Real Life Project Management -- A Mix of Art and Science

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:

  • Personnel: Because every project has different personnel needs, a new project team must be assembled at the beginning and disbanded at the end. Where do these people come from and where do they go when they are no longer needed?
  • Estimating: Because every project is unique, estimates of costs and schedules may contain more assumptions than facts.
  • Budgeting: Project budget cycles rarely tend to run the 12-month intervals that corporate budgets do. Even though a firm’s budgeting process may attempt to allocate money for upcoming projects, their funding requirements may be unclear before a formal planning process has begun.
  • Authority: When projects cross organizational boundaries, it can become unclear who has authority for many decisions – thus, creating gridlock and political maneuvering that can block progress.
  • Controls: Normal accounting practices produce reports on a quarterly or annual basis – but these timeframes are not sufficient to keep most projects on track. By the time the quarterly accounting reports are published and show a project over budget, it may too late to recover.
  • Communication: Communication breakdowns are one of the most common reasons listed for failed projects. Messages that must go through a number of intermediaries and across organizational boundaries are not only time consuming, but also face the risk of being irretrievably lost.

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:

    • Problem Statement: Describe the problem to be addressed and resolved.
    • Project Name: Provide a concise and descriptive “Official Project Name.”
    • Project Description: Provide a brief narrative including project context and background.
    • Project Objectives: Describe what will be achieved and what will be delivered to the customer.
    • Scope: Provide a first draft of what will and will not be included in the project.
    • Customer: Delineate specifically who is the customer.

    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.

    • Progress measurement: Measuring progress early and often quickly identifies any problems and thus, makes them easier to solve.
    • Communication: According to some estimates, project managers can expect to spend more than 80% of their time communicating in some way. Thereby, making it no surprise that effective communication is critical in controlling a project.
    • Corrective action: Basically, these are measures taken to get a project back on track. It typically refers to the day-to-day responses to all the roadblocks that a project may encounter (schedule delay, cost overrun, performance issue).

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?