In an earlier column, we talked about your critical role on "project starts" (See "Getting Started"). As a stakeholder, you are incredibly important to the decisions that get made early on in a project. Your knowledge of what it will really take to get the whole job done is critical. It's important for you to have a voice on the project team, an ear with the people who have to make early project decisions. So how do you maximize your influence as an individual contributor?
To answer that question, think about the people you respect, colleagues whose opinions you seek out and trust. What landed them on your "trusted expert" list?
A couple of years ago, as a project management consultant I worked with several teams within a growing start-up company. The projects were intense and challenging, with many technical alternatives to consider, many feature decisions to make. One particular project stands out in my mind because of one team member and his ultimate influence on the project.
"Steve" was a senior engineer with the project. He'd been around since the early days of the company. He knew the products inside and out. Beyond that, he cared about the business itself what the company was trying to achieve through all their technical projects. When he sat in a team meeting or investigated design alternatives, he brought both sets of knowledge to the table.
I can remember sitting in meetings with him where he just blew other team members away. He continually challenged assumptions about the project. Just because management thought the product should have feature A and B, this guy didn't necessarily buy it. He knew something about the customers, too, and didn't hesitate to assert his opinion about what they needed. I watched him take on the CTO and head of Marketing several times he was passionate about getting the customer the right product at the right time and cost.
Steve also had a keen eye for technical risks and made sure they got intense scrutiny before anyone committed to including them in the project. He understood what the technology could do and had innovative ideas for product design, but he put considerable effort into balancing the technical capabilities with pragmatism about project risk. Needless to say, project managers wanted him on their teams.
Steve also took considerable initiative to bring new ways of working to his projects. Just because they'd "always done it this way", no process or methodology was sacred. For example, as the company's custom integrated circuit capability developed, Steve suggested new ways of approaching the design process and new ways to use the tools, to help get projects completed quickly with high yields.
So ultimately where did Steve's influence come from? It had nothing to do with any job title or position. His influence resulted from the strength of his multi-faceted project contributions:
The result? He had the ear of team members and decision makers. They listened to his opinions, they sought his advice, they depended on his judgment. Steve was on my "trusted expert" list: I personally wanted his discerning mind, rich experience, and strong opinions on my projects. He wasn't Superman; he wasn't always right; he was sometimes even hard to work with! But by virtue of his contributions to both technical product development and to the good of the company's overall business, he was very valuable to me and others, and therefore very influential.
The good news is that we can all make such contributions and as a result, we can all be powerful and influential as individual contributors to our companies' endeavors. Take a look at all you have to offer find new ways to contribute like Steve and maximize your personal project influence.
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