The Project Notebook

I Just Want Everyone to be Happy!

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 There are many books, CDs, Internet blogs, and videos as well as numerous seminars that claim that any situation can be framed as “win-win” for all participants.  With so much emphasis on “happiness for all”, project managers are often pressured to sustain euphoria among everyone who is involved with a given project.  It may seen at times that the success of the project is measured by the percentage of “smiley faces” among the project participants.  However, project managers know that there are often unpopular decisions that must be made for the overall good of the project.  While no project manager lasts long if everyone is always unhappy, there are times when s/he may have to make some people temporarily unhappy.

I am leading a “damage control” project for a client organization that has a great deal of public contact.  A former employee consciously ignored a policy that had been developed with much balanced input for the benefit of the organization’s customers.  This individual claimed that customers were happy that the policy was not being followed.  In reality, this individual did not want to deal with any conflict nor take the time to work with customers to explain the policy’s benefits.  I was brought into the organization to lead the project because virtually all of the customers are unhappy, including the vast majority who understand the policy, support it and wonder why flagrant exceptions were made.

An example of a common project management situation that may make some people unhappy occurs when agreement must be reached on a realistic project schedule.  “Drop dead” dates for project completion are often set by individuals who have little or no responsibility in achieving a successful implementation.  It falls to the project manager to investigate what actually needs to be accomplished, to determine what is driving the completion date, and to negotiate an equitable resolution.  In carrying out these activities, the project manager may be subject to ridicule, threats, and angry exchanges.  However, if the project is completed on time because the final schedule is actually realistic, it’s amazing how people forget how “unhappy” they were with the project manager at the beginning of the planning process.

Similarly, some project managers feel that they keep everyone happy when they accept any and all changes that are proposed during the course of a project.  I’ve witnessed some project managers who develop a standard response, such as “We can finish your request in about two weeks”.  This type of response is made with the hope that the requestor will forget the request or that the world will end before the “two weeks” have past.  However, what typically happens is that the project flounders in a sea of “two-week” change requests.  The project manager who only wanted to “make everyone happy” by being agreeable then discovers that not only is everyone unhappy – but that they all expect their requests to be fulfilled.

I leave you with this little twist on a well known saying:  “You can make all of the people happy some of the time.  You can make some of the people happy all of the time.  But you cannot make all of the people happy all of the time (unless you have unlimited access to mood-altering substances).”

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at

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