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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Project Management Certainty

      It seems pretty unfair, when you think about it. Project Management demands certainty, but it doesn’t give you any.  You have to bring your own.
     My earliest experiences with project managers in a large corporation, decades ago, included listening to a raft of complaints about this. Those project managers often were the target of what really were attempted cons, by their own managers.
     Boss: “When will the project be finished?”
     Project Manager: “It’s ‘way too early to tell. We have to get a lot of quotes and estimates before we have any idea of how long it will take.”
     Boss: “Well, how about just a rough idea? I won’t hold you to it.”
     Baloney. If the project manager should mistakenly breathe anything, however circumscribed and conditional, that could be interpreted as a number or a date, it instantly became carved in granite.
     At least, that’s how the story went, and I have heard it countless times. Still do, now and then.

     You couldn't blame the functional managers too much. They were trussed up in budgets wholly constructed of hard numbers that came down from above, and now they were additionally hanging, twisting between senior management’s demands and the project manager’s shrouded language. And they were dependent upon the success of an uncertain enterprise conducted by people they weren’t sure they could really trust. You’ve got to feel for them.
     But we’re the project managers, and the nature of the work is such that you can’t really be sure of anything much until the project is totally complete and the last report has been signed, sealed and delivered.
     In project management, nothing is settled until everything is settled. Up to that final point, it’s all afloat. Woe betide the project manager who nails a few estimates to the wall just to have at least something solid to work with. It’s more than likely something unforeseeable will, retroactively, turn those decisions into mistakes.

      If you don’t thrive on uncertainty, or at least get the job done in spite of it, you’re not cut out for project management. And, in the end, you, project manager, are the only one out there in the open, all alone. All those fingers, when they’re pointing, are pointed at you. You live with that, too.
     In assessing the uncertainty level in any group enterprise, a lot depends upon just how much project management is in play.
     Every project has some “knowns,” in process, schedule and cost. These are work packages and tasks so well-known through experience or otherwise that there will be little variance from the expected. Those factors are not what this is about.
     In fact, if everything is predictable, it’s a different game. If all that is to be done, however complex, has been done before and will be done now by people who know how to do it, you’re not into a true project.
     In such a situation, you’ve got a process, perhaps one that will require disciplined implementation and close management, but not really a project.

     “Project management,” in its most distinct form, refers to a risky, complex group activity loaded with unkowns. It is the very model of bigtime uncertainty.
     It is only human to recoil from uncertainty. When in doubt, hesitate.
     But indecision is fatal to projects. As soon as the project manager is appointed, the meter is running on schedule and cost. The longer it takes to achieve a quality outcome, the better that outcome has to be to justify the investment of time and money.
     If too much time is lost in efforts to improve the odds, the window may close and the project itself turn out to have been a waste.
     That is why the entire arsenal of project management weaponry is aimed at effectively engaging uncertainty and risk, pushing actively right up against the limits to reach a solid result as quickly and cheaply as possible.
     It takes a certain kind of person, equipped with a special set of skills, to design a plan and lead a group to success in such circumstances.

     I once had a training participant ask if the project management process would make her less risk-averse. I don’t remember how I answered then, but I know now.
     Certainty is in the person of the competent project manager. The skill set isn’t limited to managing within the project. It importantly includes managing the relationships as well.
     So when the question demands certainty, the project situation demands a proper distribution of the risks and the costs that underlie the answer.
     You want a finish date, right now? No problem. Sign right here: Money, staff and authority. Let’s make it enough to cover contingencies.                          

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