Real World Project Management
By Mike Raia Posted May 15, 2018
It’s amazing what people are taught about project management and what really happens in the real world.
There’s a myth out there, and business school contributes to it to some extent, that project management is a world where one gets everything needed in resources and all that has to be added is the brainpower to run the show, (i.e. the project manager or PMO.) Projects are able to get started, the right people are pulled from various areas immediately as subject matter experts, and the day is filled with constructing Gantt charts and having scrum meetings every morning and late afternoon. If that was really the truth, just about every real PM out there would be laughing for joy because he or she would be in project management heaven. It’s amazing what people are taught about project management and what really happens in the real world.
Starting a New Project
The first thing that happens is the project intake. You’re picked as a project manager or hired. That’s likely the first most people hear of a given project, and the rollercoaster starts from there. Instead of having a defined idea of what is desired, the PM sits in a few executive meetings and realizes nobody really knows for sure what it is that they want. There is some vague idea of a concept, and then the PM is charged with giving it details and legs, and, oh, by the way, don’t screw it up.
Fortunately, most PMs are not expected to be complete magicians, and they are given a mediocre budget, an office to work out of, a few staff with some skillsets, and the ability to pick a few more as SMEs. However, it’s never near enough to make a proper team for the project, the skillsets oftentimes don’t match what is needed, and the PM is expected to cajole, negotiate, beg and bully his or her way to success through everyone in the company. No surprise, many projects literally become extensions of a PM’s personality as a result.
Project success is literally about working through people, getting them out of their comfort zones, coaxing them to do more, and then putting it all into reports for progress to keep support for moving forward. It sounds a lot like a team coach to an outsider, and many times that’s exactly what the PM is doing. And it’s a battle.
Finding the Right Skillsets
The second big issue after really defining proper project scope is getting the right skillsets to delegate to because while the PM will be doing a lot of hands-on, he or she can’t do everything. And that means lots of help is needed. Unfortunately, the staff one gets many times is not necessarily a good fit for the job. So the PM then has to spend time training people, getting them into the right role, and keeping them motivated to do more than they are used to. Pick the right people with a can-do attitude and most staff will step up as expected, even if they don’t have the perfect skillset on day one. Pick the wrong folks with a refusal attitude, and the PM will be stuck constantly fighting a drain on the team. At some point, you will eventually need to exit these personalities from the team for your own sanity.
Resourcefulness and Leadership
The third aspect a PM has to get used to is working in many situations with duct tape and baling wire. You listen a lot, find momentary opportunities to charge on through and take advantage of the chaos to push agendas where under normal circumstances bureaucracy would kill the move. It helps tremendously to have executive support, but it’s a card played sparingly for that one key executive being a major roadblock and refusing to get on board or cooperate.
Time is the enemy, and that’s why many PMs immediately jump to detailed planning, charts, progress tracking, and related reporting. In some ways, however, this is a deadly trap. Too many projects have gotten lost in their tracking reports and checklists, showing great progress on paper but never really getting the actual project to completion and delivery. That’s because these kinds of teams have their heads stuck so deep in finishing the next report they don’t realize when they are driving off a cliff.
PMs are the captain of the ship; they have to constantly look up and see the lay of the land instead of relying on tracking charts and project planning tools to take care of their direction. This is a very hard concept to understand because it fundamentally means instead of putting effort on Gantt chart details, the PM has to focus instead on context, people, subject matter, and the actual doing of the project implementation. Many PMs don’t take the time to train on the material and processes they are changing, and as a result, hit a stone wall halfway through. The team looks to the PM for guidance and there is none; the project then fails.
However, many PMs get a project running and produce a viable level of performance. Things are on track, the folks have found their groove, and the project is actually looking like it will take off. Then the fourth phase happens politics. Everyone in the organization suddenly realizes they have a very real stake in the project and, as if some kind of a secret memo went out, the project that nobody wanted anything to do with suddenly becomes the topic they all need to know and be updated on as much as possible. Now the PM is adding a new role to the everyday personal task list and being an advocate and lobbyist in the organization.
Many PMs hate the idea of having to sell and lobby their project, already approved to happen mind you, through various program heads. By their nature, PMs tend to be folks who don’t want to play the normal politicking game and instead choose to live on the fringe where everything is about creation, solving problems, and living a different life every day. The politics phase is literally the point where they get brought back in the fold to the organization's bureaucracy, and it is essential to master this phase if the project will succeed. The program heads can literally get in the way and kill the project otherwise.
The interesting aspect of the politicking phase is that most of the crucial decisions on the project have already been made well ahead of when nobody wanted to pay attention to the activity. So now, as the program heads suddenly want to be involved in the direction and they need to be convinced that it’s okay to be riding in the back of the bus instead of driving the project. Some will agree, some will support, and few will fight. That’s where the executive support card is pulled to stomp out the resistance. Pulling the executive support card will likely make enemies—it's almost unavoidable. As the PM you just have to hope there are no further critical steps dependent on the cooperation of an aggrieved program head in the weeks ahead.
So, to recap, real-world project management is a bill of goods and little substance.
- You focus on getting to a real scope as early as possible with critical buy-in from executives.
- You try to get people on your team with an “I want to learn” attitude, and they will fill in the gaps.
- You remember to keep your head above the weeds and not get stuck in the tracking trap on progress,
- You are prepared, in the late phases, to become very good at internal politics.
Do all that and you'll have a much better shot at bringing the project to a successful conclusion. Of course, the rest depends on your actual skills, getting the actual work done, and having the money and resources to make the final push to completion. And that gets solved by your management skills. As you can see, the business school classes don't always tell the real story about project management. It's not about charts, and scrum meetings, and progress reports.
Real project management is about your ability to solve a huge problem with a few tools and your wits.
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