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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Projects, Processes & Professionalism

     I’ve been at this project management stuff for less than 30 years, so I probably don’t qualify as an expert. Still, I have built up a few working hypotheses and dark suspicions:
     1. Most people who hold the title “project manager” are not real project managers, and most activities called “projects” are not real projects.
    2.  Nearly all people who manage real projects do not carry the title “project manager,” and many of them – maybe most – don’t even know they’re managing projects.
    3.  Most appointments of true project managers do not result from job postings, which is a good thing because most job postings essentially say “Superman Wanted,” and have very little to do with what the job is really about.
    4. The most fundamental trait of real project managers (designated or not) is that they can’t bring themselves to turn their backs on problems, no matter how hairy and scary the problems might be.
     5. Projects, real projects, require original thinking, flexible leadership, courage, persistence, integrity and strong skills of communication, collaboration and persuasion. And other strengths.
     6. There is one important skill set that most good project managers are lousy at.

     Explanations are in order, so here they are, more or less corresponding to the notes above:
     The person in charge of installing technical systems or building houses often is called the “project manager.”
     These are important jobs, and they call for a high level of knowledge and management – but more often than not they apply the same processes the person has employed multiple times before. There are adjustments each time, but by no stretch would the work be considered “real projects” as defined above.  
     The people in charge are process managers.
     Processes are series of sequentially dependent steps taken to produce predetermined outcomes. The more precisely the steps are implemented, the more assured the specific characteristics of the end result. Repetition is the name of the game, and process management is not project management.
     Things can get confusing. Projects include processes, sometimes numerous multiple interdependent and complex processes. But projects also include unknowns, speculative estimates and trial-and-error activities.
     The entire combination is dynamic. Parts move in various directions at different rates of speed, simultaneously and often with unexpected twists and turns.
     The people who are responsible for making it come out right are project managers. They must be competent in overseeing known processes and in creatively solving problems, while coordinating expectations of multiple diverse stakeholders.
     They are responsible for making it all happen on time, within budget and in accordance with requirements for function and quality.
     When you try to simplify the work, you lose parts of it. This is a taxing job.

     Project managers arise in the workforce ranks because they are curious and energetic in exploring how things tick, and persistent in tussling with the mysteries of workplace innovations and malfunctions.
     Their bosses and co-workers come to see them as the designated problem solvers. When something needs to be figured out, they are the go-to people. When something new needs to be installed and implemented, they are asked to take care of it.
     Sometimes it occurs to some manager to confer the title “project manager” on such a person, but usually not. Occasionally, the person gets to receive training in the field, and that invariably produces a remarkable advance in the person’s ability to do this demanding work.
     More often, the unfortunate reality is that the natural project manager is taken for granted and overworked. While those admirable skills are hard at work to the benefit of the organization, they rarely do anything for the person who exercises them.
     It seems that the personality of the rising project manager regretfully lacks the gene of self-promotion. The person may well wish for a more accurate job description, greater respect and maybe a fatter paycheck, but is uncharacteristically passive about it.
     The recognition that is so richly deserved usually needs some help if it is to materialize. The budding management skills need to be applied to a personal project: one’s career.
     I once knew a successful politician/businessman who was widely admired for his modesty as well as his accomplishments. I invited him in to a leadership class as a guest speaker, and I’ll never forget what he said:
     “If you want to succeed, make sure you do a good job. And make sure everybody knows it.”


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