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Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Hardest Part of Project Management

     What’s the single most difficult thing about the project manager’s job?
     I know, I know: There are so many problems, especially the unpredictable ones, that it seems a worthless exercise to try isolating the single worst. Those devilish items take turns being the worst, often with head-spinning rapidity.

     The specifics can include, but most definitely are not limited to:

     Insufficient time
     Scope creep
     Fuzzy expectations
          . . . often unexpressed and/or unknown to those who have them
     Abrupt changes in organizational priorities
     Lack of assured project resources
     Team members who won’t make commitments
         . . . or won’t keep the commitments they’ve made
     Managers who block or limit team members’ participation
     Lack of insights from project end users

     And these things gang up on you, in combinations that also can morph so often it’s an extra challenge just to keep track of them.
     But you’re the project manager, and you have to act – decisively and effectively. Befuddlement is not an option.
     So you act right away. But not by creating a project plan and recruiting a team. Not at this point.

     Your fundamental starting point is to create a logic for mastering the tangle in front of you. Something has to be first, and it has to launch the process of control that underlies the entire concept of management.
     That Step One is to get fully informed on the specifics. What is this project all about? What are the expectations of the person or persons who will be making the final decisions about it?
     If you can’t get really detailed, concrete information from the ultimate decision maker, that’s your first problem, and it’s a big one.  It introduces a major risk and you’ve got to deal with it.
     The concept and initial expectations may be incomplete, contradictory or impossible. Whatever they are, you don’t argue or press overmuch for details that may not exist. Nor do you sit and wring your hands.
     You get all you can, take careful notes and promise a proposal within 24 hours.
     Your proposal is in the form of a project plan, using the preliminary information as its basis. If I understand correctly, this is what you want me to do.
     You carry it through to a logical conclusion, including the staffing, financing and physical resources you estimate it would take to turn out the desired result.
     However impossible that might be.

     The response is going to be in one of three forms:
1.       “This looks really good – let’s go ahead with it.”
2.      “You’re on the right path. Let’s do some work on this.”
3.    "This is terrible. What makes you think we have all this time, all these resources, all   
              these people?"

    If you get Number 1, congratulations . . . but be careful. You’re not crazy enough to expect “let’s go ahead with it” to REALLY means “let’s go ahead with it.” I used to jump ahead on that basis back in my early days, often with painful results.
     What it really means is that the manager is favorable, but a cautious, step-by-step advance is advised. You seek frequent approvals until a solid favorable record has been established. With trust and thorough communication, you can expect greater autonomy.
     Number 2 is quite similar, but it often signals a tighter rein. Get as much detail as you can on what the right path is, and what work is indicated. Do new detailed proposals on relatively small portions of the plan, building on successive approvals.  

     Number 3 is very good news, believe it or not. It signals that you have smoked out – at this very early point – one of the deadliest devils of project management: Unrealistic expectations at the top of the authority chain. Either little was thought through or the decision-maker is making fatally rosy assumptions.
     Just think of those horror shows that ensue when the project manager obediently proceeds to attempt the impossible until . . .
     Until the arrival of the embarrassing, expensive disaster for which blame is to be assigned. The boss may not excoriate you for failing to talk him/her out of the bad idea. By then, more often than not, the boss decides it’s your bad management that’s at fault.
     So it is far better, far more professional, to ignite the fire immediately. Right at the moment the situation becomes clear.
     Remember, your proposal/plan was thorough, based on your careful questioning of your manager. The situation, assumptions, risks and project activities are all there in the concrete, devised by you from what you got from the proposer, and in solid project management form.
     So the investment estimates you inserted follow in the same way. If the original idea included unrealistic time, cost and activity estimates, your proposal deals with them respectfully but honestly.
     You’re careful not to enter your opinions contesting the expectations – just facts and standard project management estimates.

     This difficult initial situation represents the most important challenge of all for you, the project manager. It tests everything: Your professional knowledge, your management maturity, your judgment, your abilities to negotiate and persuade.
     Your job may be on the line, and possibly your career. Pull it off, and you’re a top performer. If instead you have to go along, handle that properly. You will earn the respect of all involved.
     Whatever happens, this situation presents you with all the problems listed at the top of this commentary. Treasure the moments when you’ve seen it handled well. Prepare yourself for the times you’ll be called upon to do it yourself.
     It’s the hardest part of Project Management.

QUESTION for your comment: What is your success rate in persuading decision-makers to change unrealistic directives?

SEE ALSO: Disengage Project Autopilot

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