Along for the ride
In project management, much like driving versus riding in a 1992 BMW 3 series, managing the project is quite different from working on the project. I’m not saying it’s better. I’m not saying it’s the ultimate management experience. But I am saying that much like driving a BMW 3 series, if you’re organized and successful as a project manager, you do have a nice sense of control. You are in charge, you are making the decisions, and eventually you realize you wouldn’t have it any other way. Again, not saying it’s for everyone and not that it’s better than everything else. Some people like to drive a truck. But if you like that feeling of control and taking charge, there aren’t too many things like it. Yes, I’m talking about both – driving the BMW and managing projects.
It’s not easy. If you want to be successful you can’t just phone it in and enjoy pushing people around and making powerful decisions. That’s not what it’s about at all. But, in spite of what others might think, it isn’t just playing “coordinator” and sending out project status reports, updating project schedules, begging people of task updates and sugar coating task descriptions trying to trick your project team into doing actual work on the engagement. For me, it basically comes down to this:
Project setup. Planning out the project from beginning to end, putting together the initial project schedule, resource plan, budget, and kickoff with the customer to get everything off on the right track.
Task management. Ongoing task management throughout. Next to overall project communication, this is probably the most important thing the project manager does. May seem mundane, but it’s an hourly – not daily – effort and without it, nothing gets done on the project. Doing the right work at the right time. That’s most of what project management is about.
Communication. Communication is a critical ingredient for project success and is – as I always say - Job One for the project manager, in my opinion. Without effective, efficient and very accurate project communication, project success is just luck. And we can't replicate dumb luck on our projects over and over again.
Status reporting. This is part of project communication. It must happen to make customer status calls meaningful and productive and it must happen to keep project customers engaged throughout the project. Enraged or engaged – your pick. But I prefer engaged so keep them informed.
Scope management. Watch requirements and scope carefully. It’s easy to let a little extra work slip in while you’re trying to keep a customer happy. If you’ve had lots of issues on the project – especially if they were the fault of you, your team or your organization – then you may want to give a little work away for free. But be careful. Scope that is not managed closely can get out of hand…and that’s a fast track to budget overrun.
Negotiation. Believe it or not, project managers must often be artful negotiators. You may often not even realize you’re negotiating, but you are. Every time you talk the client into switching a date or changing around the order of phases of the project to accommodate an issue or change, you are likely negotiating. There’s always give and take. Be smooth and your project will run smoothly.
Customer management. Customer management, customer engagement… whatever you call it doesn’t matter, but it is a very vital piece of the project management puzzle. Customers often drift in and out of availability on the projects we manage for them because they are busy with their day jobs – not just overseeing the project they were tasked to sponsor. Because not all projects are their #1 priority. Some projects are forced on THEM, too – just like some are forced on you. Keep them engaged by keeping them assigned to tasks and then let them know you expect updates and progress reports.
Everything else. Yes, and everything else that comes up. The target is on the head of the project manager. Wear it well and don’t back down.
Summary / call for input
Project management isn’t necessarily cool – and it certainly isn't easy. I guess it can be somewhat cool – depending on the project and the industry and the technology you get to implememt. But it is important, it is critical, and being in charge can be fun – thrilling even. In my opinion it’s better than the ride-along. I like being in control.
Readers - what’s your take? Project manager or project team member? My genre has generally been IT and most developers on my teams have not aspired to be project managers. A few have and those that wanted it generally became good at it. The rest stayed on the full throttle tech track because they excelled there…it’s all good. Please share your experiences and add to this list of what's critical about leading projects.