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Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal
Just ten short years ago, project management was thought of by many as an “accidental profession” – a role within organizations created through happenstance and ad hoc training. Project managers were truly a neglected species – often novice managers given a project to complete with the directive to operate within a set of narrowly defined (and often unrealistic) constraints. No crystal ball was needed to predict the outcome – failed projects; managers battling entrenched bureaucracy and powerful factions; and money, market opportunities, and other resources forever lost. Fast forward to the year 2005, and nothing could be further from the truth. Today, individuals grow up with the dream of one day becoming project managers – ok, admittedly, once they’re past the desire to be doctors who moonlight as movie stars and astronauts on the weekends. The career path of the project manager is now well-defined and well-understood in most organizations – a scenario quite contrary to that of ten years ago. Nowadays, we are seeing books, courses, professors, and certifications designed specifically to educate and train the modern project manager.
Today’s project managers are a special breed. They are strong leaders who possess a variety of problem-solving, communication, motivational, visionary, and team-building skills. They are one part facilitator, one part salesperson, one part coach, one part cheerleader, and of course, one part cat herder. Their profession is truly a mix of art and science – a blend of business and management skills that can be taught and learned and personality traits that are inherited, but necessary to be successful in the human side of project management.
Managing projects is a challenge that requires a strategy and methodology all its own. But before we dive into the formalities of project management, we must first understand what a project is. By definition, a project is temporary in nature, which means it has a specific start and finish. A project consists of a well-defined collection of tasks and ordinarily culminates in the creation of an end product or deliverable. There is a preferred sequence of execution for the project’s tasks – which is known as the project schedule. But basically, a project is a unique, one-time undertaking; it will never be done again in exactly the same way, by the same people, and within the same environment – thereby, introducing uncertainty and consequently, risk into the endeavor.
Because projects are unique and temporary in nature, they pose a brand-new set of challenges. They include:
Setting realistic expectations, fostering agreement among all parties, and then delivering the product can obviously be difficult, but don’t despair, there are project management techniques that have evolved to meet these challenges. From a high level, these techniques can be grouped into three project management functions:
Project definition lays out the foundation for a project. From the project definition process, the project manager must understand and be able to communicate the following information to sponsors, customers, management, and prospective team members:
Project definition usually evolves as the project moves through its life cycle.
Deliverables include: Statement of work, Responsibility matrix, Communication plan, and Project charter.
Project planning puts together the details of how to accomplish the project’s goals, given the constraints. During this phase, interim deliverables are identified, along with the strategy for producing them. Formulating this strategy begins with the definition of the project requirements (tasks) and the optimum sequence for executing them (the schedule). Time and cost estimates are also established. And risk management activities identify the areas of greatest uncertainty and create strategies to manage them. The question of feasibility and justification is addressed, as formal approval to proceed with the project is ordinarily sought before continuing.
Deliverables include: Risk log, Schedule, Budget, and Resource plan.
Project control includes all the activities that keep the project moving toward the goal - while minimizing the distance between where you end up and where you said you’d end up.
In a nutshell, these functions sum up to the responsibilities of the project manager. And they are both sequential and repetitive: A project must begin with definition, then proceed to planning, and finally to control. But planning will inevitably lead to modifications in the definition, and controlling actions will require constant changes to the plan and, occasionally, changes to the definition. So a project manager may actually cycle through this process every day on an ongoing project…whew!
As you can imagine, project management is a vital tool in the future of global business. Increasingly technically complex products and processes, ever-shortening time-to-market windows, and the need for cross-functional expertise have guaranteed project managers to be important, indispensable, and powerful resources in the hands of organizations that understand and appreciate their skills. Now c’mon, who wants to be an astronaut?