A question that is frequently asked in online project management communities is "How critical or valuable is it for a project manager to have detailed subject matter expertise or technical competence related to the scope of their projects?".
To clarify, I am not referring to business or process knowledge - I believe that a PM has to have a good understanding about how the deliverables of their projects will be used and they should have sufficient process awareness to help identify the project and business risks that may reduce benefits realization upon project completion.
Here are a few of the benefits to having "hands on" knowledge and experience:
However soft skills don't usually increase from having technical competence, and yet, these soft skills are often the biggest source of challenge for PMs.
Beyond this concern, there are other risks to be aware of:
With constraints forcing organizations to cut costs when staffing project teams, a PM is often expected to perform multiple roles. While this approach can increase the value the PM brings to the organization and is one way of introducing someone to their first PM role, it presents risks that a PM should be aware of and should manage through courage and self-awareness.
(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in January 2011 on Projecttimes.com)
In a recent role, I had the opportunity to review the lessons submitted by teams running large, complex projects and programs and found that over 90% of what was being captured and shared was of low or no value.
Back in April 2009, I published my very first blog article titled "Lessons Learned; Avoid the Oxymoron". Since that time, I've gained a broader appreciation of the multiple challenges organizations face when trying to get sustainable, reusable knowledge out of projects and felt it was time to put a capstone on my writing about this specific topic.
So what have I learned about lessons over the past decade?
"The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing" - Henry Ford
Just like the officers on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (original series, please!), the personalities we bring to managing projects can be quite diverse.
This is one of the profession’s benefits – there is no single right way or best practice to managing projects. And this uniqueness also applies to growth in the profession – whether it is crossing the chasm of business domains, focusing on getting better at delivering a specific type of project or even growing your skills within a PMBOK knowledge area, there are ample opportunities for personal development.
Here are just a few of the characters I’ve run across in my fifteen year mission exploring the profession.
James Tiberius Kirk
Like Captain Kirk, these project managers emulate the motto of Star Trek’s Federation by constantly seeking out new (project) life and civilizations. They relish the unknown – once they have completed one or two projects of the same type or complexity, it’s off to challenge themselves with something different. Retaining Kirk PMs can be difficult if your project portfolio doesn’t possess sufficient depth and breadth. They also are eternal optimists – like Kirk, they don’t believe in the no-win scenario.
Some project managers possess Scotty’s exceptional ability to turn engineering lemons into high performing lemonade. They relish the challenge of taking on troubled projects and turning them around. Rarely does some one enter this role without having gained sufficient experience successfully delivering projects from start to finish but at some point they realized that their personality and temperament are best suited to troubleshooting.
If you get off on the science or techniques of project management and find the soft side of the profession doesn’t enthuse you, you might be a Vulcan. Such project managers rarely (perhaps once every seven years?) let their emotions get the better of them which can be a crucial skill when everyone around you is losing their cool. However, this apparent lack of emotion and empathy can make it difficult for them to effectively use influence or persuasion to help their projects and having to put up with illogical behavior from their stakeholders can cause deep frustration for them.
Dr. Leonard McCoy
If you come across as a bit gruff but underneath that tough exterior beats an empathetic heart of gold, you might be a doctor not a project manager. Bones serves as a good foil for Spock with one embracing their humanity whereas the other struggles with it. Bones project managers will possess a high EQ and are confident relying on that to help them make decisions more often than with pure logic.
Uhura posesses exceptional linguistic skills and we all know project managers like her who know just what to say in a given situation. Such project managers are very capable of managing stakeholder expectations and rarely struggle with managing the communication demands of complex projects.
So where will YOUR project management career boldly go?
(This article was originally written and published by me in April 2017 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)
You might assume that a television show which portrays the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface would provide more relevance to the logic of paying high school teachers as opposed to being a source of useful lessons for project managers. Hopefully I can correct you of that assumption!
**SPOILER ALERT** I hope that any reader who has interest in Breaking Bad is already aware of how the show ends, but if not, spoilers are going to be discussed!
In no particular order, here are a few lessons from the story as well as from how the show itself was made.
“Are we in the meth business or the money business?” – Walter White originally started breaking bad as a means to provide for his family after his lung cancer diagnosis, but somewhere along the way, his objectives significantly changed. You might argue with me that there was always a little bad guy within him waiting to get out, but his original intentions were driven by necessity and opportunity. If there is a major shift in a project’s vision, make sure that you work with your project sponsor to help your key stakeholders and team members understand the rationale for the change and what it will mean to them.
“Would you just, for once, stop working me?” – The relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show. Walt appears to goes out of his way to protect and promote Jesse, but it is all done to further his agenda. Jesse frequently recognizes that he is being used, but goes along with it to get the recognition and attention from someone whom he considers almost a surrogate father. Project managers often wield a great deal of influence over team members and stakeholders, but there’s a very fine line between influencing someone to do what’s in the best interests of the project, and working them to satisfy your own ego or a personal agenda.
“So, you're chasing around a fly, and in your world I'm the idiot.” – One of the more amusing episodes of the series takes place during Season 3 when Walt’s chronic insomnia causes him to obsess about the risk of contamination from a single housefly which has entered the meth super lab. His attempts to remove the “contaminant” result in physical injury to him as well as almost maiming Jesse. Tunnel vision can often occur to us on high stress projects – we lose focus on the big picture and begin to obsess on minutiae. This is when having a trusted impartial observer can help to set us straight – so long as we are willing to listen to them!
“We're just getting started. Nothing stops this train." – The episode Dead Freight from the final season provides a great example of how a project which appears to be right on track can go horribly wrong if basic expectations for behavior have not been established with team members in advance. After Walt and his crew had successfully pulled off the methylamine heist in almost perfect fashion, Todd Alquist kills an innocent kid who most likely had not even witnessed anything incriminating. Had Walt done a better job of setting his expectations with his team members for handling such unforeseen surprises, things might have gone differently.
“W.W. I mean, who do you figure that is, y'know? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?” “Heh. You got me.” – Midway through the fifth season, Walt learns his cancer has returned, but having achieved his financial goals is ready to live out his remaining days in peace. Unfortunately, his mistake of not disposing the copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which had been personalized by Gale Boetticher gives his brother-in-law, Hank, the final puzzle piece he needs to connect Walt to the meth empire. While I had indicated in an earlier lesson that obsession is dangerous, a lack of attention to detail can also introduce risk into projects.
“Sell off what we have and then...well, then I guess I'm done.” – Vince Gilligan knew he had a hit on his hands with Breaking Bad after the first season aired and he could have tried to keep milking the cash cow well beyond the fifth and final season. However, having spent several years writing for The X-Files, Gilligan was also well aware of the dangers of a show “jumping the shark”. Ignoring or encouraging gold-plating or other attempts to increase scope might appear to be harmless and in the best interests of the project customer, especially when you are ahead of schedule or below budget, but it’s not the project manager’s place to make such a decision.
To use one of Mike Ehrmantraut’s great quotes, if you ignore these lessons, someone may eventually say to you “If you'd done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now!”
(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in January 2014 on Projecttimes.com)
While there’s probably a little Homer Simpson in all of us (especially when faced with a “forbidden doughnut”), he has spouted off some witticisms that provide some lessons learned for project managers!
And finally, here is one Homer Simpson quote that is applicable to all project managers “All my life I’ve had one dream, to achieve my many goals.”
(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in October 2011 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)