Project managers: fall-guys or heroes?

Succeed or fail, they're all going to notice you

Project management Most project managers do a difficult job, but what are they really like?

From my experience, a few essential facts about PMs:

• PMs do it in the right order, standing in front of complicated charts

• PMs take the blame if the project goes bad; it's in their job description

• PMs aren't more important than the project, but bad ones think they are

• PMs think most processes need improving and, if you sit down at a PC with them, they will show you how

Sometimes words have different meanings in the world of the PM:

• Activity: something everyone agreed should be done, but no one else knows how

• Budget cost: the figure that was agreed to ensure your budget was passed

• Actual cost: the real amount, hidden somewhere in a complex spreadsheet

• Finish date: some unspecified time in the future when we can all relax again

Depending on when we reach that point, and whether the two costs are close to being equal when we do, the PM may either have been sacked or headhunted for double the money.

If a PM succeeds or fails, it gets noticed. By everybody. Sometimes in the national newspapers. Take this headline, just last week: "MoD fighting £3.3bn cost overruns with in-house project management system." The Independent recently stated that the UK taxpayer is currently saddled with £26.3bn of government IT projects that are deemed “not fit for purpose”.

Nearly everything is PMed these days. Hamburgers, medical implants, Olympic stadiums. The truth is that project management is crucial. But as with accountancy, its beauty is usually apparent only to the dark masters of the art. PMs are the masters of the Gantt chart, the true lovers of Pert, the seers of future disasters.

While we get on with our daily lives, PMs are preparing for nightmares. For them tasks, activities, resources, slippage, WBS, start nodes, milestones, and cost envelopes mean that we can get a good night's sleep, because we have them to worry for us.

Murphy's Law is never far away, even on the smallest projects. Project management involves juggling scores of deadlines, resourcing maybe hundreds of interrelated projects and tasks, coping with the late arrival of kit and services, and suffering the brickbats of backstabbers and troublemakers.

No wonder it's an area little understood by outsiders, which makes the task of communicating to stakeholders harder than it should be. Does this sound familiar? Andy Siddiqi, an interim PM, said: "You go into some companies and they don't know the difference between an IT manager and a project manager. One CEO asked me to fix his son's PC at the weekend. You have to have a large dollop of diplomacy to do this job. But the upside is you are making history. You see tangible change when you finish a project."

PM is part science (think fiendishly difficult maths meets string theory), part psychology (combine the persuasiveness of a salesman with the bloody-mindedness of the doorman), and part making the impossible happen (“we need it yesterday”).

A project manager has the unenviable task of defining the overall goal and working out how it will be achieved through all the tasks involved, then working out how long each task will take and what resources are needed. PM forums (they exist) are full of discussions about the complexity of estimating the cost and time required to complete a given task.

Careers rest on the calculations of start and end dates for the domino-like line up of tasks that lead to project completion.

The planning phase lays the foundations for the work to come. Peter Taylor, author of The Lazy Project Manager, a kind of PM’s slackers’ guide, says: "It's hugely important. Even a productively lazy project manager needs to invest in the planning work to ensure that the project gets off to the right start. I talk about the ‘thick front end’ of a project where all project managers need to really put the effort in."

Then of course there is the management. The PM acts as the leader, pulling together relevant teams and sometimes even creating a PM board to steer the project as well as sign off on key milestones.

In software we trust

But the PM is never alone. The job is a combined effort between man and his faithful software, in this case a PM package that promises to make all the problems go away.

Mastering such packages is no mean feat. Training firm BurningSuit recently published a list of most frequently asked questions about Microsoft Project 2010. They ranged from the simple “How do I create a Timeline?” to the more niche “What if I want my tasks to always respect links?” What?

The role of PM software is manyfold but its first deliverable is usually the creation of a Gantt chart or logic diagram that estimates durations of tasks in relation to each other and maps the flow of activities. At this point cynics often point out that a better outcome could have been achieved with Post-it notes and coloured pens on a whiteboard.

And PM packages do produce lovely charts, that impress even the most cynical stakeholder. The sooner a critical path has been mapped the better, as this can lead to decisions about changes of suppliers, re-allocation of resources and hopefully a better chance of delivering on time and on budget.

Meetings, lots and lots of meetings

But the real problem of project management is, of course, that it's all about people. Stakeholders, colleagues, the delivery guy who slipped past security, they need to be consulted, informed and persuaded to play their various roles as well as buy into the overall goals of the project. Potentially this communication is more efficient than ever through the use of social media, blogs, and the Interweb, but of course a meeting now and again is essential too.

I could go on, but according to my Gantt chart, this feature should have been finished yesterday. So if you got this far, join us for features over the next three weeks on planning, communicating, secrets of IT projects, budget control, Pert/CPA, risk evaluation, reporting and PM portfolios. And, of course, listening to your stories of failure, success, and what caused both. ®

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