Specifically, large projects with distributed subcontractor developer teams. Along the way I developed a mantra that I used to startle customers upfront about my style:

“My job is to care about the customer’s project more than about the customer.”

By this I mean several things:

  • Of course I care about the customer.
  • But the customer’s performance review is usually tied to the success of the project. The best way I can serve her professionally is for The Project to kick ass.
  • Sometimes the customer-side PM leaves the company, or someone else gets swapped in. I’ve had a few projects where I outlasted everybody on both sides of the equation. The Project endures.
  • Quite frequently, the “customer” is a moving, shape-shifting centroid of multiple contradictory anti-consensus voices. Each with valid points. Who doth stand up for The Project?

I’ve recently had examples where I’ve gone too far with this, though. Like in democracy, sometimes you have to let customers work through the nattering and emerge at a place with real clarity and support for The Project. Not clarity imposed on them by The Project (meaning, me.)

As with many other things, it’s art not science, intuition over reason. There’s a place for focus, execution, delivery, and taking responsibility for complexity in toto. I take pride in owning that part and saying: “Mine is the one throat you will choke.” There is still room, though, for knowing when to let things play out.



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