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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Leader, Doer -- Take Your Pick

     I heard an experienced project manager talk about how to build a solid project plan:
     “You’ve got to get down to the working surface, and build your estimates on actual facts, history and judgment. Otherwise, your plan is going to have big holes in it.”
     Totally right on the substance. Excellent project management . . . so far. Project estimates must arise from actual facts and relevant experience – to the extent possible.
     Whose facts? What experience? This is where the speaker’s narrative took a turn that seriously undercut the value of his advice. He described the many hours he had spent in researching and preparing estimates for one project.
     He applied his own personal experience? He invested his own time to produce detailed estimates?
     The context was that of a complex, good-sized challenge with a number of team members and stakeholders.

     I can think of a few situations in which there might be an argument for that kind of time investment by the leader of a project:

1.      The project is so small there’s little else for the project manager to do, and there’s no one else to do the research and the math, anyway.
2.      The work is so routine that plan management really is just a matter of drawing up the laundry list without forgetting anything.
3.      The sponsoring organization is so huge and so rich it has plenty of experienced project managers who can take the time to do back-office work.
4.      The project manager is being punished for doing something really stupid.

     None of those applied to the example the speaker was referring to. He was talking about regular behavior on regular projects. This was his take on how the lead decision-maker should manage any complex, demanding, multifunctional activity with a variety of stakeholders in risky circumstances.

    If so, he was providing an excellent illustration of why so many projects fall short or fail entirely. Detailed implementation planning is no place for the manager.
     Why? Several reasons.
     First: Top-down estimating at the necessary level of detail requires current information from the field, lots of it. Managers rarely have full state-of-the-art data at their fingertips, or the necessary contacts and sources.
     Second: The work requires the kind of single-task focus that managers can’t afford to invest; and a workstyle not at all like the one they have developed since back in their individual-contributor days.
     Third: Either the project start is delayed while the key decision-maker is not available; or team members are standing around waiting for directions, explanations and decisions.
     The true management role in the planning process is that of overseer, not planner.    
     The coordination of the action plans, and the priorities at all levels, must be directed from the broader perspective of the over-all project and the strategies of the sponsoring organization.

     It is where the project manager must be, continuously from beginning to end. The work cannot be done within the nuts and bolts of the action planning process. 
     It’s not easy to stick with this, particularly when the project manager is expert in the subject area. You often could perform any one of the functions better than the person you have doing it in your project.
     The fatal flaw is, of course, that while you were doing that . . . no one would be performing the most important function of all – your job.

     This “subject matter expertise” matter is a topic of continued conversation (dispute?) in project management. Can you do the management job if you are not competent in the field?
     Over the years, I have become convinced that management – especially project management – is a specialty of its own.
     The role it fills in the leadership of complex enterprises must be adapted for the particulars of any particular project, but the fundamentals are generally the same: Building relationships and establishing reliable agreements within the project team, with sponsors in the larger organization and with suppliers and contributors outside the direct project relationship.
     That work requires expertise in organization, communication, negotiation and problem solving, with a serious investment of time and attention. Skills specialists within projects typically can’t get their own part done properly and handle that level of management besides.
     Competent project managers know how to develop the necessary relationships and provide value in ways that build mutual respect and collaboration with the specialists.

     What do you think? Let’s see your opinion in the Comments section below.     

SEE ALSO: Put Me In, Coach: Role vs. Soul

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