Well, project management is managing projects, and project managers are the people who do it, right? What’s so complicated about that?
Everything, that’s what.
Start with “project.” Research reveals that many activities called by that name are not projects – they are repeatable, repeated processes that reward adherence to standardized actions. They are processes. The more rigidly you, the manager, enforce predetermined details, the better the result. You’re after maximum predictability and minimum variance.
That’s not project management.
Well, wait a minute. Many project management functions are processes. Within every project there are requirements, often covering substantial parts of the effort, that are true processes. They are precise, predetermined sequences of actions to reach known outcomes.
That formula is comforting to many people, and they simplify their lives by making project management itself into a process, which it isn’t. This is why there are so many arcane formulations in the field that keep people busy while utterly missing the real project management issues.
An organized activity is a true project only when there also are complex parts you’ve never done before, some human and some procedural. Even the known sections can be severely impacted by the risks and uncertainties that accompany them.
One of the failings that bedevil projects is a tendency to focus on the known parts to avoid the anxiety of dealing with the unknown ones. That slows, hampers, damages projects. Kills or substantially cuts back on many.
So project management is controlling the multiple, continuously shifting pieces of a varied, undependable enterprise. It involves estimating and inventing, tracking and adjusting. It supremely demands the ability to delegate responsibility, inspire confidence and maintain compliance – in the midst of circumstances that can be very uncomfortable.
Who wants to live that way? Volunteer project gladiators aren’t plentiful in most organizations.
Those who lead this kind of work, and especially those who do it well, are even more rare.
You’ve seen a few of them in your life. These are people who can thrive in the bramble patch, handling simultaneous bad moments with decisiveness, tolerance and imagination. They demonstrate unusual skill at planning ahead and anticipating problems, and yet are flexible and persistent when their careful preparations come apart.
They devote themselves to the tedious gruntwork that underpins all good strategic and tactical planning. They find ways to get the organization to stick by them. They make middling people good and good people better. They take responsibility and solve problems. They themselves are never the problem.
Most of us can’t think that way, nor act that way. But we could. It’s what the good ones do. It doesn’t require unusual talent. It takes determination and it takes a bit of courage and a lot of persistence.
It short, all it takes is an attitude.