Project Management

The First Big Lesson I Learned as a Project Manager

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By Conrado Morlan

We’re all novices when we start out as project managers. That’s okay. The key is to learn from your missteps.

As a young project manager in Mexico, I used to struggle with resource planning. Like many other neophyte project managers, I wanted to make sure that all the tasks in my work breakdown structure would have the required resources assigned to them by name.

The challenge was that the resources were not my direct reports. I had no control over their schedules. 

My first approach at resolving this problem was to meet with the appropriate resource managers to review all the breakdown structure tasks and available resources, assign resources’ names, and reserve the resources for my project.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? I would get the needed resources for my project, while helping managers keep their resources busy. Then I discovered I hadn’t considered all the other projects competing for the same resources. Not to mention all the project intra-dependencies.

I kept trying hard to build a perfect project plan (full of names attached to specific tasks) without success until I was assigned to a high-visibility project that was part of a strategic initiative. The initiative was led by an experienced project manager from the organization’s headquarters in the United States.

I didn’t want my struggles with resource planning to cause me to fail in such a high-visibility setting. So during my first meeting with the American project manager, I let him know about my struggle and asked for advice.

He was glad I brought my challenge to his attention, recalling that earlier in his career he faced the same challenge. His solution: the “Chinese army approach” to resource planning.

Because resource planning can pose such a huge roadblock to many project managers, the Chinese army approach assumes an abundance of resources.

Our conversation went like this:

American project manager: How many soldiers does the Chinese army have?

             Me: Millions.

American project manager: Right. The Chinese army has unlimited resources available to the commander in chief. Applying this approach, assume you have unlimited resources with the right skills that can be assigned to the different roles in your project. The resource planning stage is too early to be worrying about names.


Since then, I’ve followed the Chinese army approach, identifying the necessary resources for the early stages of the project—and their availability—during the project approval process.

On several occasions, I found that the roles could not be filled with internal resources because of a lack of required skills or because the resources with the right skills were in high demand. So I had to source from a contractor.

While working with resource managers and external sources, I found the need to acquire and master communication and negotiation skills. That helped me to get the best resources, while also sometimes allowing other projects to have the resource I was pursuing. All that truly mattered was that my projects were able to produce the expected results tied to organizational business goals.

What’s the most important thing about project management you now know that you didn’t know when you began your career?


Posted by Conrado Morlan on: March 13, 2016 11:22 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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I worked mainly with Software Projects and we always had issues related to Wishful thinking, stakeholders starts with big requirements which they themselves are not convinced about. Before we adapted Agile , we wasted good time in assuming that we can make accurate estimate and plan the complete project in early stage of development.

In my case, that every change must be requested, approved and DOCUMENTED. At the beginning, and perhaps due to the small size of the company, changes to projects would be made without following any integrated circuit, thus creating a big mess at all levels.

I was not aware of the "Chinese Army" concept, I like it and may even embrace it :)

A nice, simple approach. Love it. My first big lesson was in the communication process. I had falsely assumed that if I am the Project Manager, my team and I are the only ones involved in the decision making process. Big mistake. Communication and transparency are two of the most crucial aspects in a project. Since I didn't keep the executive management informed at all times, changes were demanded, the project got delayed and we ended up spending almost double the budget.

In matrix organisation environment these days, i has been even more challenge for PMs to keep your resources motivated even though it is available with in your company as they may be more loyal to other project or PM them your project and you. This issue has been even greater when the resources has been from vendor as the resources may not have commitment for our project as we expect.

Though all these problems are part of our PM life, we can overcome by applying right approach for different problems. I have used Influencing to get my vendor PM motivating and providing good resources to my project.

Chinese Army Approach, what a good way of thinking resources are unlimited and are in the demand of PM. In the real world, every single hour spent by each resource is chargeable and PM is responsible for it. Communication is the key element in resolving the resource demanding and planning activities, PM can only take charge if the resources are on board with full commitment and no other interruptions from other projects.

Great article and one that should be required reading for those new to the profession. Yes, there is the "by the book - PMBoK" way of doing things, and there is the real world way of doing things. These are the best lessons for those entering the profession today. There is far more art to what we do than science!

I agree with Paul - there is more art than science to what we do. We all need to understand the science, but recognize that the "capital" used to execute a large number of our projects is human capital, and is thus not rigidly held to the dictates of schedule because "stuff happens".

Makes sense to keep things simple at the start and deal with real world realities as things elaborate.

This is similar to how the mindset has changed with the rise of cloud computing. In the past it would take weeks or even months to provision new servers and equipment and software. Today we can do that within minutes and we can request far more hardware than is needed. In the case of IT, we no longer worry about assigning the right names to the servers, we just request the resources and then figure out their names.

Great article and great approach, will definitely be using it in the chaotic world of software development planning

As a fairly new PM, this is very helpful advice, thank you!

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