5 lessons project managers can learn from the first 2020 US presidential debate


While projects aren’t the same as politics, there are similarities. Here are ways to become a better manager by learning from the debates.

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Illustration: Lisa Hornung/iStockPhoto

Last week’s 2020 US Presidential Debate offered important lessons that can help project, program, and portfolio managers improve their effectiveness when communicating. Here are five ways you can learn to be a better leader.

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1. Be aware of distractions

Distraction was a key element in the first presidential debate and likely served as a means of confusion for listeners. It blanked the entire debate and made it difficult for the audience and the two candidates. The result was a lost opportunity to share their intended messages and plans for the future with stakeholders.

Distraction can be a strategy of some to reduce the effectiveness of others. Project leaders should be aware of this and ensure that they are not pulled into unnecessary noise from those distractions. It’s essential to stay on point and recognize that effective, orderly communication relies on staying focused on the task at hand.

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2. Maintain accountability

Accountability for actions and behavior is vital to reducing conflict and addressing issues. Throughout the debate, there appeared to be a significant lack of accountability.

Lack of accountability puts people on the defensive and increases distrust. Project management leaders must strive to be accountable and hold others accountable without getting into finger-pointing, as it creates animosity. It’s important to focus on solutions rather than blaming and shaming. Lessons learned can be saved to the end of the project and should be conducted without creating angst among stakeholders. 

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3. Respect the process and others

One of the most damaging behaviors is disrespect. During the debate, there was a lot of talking over one another, and at times, some behavior displayed a disregard for the process and the moderator.

Within project processes, all stakeholders, whether vendors, clients, teams, project leaders, or other stakeholders need to maintain respect for the process and one another—success depends on it. Project managers must set the tone from the start, layout expectations and ground rules on respect, and convey how things will be addressed if rules are not followed. 

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4. Focus on the facts

Facts should drive project activities, interactions, and deliverables. During the debate, real-time fact-checking often isn’t possible; however, during projects, you should allocate enough time to gather the essential facts.

When stakeholders receive non-factual information, they will make vital decisions based on intentionally or unintentionally untrue statements. When sharing information with stakeholders, it must be based on statistics and hard, proven data. It’s also important to ensure that the data is current and relevant to the topic. Without facts, entire projects can quickly fall off-course and jeopardize the stakeholder’s needs.

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5. Maintain stakeholder focus

Your audience should be the sole focus of your communication and effort. Throughout the presidential debate, dialogue about party politics and grievances made it difficult for the audience to focus on the core topics.

Delivering on promises to customers requires project managers to stay glued to their primary stakeholders’ requirements and expectations. It can be difficult to do this when things arise, especially in crisis situations, but project management professionals are highly trained and must resist the urge to shift away from being customer-focused. 

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