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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Project Politician


The project manager is the designated expediter of unrealistic expectations. That calls for superb political skills, and an extra gear for creativity.

If this thing is a real project, the stakeholders with the hammer – the ones high in the sponsoring organization – are sure there’s a pot of gold somewhere in that fog of uncertainty, and they’re often impatient for the project manager to deliver it to them.

They are both the investors and the customers of the project. You can’t expect them to pour unlimited resources into the effort, and it’s not their job to figure out how to get the desired result. But they sure do want that payoff.


Elsewhere in the project, there are numerous dependencies – required supporters -- without whose vigorous participation the outcome cannot be achieved. Few of them have reason for spontaneous enthusiasm about the relationship.   

There are managers whose staff members, materials and facilities must be withdrawn from their functional operations to support this project of yours. Those resources were there in the first place because the operating managers needed them to meet their own performance requirements. Now the resources must be surrendered, and there is not a commensurate return for the functional manager.

And then there are the working people at all levels of the operation, often the most busy and burdened, who are chosen to add a new set of tasks – quite frequently tasks that are demanding and disruptive.


Project Manager – the catbird seat in all this -- is not a job for those who prize routine. The Project Manager must be effective at organizing disparate parties and unlike activities that often defy coordination. Those process skills must be integrated with high-level communication and persuasion. And more.

This issue of a wildly jumbled challenge often is obscured in the midst of daily worklife. Projects, real projects run with true Project Management, aren’t as frequent as we might have thought. Many people designated as Project Managers, and seen as being so, don’t have the problem. They actually are managing processes, not Projects.

Process is orderly – the more orderly the better. Process rewards careful, unchanging repetition. The more closely one’s actions adhere to the previously identified center line, the better the process meets its requirements. That’s efficiency, and it’s a good thing. It achieves the predetermined outcome with the least possible deviation from the predetermined process.

If it weren’t for defined, disciplined processes, the toilets wouldn’t flush, paychecks would not arrive. Things wouldn’t work. Process is absolutely, fundamentally necessary. The problem occurs when we embark on a nonroutine Project armed only with the measured practices of conventional management, plus fond hope that they will somehow do the job in this unique, complex new circumstance.


The genius of the Project Manager is in understanding when and how to depart from firm management control and engage situations never seen before, or maybe just never engaged before.

Such engagement is most successfully handled by people who can keep a varying number of unlike moving objects aligned through an unhelpful landscape. Time does not stand still or slow down. The skill set is characterized by some management specialists as being significantly different from that of competent general management.

Project Management, managing real Projects, can’t be done on autopilot. The overall progress of a Project is not orderly. It has significant elements – sometimes dominant ones – that require innovation, invention and trial and error. Yet, it has chunks of routine embedded in its shifting flows of unpredictable challenge. It is easy to select those familiar pieces and overstate their importance in the whole.

The current narrative among the nation’s intellectual leadership doesn’t help. The perceived shortfall in American education must be overcome, we are told, by a crash program in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

We in Project Management say, “Wait a minute: Don’t all these highly skilled STEM people have to come up with ideas, collaborate in problem solving with others? Let’s have some realistic balance here.”

We have seen, especially in Project Management, how brilliantly skilled people can be severely handicapped by inability to function in group and organized settings.


A couple of interesting insights showed up recently in support of organized creativity as an important but undervalued workplace factor.

Here’s one, from Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of GWI of Maine, a telephone/Internet company that has been one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the United States for two years running. In comments to a legislative committee about the most important skills for workers of the future, Kittredge said:

“Start out with an arts degree.  Being able to be creative, to interact with people, is more likely to be important for someone’s career. . . . A lot of what we think of as STEM – that’s out of date. . . . Machines are getting smarter and smarter. What computers won’t be good at is judgment, reasoning. That’s where getting a liberal arts degree comes in handy. It teaches you to think.” (Portland Press Herald)

Economist Chuck Lawton sounded a similar theme in a Maine Sunday Telegram column summarizing the skills required in the successive eras of Maine’s economic history. Looking to the future, he concluded: “The central skill is creativity – making connections and seeing the unknown, the perplexing, the out of order, the unexpected as challenging and fun.”

That reads like Project Management, with the possible occasional exception of the fun part. Achieving general satisfaction among all those competing Project stakeholders is a political challenge of the highest order. Sound management is essential but never enough. You have to see possibilities no one else sees . . . and make them come true.

That’s politics.

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