by Dave Wakeman
I was scrolling ProjectManagement.com recently, looking for inspiration and ideas for this month’s piece when I saw one author pose a question about “business context” and another one post about “business acumen.”
These got my attention, because over the years, my entire collection of posts has been about reinforcing these two points:
So this month, I want to reinforce the importance of your business skills to be a better project manager by highlighting two key ideas.
1. The best project manager can’t fix the wrong project. Peter Drucker said something about the worst waste of timing being doing something that need not be done at all.
One of the key ways that you can use your business skills to improve your PM performance is by understanding what projects are really going to push your business toward its key strategic goals.
This speaks directly to context. You get there with your business acumen.
Why does this matter? First, a lot of projects end up taking place due to momentum. A project starts gaining steam, no one steps in to ask if it is “essential.” It just seems important. So, it gets done.
Second, a lot of projects are done because that’s the way similar projects have been handled in the past. So, a project is just done because it is consistent with “best practices” even if there have been no lessons learned to update the process.
These scenarios highlight the importance of context and business acumen for PMs, because being able to step in and understand if a project is essential and impactful can stop the wrong projects from taking place.
2. Context is key in any situation. The best project manager in the world is still operating in a situation filled with context, no matter what.
The idea of any project, business or PM operating in a vacuum is funny, because nothing occurs in a vacuum. Great PMs know that context matters in every situation, and that context is fluid.
Andy Jordan recently wrote about there being “multiple” contexts, and that is right to a point, but it can be confusing to people. A good PM’s frame of reference for “context” in their projects revolves around the answer to the question of, “What does success look like?”
Why does this matter? One, we need to isolate the signal from the noise. I agree with Andy that there are multiple contexts for any project decision. Where I want you to focus your attention is on recognizing which one is most important.
In the modern business environment, you are never going to be able to manage all the contexts, so the process of isolation and focus matter more than ever.
So, look for the thing that is going to help you achieve “success,” whatever that means in your situation.
Two, the proper context should help you justify your project’s execution. Above, we discussed business acumen and the “right project.” Here is where context helps that come true because the context can change—and likely will change.
So, it is your job to make sure you know what success looks like so that you can place the project in the proper context to ensure that the right projects move forward.
Remember, the best project manager in the world can’t save the wrong project—and that’s where the meeting of business acumen and business context come together.
What do you think? Am I off the mark?
By Lynda Bourne.
Over the last few months, I have been part of a group working on a series of papers looking at the history of project management and project controls. This required the classification of the various stages in the development of the practice of project management. However, almost every author of project management history has a different view of the major change points.
Our take on the major phases of development of project management is driven by changes in the project control tools and processes being used. Better control processes provide new insights, allowing improved or changed management approaches. Based on this framework, the major phases in the development of project management seem to be:
Prior to the 1950s, the primary control tools showed static representations of cost and other deterministic data. The sophistication of both the management data and its representation in reports improved over the centuries, but the controls processes focused on reactive management actions to correct observed deviations from the plan. The people managing projects were priests, builders, engineers or other authority figures.
The current phase of development of project controls uses largely deterministic information to predict future outcomes. This phase of development started in the late 1950s with the creation of PERT and CPM schedules, and has progressed through to the point where there is general acceptance that earned value and earned schedule are among the best of the predictive control tools.
This phase saw the creation of “modern project management” as the pioneers of computer-assisted project controls worked together to form the various project management institutes (including PMI in October 1969), and the institutes in turn defined and codified the practice of “modern project management.”
As a result, the people managing projects were increasingly identified as project managers. Various styles of project management are emerging (this was discussed in my post on The Entropy at the Heart of Project Management), but regardless of the approach, the concept of a project—run by a project manager, to create value for a client—is consistent. Project management is now expected to be proactive, working to minimize the negative effect of future problems identified using predictive tools, as well as dealing with any current negative variances.
The next generation of project controls is starting to emerge. These tools are predicted to be integrated, adaptive and intelligent, with a focus on maximizing the efficient use of the project’s resources. They will use machine learning, and be integrated into the systems used to design and develop the project’s outputs rather than operating as standalone processes.
One example is the emergence of 5D BIM (five-dimensional building information modeling) in the construction/engineering industries. A three-dimensional design is integrated with the schedule (4D) and cost information (5D) to provide a single system accessed and used by everyone involved in the design, construction and future maintenance of a building or facility. Project control tools with embedded intelligence are also emerging.
These developments are too new to have much impact on the nature of project management today, but by the end of the 2020s we are likely to see as much change in the way projects are managed as occurred in the 1960s.
Do you think these phases in the development of project management are reasonable, or are there other major inflexion points?
When my son was a little boy, he was a great enthusiast of world-class soccer players and enjoyed questioning me: "Is a great soccer player born with talent, or did they practice harder than the others?"
Being the native consultant that I am, I replied to him with another question: "What do you think?" From then on, I was amazed by his train of thought being developed through this old yet complex question.
Through my many years of experience in consulting (and my licentiate degree), I got close to many people who were interested in growing their careers as project management professionals. I acknowledge a sense of pride in having collaborated in different ways with many of these stories. But, as an outside observer, every now and then I find myself asking the same well-grounded question brought up during that talk with my son: "Can a project manager achieve excellence through training and experience, or are there innate characteristics to this professional?"
