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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Project Manager: Confident in the Dark

Invention demands structure

    When in doubt, hesitate.
     That’s a perfectly human reaction, and it makes sense. If you don’t know what to do, why in the world do anything? You could make a real mess of things.
     Project managers, by that thinking, are irrational. They actively, directly engage risk. They know what to do when they don’t know what to do. It is the highest level of their calling.
     Indecision is not allowed. They have no time to hesitate, and making a mess is most certainly not an option.
     So project managers must act decisively amid uncertainty, and that’s what they do. By no means is this foolhardy. The veteran project manager has met myriad problems and complexities, has been knocked down innumerable times and has found a way up. This person is a storehouse of solutions, human as well as operational.
     Some people are going to scoff at such a conception, with good reason. They don’t need to have anything like that level of high competence – their projects don’t demand it.

     This conversation calls for some specification in order to make sense.
     Our field, project management, encompasses a vast array of organizational/group activities, and somebody somewhere is calling any one of them a “project.”
     And every one of them is a project, if someone thinks it is. There is no Supreme Universal Academy of Wise Super Project Managers to dictate definitions, terms and conditions. If one is ever established, the first thing they’ll do is excommunicate people like us.
     In the meantime, the kind of project that is the subject here has these characteristics:
     It is important to the sponsoring organization. It is innovative, loaded with unknowns, complexities and uncertainties. It will require a number of processes we know how to conduct, but we’ve never had them in this combination before. There also are a number of requirements that will require us to invent or adapt.
     The project promises to be expensive, but funds are tight.
     There generally is a tight window of opportunity to reach the desired result, and that result has very specific, demanding qualities.
     The people to be assigned to the effort will be competent specialists in various appropriate skills, but they haven’t worked together before. The nature of the work, and the surrounding circumstances, will require tight collaboration.

     Many projects, perhaps most of the ones you and I will lead in our careers, aren’t loaded up with all that challenge. The ones that really matter, though, will have a lot of it. They can’t be tossed off as just another matter of routine.
     Yet that concept of “routine” covers most of our work outside the most demanding projects, and competent project managers devote significant effort and steady attention to learning routines, perfecting them and enforcing them. Most of our work is stuff we’ve done before. However repetitive it is, we need to do it right.
     That’s a major reason why so many managers – and executives – have such a tough time with projects. They haven’t learned to switch on an overdrive labeled “PROJECT” when that extraordinary matter pops up in the flow of regular duties.
     Many decision-makers, in fact, don’t know there is such a switch, and have no particular interest in it if they do become aware it exists. That is why so many projects fall short or fail.
     If it’s a real project, you’re suddenly in a dark alley, and you’d better hurry.  “Counterintuitive” is a mild way to describe the angle of success. Activating decisive behavior at such a time is not what most of us are likely to do – unless we’re competent project managers.

     This is a time when definitions are important. Most activities called “projects” are entirely or mostly “processes.” And that makes a huge difference, because it has everything to do with what the project manager does.
       We routinely see job postings and other references for positions called “Project Manager.”
     When you examine the requirements, you see that these folks actually are “process managers” – responsible for the careful organization and management of multiple people conducting complex activities that must be done with care and precision.
     The work often fits a reasonable definition: “Process: A series of sequentially dependent steps that, efficiently taken, assure achievement of a predetermined outcome.”
     That is not a project, and leading such an activity is not project management. When you manage processes, you repeat the same series of steps over and over, striving to reduce variances. The very nature of the work is enforcing sameness.
     Here’s an equally reasonable definition: “Project: A group effort among disparate stakeholders to achieve a risky, mutually valuable goal with minimum use of resources, meeting a demanding schedule within a pre-set budget.”
     The two activities are radically different, with a confounding problem: Every sizable project includes processes, sometimes many of them. So parts of the project meet the process definition, demanding careful implementation of detailed actions.
     Those processes are intermixed with project elements that call for an entirely different mindset and managerial approach.
     That is what makes projects so challenging, and it is what establishes the requirements for being effective at managing them.

     The heart of the craft is risk management, because the highest-value projects are loaded with risk. There’s no way even the most knowledgeable project manager has seen it all when it comes to those high value/high innovation enterprises.
                                                                                            You’ve got to invent things.
     But you can’t do that amid chaos. Stepping back to look at the project management methodology, you can see the entire setup is a risk-management toolset. When it is designed and managed properly, it eliminates or forestalls the major flaws in most attempts to innovate.
     So invention demands structure. You can’t devise original efforts and solutions if the ground keeps shifting under your feet. You must be alert to what’s happening as project initiatives and outside influences create new evidence.
     The project manager’s structure includes knowledge of all those processes that pertain – or could pertain – to this situation.
     PLUS readiness to switch instantly into piloting, quantitative and qualitative analysis and other functions of risk management.
     In the dark, sometimes, but the project manager is never at a loss.

Project Management on Autopilot



  1. Very informative blog, thanks for sharing this information.
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  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Rahul. Once we're clear on what the job is, we're in better shape to determine when it's being done well. I've met some people who are superb at it -- and a few functional executives who understand it well enough to appreciate and support those good project managers.