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Do You Really Know What Project Management Is?


Stupid title I know, but it got you here didn’t it!

Everyone knows what Project Management is, don’t they? don’t you?.. Do you?

So tell me why so few people are able to demonstrate how to pull a project together and deliver to a clients requirements in a structured and organised way? Hmm.. and successfully..

Lots of question marks appearing here and that’s not what I wanted but it is the way I see the world of Project Management when I look back on my experiences and forward at the challenges still facing us today.

Project Management, in the simplest language I can muster, is;

The start to finish deliver of a specific piece of work which will result in a customer getting at least what he/she paid for, if not more so.

No it’s not. That’s a definition of a project, loosely but pragmatically. Where’s the “management” bit gone?

Aha, that’s the real challenge here isn’t it. In most projects that struggle, you will already have all the key elements that make any project “a project”, requirements from a customer, funding and a schedule. These elements are often shown as the classic triangle of Cost-Time-Quality. Just in case you are confused by the word “Quality” let me dispel many a confusing discussion – Quality is, loosely, the process or method by which the product or service delivered is aligned to the customers requirements. I.e. they got what they asked for, and paid for.

I asked for a red roof, not a green roof. Just because it’s a roof doesn’t mean I’m going to pay you for it. It hasn’t met my requirements. Where’s your Quality Controls gone?

More on quality another time. It’s too deep a discussion for now. However, having the basic elements only make a project “a project”, they aren’t in themselves critical success factors.

In recent years I’ve been hired to provide consulting services on large projects that were not strictly roles as a Project Manager. I’ve been asked to set up a governance structure and project delivery framework and “oversee” the project delivery as an independent consultant. Yes that is supposed to in bold type. It is almost the definition of a Project Manager, don’t you think?

The framework or structure against which you can apply an approach in an orderly and repeatable fashion, to deliver something for someone, is known as a “Methodology”. That something that is delivered by a project methodology is always “CHANGE”. However you look at it, projects are about change by their definition and in practice.

Can you see where I’m going with this? No, oh well I guess I’ll carry on for a bit more then…

When you instigate a program of change, a project, then you need a starting point or reference as your base, a set of requirements, and a target or destination state – usually the vision of the final product or service – let’s call that the deliverable.

Hang on a minute.. aren’t the Requirements and the Deliverables the same thing? So we’re starting at the end? So How?

[“So How” is a phrase I’ve adopted from my darling wife, who is not a native English speaker. It provokes so many questions that the only answer I can ever give her is a blank stare most of the time. Try it sometime, it’s a great response to many situations.]

One of the biggest challenges I find my customers have with change is just knowing how and where to start. Yes, they can see the future and know where they want to get to, and most of them know where they are today, but many of them just don’t know how to get things off the ground. You need a process and a map, and a good set of tools.

A decent Project Manager will have a tool box. That tool box is his “Methodology”. It has processes and procedures and templates and all sorts of other good stuff that he’s picked up, or stolen, over time. It’s tried and tested and he knows he can fix pretty well any problem with something from his tool box.

Without his trusted tool box he’s “flying by the seat of his pants” and that’s not a good thing. Not for the smallest of changes or projects. At best he’ll find the small projects surprisingly stressful, at worst he’ll fail to deliver. Let’s not even think about the larger more complex projects if he’s not got a good set of tools with him.

As with any tools, if you don’t know how to use them, it’s often safer to not have them in your hands at all. Methodologies are the same. And this IS THE POINT I’m trying to make here. How many project managers do you know, or have you heard of, that have some form of project methodology training or certification, and are still struggling to deliver projects, or failing at every turn? I know a lot, and the supply is being refreshed daily.

Too many training organisations teach to pass a test and don’t teach to do the job. Too many companies put value in accreditation’s without understanding if the individual is competent at practical delivery.

I spent many years renovating old cars. It was my Hobby. I read books on panel beating, paint spraying and welding. I knew it all. I bought the tools and set to work. Until I developed the techniques, skills and experience and became competent, could I say I was able to deliver, and then at a very average standard. I screwed a lot up on that journey.

Competence comes from developing skill and experience and practicing techniques. Not from paper certificates or classroom sessions. Competence can be accelerated by practical knowledge transfer and expert guidance – also known as coaching, by experienced managers or instructors. I haven’t yet found an organisation that is able to take a normal person and turn them into a competent project manager. This is where we fail as an industry.

So have I answered the question “What is Project Management?”… Nope.

That’s tough then. You’ll just have to wait for my next installment.

I’d love to hear back from you on your views and experience with project managers. There’s so much change going on everywhere and it always seems to cause so much more stress and pain than it should. Why?

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