Project Management

The Ultimate PM Technical Skills Acid Test

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The Ultimate PM Technical Skills Acid Test

Looking over the list of techniques, strategies, and technical skills associated with an advanced level of PM expertise can be rather daunting. The more I read on the topic of what constitutes cutting-edge Project Management the less I see any kind of consensus on what makes up the core, or foundation of the PM codex. The most advanced financiers, heads of accounting departments, and even tax attorneys can agree that their industries are predicated on double-entry bookkeeping (developed, incidentally, in Medieval times). Strategic Managers can agree with advertising agency owners and newspaper publishers that the ability to differentiate their customers/organizations’ products or services from competitors (and thereby making them more appealing and gaining in market share) is the basis for their empires. But what are the essential elements of PM? What makes it both unique and necessary? And, perhaps most critical, what’s the best approach to answering the previous two questions?

Attempting to resolve such weighty questions as posited above using a priori arguments and “experts” sitting around hotel ballroom conference tables comparing their curriculum vitae is a fool’s errand, in my opinion. It’s this strategy that so muddied the waters in the first place. What happens whenever any scholastic or management science field of endeavor expands at the rapid pace seen by Project Management is that what would otherwise be a clear distinction between core and peripheral areas of expertise becomes blurred, as such technique’s advocates vie for recognition, if not supremacy. One of the most extreme examples of this came from our friends, the risk managers, who at one time actually tried to define their purview as anything that might have an “impact” to any given project, negative or positive (the latter being re-defined as “opportunity,” and no, I am not making this up).

Okay, so if the last place we should seek an answer as to what makes up the essential elements of PM is the focus group/business school faculty lounges, what does that leave us? As counter-intuitive as this may sound, I believe that much insight can be derived from the opposite of such environs – that is, in the construction trailers and shop-floor cubicles of hard hat and safety goggle-wearing front-line PMs.

Back when I was chasing my MBA I was in a group of students evaluating the business practices of a clothing manufacturing plant in our home town. This was before I had earned my PMP®, but after I had spent considerable time performing project controls functions for United States Government contractors. These contractors were operating under the nascent PM techniques and business rules that required the delivery of cost and schedule reports derived from Earned Value Methodology analysis, including a standard reporting format known as the Cost Performance Report, or CPR. As I and my fellow graduate students were being shown the machines that would take new deliveries of cloth, cut them to specific sizes based on the style of garments (in this case, pants), transfer the cut-outs to various other stitching, riveting, button-holing, zipper-installing, etc. machines, I noticed a certain grey box with wires emanating from it had been installed on each machine. This module produced a report that monitored each step of the process. These reports showed the amount of material originally planned for the lot along with the estimated amount of time for the entire job (the time-phased budget), the amount of energy, labor, and machine time used for that particular step (the actual cost of work performed), and the actual progress being made (the Earned Value figure). Sure enough, these reports were almost identical to the Cost Performance Reports that I had been generating for projects ranging from U.S. Department of Defense radiation research work, all the way to U.S. Department of Energy environmental clean-up jobs. Amazed, I queried the manager escorting us around the manufacturing floor (who was actually wearing safety glasses).

“These reports – are they specific to this place?”

“No, they’re industry standard.”

“Right down to the calculated Estimate at Completion?”

“Sure. We need to know that to coordinate when the next lot can start, and have access to common machines or people.”

“Do these machines come with this automated report-generating capability?”

“Yeah. They all do.”

“Have you ever heard of the Cost/Schedule Control System Criterion, or the Project Management Institute®?” (Just for the record, I didn’t actually say “Project Management Institute, circle R.”)


I realized then that certain aspects of PM were central to its overarching schema, and Earned Value was one of those. Given that the cause of so many project overruns and delays is scope creep, I’m willing to venture that Scope and Schedule Management (specifically, the Critical Path Methodology) are also core aspects of PM. Using our acid test, using techniques we would have been likely to discover in our front-line PMs’ toolboxes, I’m willing to venture that the following are candidates for exclusion from that core:

  • Risk
  • Communications
  • Quality (which is almost certainly a subset of Scope; however, to the extent it can be cleaved from Scope Management, it belongs on this list.)
  • Procurement

A quick note about those last two – I’m not saying that they’re not essential management elements per se. They clearly are. I’m just dubious about whether or not they necessarily belong in the Project Managers’ wheelhouse.

So, for all you Project Management technique advocates out there, anxious to alert the rest of the PM world of the efficacy of your particular practice, ask yourselves this: if you were to pitch your idea to any manager who routinely wears safety goggles, ear plugs, and a hard hat to work, would you have a reasonable expectation that they would buy what you’re selling?


Brace yourselves, GTIM Nation: I have a management science world-changing announcement. This blog has actually discovered a key reason to do risk management! Crazy, right? And that reason is…

Look at that! Out of pixel ink for this week. Tune in next Monday for the dramatic reversal GTIM has for our friends, the risk managers!

Posted on: January 20, 2020 08:58 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Dear Michael
Interesting your perspective on "The Ultimate PM Technical Skills Acid Test"
Thanks for sharing

A "trip" through the clothing factory must have been a revealing journey

Is it a project? Or operations?

You wrote: "Using our acid test, using techniques that we would probably discover in the toolboxes of frontline PMs, I am willing to risk that the following are candidates for exclusion from that nucleus:

- Risk
- Communications
- Quality (which is almost certainly a subset of the Scope; however, insofar as it can be split into Scope Management, it belongs to this list.)
- Shopping"

What surprised me (just carefully analyze what you saw on your visit to the clothing factory "

thanks for sharing

PM technical skills are of priority in most companies.

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