Perhaps I should begin this reflection by attempting to identify what makes a project manager a successful professional. As it has already been written about before by many others, and aware that the list takes many characteristics into account, I will stick to those traits that I most like to see in a professional:
We probably think that we have some (or all) of these skills. By admitting shortages, it is also natural to imagine that these skills may be developed through some specific training. I agree with that. However, I believe that we may recognize how rare (and challenging) it is to identify all of these characteristics at a high-level within the same professional.
The truth is that there are no effective tools to identify how great we really are in these skills. That's probably why it’s so difficult picking the ideal professional for the job. This is neither good nor bad. Bottom line: We were not born with a binary code that always allows us to go beyond expectations and break the simplistic view that we were destined to become something that we will be until the end of time.
In my project management career, I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on different projects all over the world. As with most things in life (like having a flat auto tire or forgetting to pay the electric bill), projects mirror the practical realities of life. One of the takeaways from those experiences has been the commonality of successful project management approaches no matter the geographical location of the projects.
A key characteristic that I have observed over time is how projects and project management resemble a meritocracy independent of personal bias. Projects need to be complete with desired outcomes in a specific period of time. As one completes ever more large and complex projects, one grows in their career as a project manager. This career growth occurs regardless of the race, gender or other characteristics of the project manager.
As with many other merit-based professions such as healthcare, aviation, athletics and science, the introduction of personal bias with project management would be detrimental to the completion of any project. That’s why project management as a profession is a great equalizer given its heavy dependence on the skills and capabilities of a project manager.
In thinking about how project management is a great equalizer, I offer the following thoughts:
1. The project doesn’t know who is managing it. Projects are an interesting construct that is hard to categorize under the typical laws of physics; they don’t have weight, exhibit motion or temperature. Projects do have the characteristic of being a collection of activities and assets that need to be brought together to produce desired outcomes.
In this regard, a project by definition is immune from any personal bias; it’s a matter of solving a three-dimensional problem using people, process and technology. A project manager needs to be skilled at resource, schedule, dependency and stakeholder management in order to solve for desired outcomes. The project itself does not prefer the personal background of the project manager; it awaits the proper project management disciplines to be employed in order to complete its required objectives.
2. Successful project managers find the best people. People represent one of the key factors in any project. When compared against process and technology components, the acquisition of the best people plays a more significant factor in the success of any project. However, the acquisition of people for a project also poses the possibility for personal bias. As a project manager, you have to be able to find the best people for the project independent of subjective perceptions.
A CEO of a global company once said it took him 20 years to get a point where he could identify good people more than half the time. My observations of project managers early in their careers bear this out; they tend to be more subjective in selecting resources that they like and perceive would work well on their team; read this behavior as easier to manage. The more experienced project managers more discreetly evaluate competencies than subjective factors; this is key, as no matter the personal affinity or how easy (or difficult) the person is perceived to manage, the most critical dimension of people for a project is their competencies.
3. Project management metrics show no bias. One of my favorite quips about project metrics, especially when they are not favorable, is “You can’t beat the laws of physics.” If metrics show a project to be over budget or with late milestones, those are intractable project “laws of physics” that need to be addressed by the responsible project manager.
To a great degree, project metrics are designed to not show any personal bias. They are a physical expression of project reality that can’t be influenced by personal factors of the project manager. Metrics are equal in every regard to serve as an unbiased foundation from which remedial project actions are taken.
In my early years as a project manager, I have to admit I made every possible project management judgement error on my projects. Over time and with some valuable guidance from experienced project managers, I grew into leading ever larger initiatives. As part of that growth path, I observed that the most experienced project managers had left any notion of personal bias behind in their project management execution. Their focus on the core dynamics of a project, finding the best people and anticipating conditions that would lead to unfavorable metrics were key factors in their success.
I welcome any commentary on the concept of project management being one of the purest forms of meritocracy that by design can’t rely on personal bias to achieve success.
During the long duration of the pandemic, each of us had to shift our work/life balance. We had to curate a new workday schedule, perhaps adding more flexibility to support multiple needs between work and family. A changing focus with customer and colleague engagement, repurposing commuting time, tending to family needs, caring for those affected by COVID-19, and supporting relief efforts are just some of the changes we had to adapt to. The pandemic forced each of us to make personal and conscious ethical decisions on the tradeoffs, but most have of us have set into a new work/life balance.
After almost 20 months, the world is deploying COVID-19 vaccines under health authorities like the U.S. FDA and Europe’s EMA, who have expanded access protocol for emergency use. The world is hopefully on a trajectory toward a post-pandemic world. Many organizations have established their return-to-work policies, criteria, and expectations of colleagues. One may observe a continuum of return-to-work guidelines built by organizations as a highly collaborative model focused on high-touch customer experience, an innovation-driven design model, or task-based transactional work. Each organization is calling to us to spend some time back in the office or in front of our stakeholders.
How does this affect us, and what do we do to prepare? Our choices can be to simply go back to a pre-pandemic “normal”; stay in the work-from-home pandemic style; or re-engage in a post-pandemic style. Regarding this last choice, we should consider how to maneuver ourselves into a post-pandemic style while still maintaining the agility of working from home. This disruption to our current way of working creates a sense of stress and anxiety as it asks us to re-engage. One must re-learn and adapt to new behaviors and approaches.
One opportunity to be better prepared may be to create a personal contract for the post-pandemic work world. The contract can be a statement or a list of priorities. Here are some tips that I will use to help make the transition better and reset myself:
What would your list include to enable a post-pandemic transition back to work?