Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/10/pm_five_assumptions/

How not to do Project Management

Not so much a recipe for disaster, more a five-course menu

By Ken Young

Posted in Project Management, 10th November 2010 11:57 GMT

Project management When you are taken on for a project management role, or allocated to lead a project, it is easy to assume that key people in the organisation know and understand your role, and that you understand all the problems. Big mistake. Here are five fatal assumptions that you can make about what you do, and what they think about it.

1. They know what you do

Even the person that hired you might have a misconception about what a project manager (PM) does. The company may have a clear idea of what it wants you to achieve – build a bridge, install a wind farm or create a new CRM system – but may be less clear about your contribution.

And that's just the senior management. Further down the organisation will be scores or hundreds of people whose attitudes range from constructive to downright belligerent. Some will be affected by their perception of your role, some by fears about how the changes will affect them. Andy Siddiqi, a contract project manager, sums it up: "In some firms there is little previous experience of the PM role. You have to create the governance, the systems for making it happen. You have to handle resistance with extreme diplomacy. Underestimate the soft skills at your peril."

Cooperation will depend on your ability to communicate and convince stakeholders of the value of the project to the business or enterprise.

2. You will be judged on past success

Yes, experience is important, but employers want people who can handle difficult challenges. Adrian Treacy, MD of IT recruitment firm Arrows Group, says: "They don’t just want project managers that have run smooth operations. They are looking for people who have faced challenges and problems and learned how to resolve them.

He also believes there is increasingly professionalisation of the role: "We are seeing more career project managers out there. There was a time where project management was merely a stepping stone to becoming a business analyst but now there are more people choosing project management as a career, resulting in project managers of a higher quality, with more experience."

And with experience comes exposure to failure – not a bad thing if lessons are learned. Government efficiency adviser and former boss of the Office of Goverment Commerce, Sir Peter Gershon, says. "We look at failure because we learn a lot from it. I think it is more educational than success in terms of helping us move toward a more professional approach to project management."

3. The estimates are right

One of the hardest parts of project management is estimating the costs, the resources needed and the time required to complete a task. To protect yourself you need to research past costings and timings as far as is possible. Then, once you have come up figures, add some fat, as one project manager put it. This extra 10-15 per cent gives you a bit of leeway when the inevitable overruns and overspends occur. The downside is that it makes the initial budget fatter too.

If you are coming late to a project bear in mind that initial estimates may have been priced to ensure the overall budget is approved; or conversely, the job may have been priced without a proper competitive tendering process.

Be right all the time

And a word on allocating human resource. Many PMs report that more is not always better. The more people you have in a team the more the complexity of managing the team increases. Focus on choosing the best people with good communication skills and teamworking ability rather than the fastest workers. Estimating is an art. Regular review is essential for realistic budgeting.

4. You must be right all the time

Leadership of a large project pits the PM at the centre of the operation. The temptation is to make yourself the resident guru for the whole project. Big mistake. You may be intent on success, but that doesn't mean having to be right all the time.

Your satisfaction is often in making a huge difference, succeeding in your plan (perhaps against huge odds), and increasing your reputation and experience. If you can swallow your pride and those around you bask in the glory it is unlikely to be forgotten. Leadership is about team morale and few things go down so well as being appreciated for work well done. Meanwhile those in charge are more likely to want to use your skills again if you have made them look competent.

Many PMs report that theirs is a somewhat thankless task that places them in an unusual political position. You have power and influence but everyone knows it will disappear in a puff of smoke once the project is over. That transient power is a difficult mantle which can only be worn with great skill and diplomacy, plus the subtle use of carrot and stick when appropriate.

Geoff Reiss, author of Project Management Demystified, sums up the situation in the book's introduction: "Success in a project is NOT proportional to success in project management. All those heavy tomes on project management totally ignore this simple fact." He points out that a large part of the job lies in the art of avoiding problems, using the analogy of a ship's captain constantly on the bridge on the lookout for icebergs and floating containers.

5. Project planning is a shared responsibility

PM gurus agree more on this subject than any other. The key to good practice is planning, planning, planning.

This from Peter Mayer, managing partner at PM consultancy Pelicam: "There is a fundamental need for PMs to accept their responsibility to understand what is planned and how it is planned, and to take responsibility for its accuracy, control and publication.

"Practically all organisations now have a defined method and template for project initiation. Many still struggle to achieve the level of granularity and precision to build a view of the project that guarantees success.

"Some projects employ ‘planning jockeys’ who know a software application well enough to create complex Pert/Gantt charts, dependency networks and so on – showing a tendency to abdicate responsibility rather than plan a project. It is equally unreasonable to blame these project planners when things go awry. "

Tom Foulkes, director general, Institute of Civil Engineers, concurs. "I have learned through the years that the planning phase is absolutely essential for getting a clear and shared vision of the goals of the project. Without that you are asking for trouble," he says.

But of course the best laid plans… which brings us to risk evaluation and management. There will be more on that later. ®