Starting Out in Project Management
Although I won’t do a full repeat of my talk at BarCampLondon2, today I wanted to talk a little bit about starting out in Project Management. Most folks don’t start their career as a project manager … they come to it later, having been in an operational role or part of a project team first.
One of the difficulties for a first-time project manager is that being a great project resource (i.e. team member) is what gets you the job as project manager, nine times out of ten. Unfortunately, the characteristics of a great project resource are not necessarily the same as those of a great project manager. Standing out in a project team is about getting more done than your fellow team-mates, knuckling down and “getting on with it”. By definition, this focuses you on the executional level of the project — getting tasks done, once they’ve been assigned to you.
In contrast, being a great project manager requires excellence at all the OTHER parts of the project — planning, communication, dealing with stakeholders, managing risk, seeing the “big picture” and so on. There’s also a big part of project management which is more about management than about the project — your team will function best if they are left in peace to do their work and move the project forward, so making sure they don’t NEED to worry about all those factors is paramount.
In traditional project management, there are a number of stages: Initiation, Planning, Execution, Control and Closure. The crux of my talk last weekend was that the real success or failure of a project is determined in the Initiation, Planning and Closure stages, whereas most of the focus is traditionally on the Execution & Control phases. This is not to say that these are the most time-consuming phases — nor that the Execution & Control are not important! — just that they are the structure that allows for success .. or not.
In my experience, some of the most typical mistakes first-time project managers make are in these stages:
- INITIATION — not making sure everyone is 100% clear and aligned on the purpose of the project. Realising this later on when the software “doesn’t do what we wanted it to do” or when the savings/value promised are not delivered is much more costly.
- PLANNING — thinking that the plan, once written down (as thousands of lines in MS Project) will be followed to the letter. Plans are not robust. Task planning is especially fragile. If you spend your time worrying about the fact that task #137 is only 70% complete, then you’re not keeping your eye on the rest of the project.
- CLOSURE — if you think your project is finished and others don’t, then you have big problems. There are a number of reasons this can happen (probably fodder for another blog post), but the most frequent are either that you haven’t met everyone’s real objectives for the project (see above) or that you haven’t provided for the future of the area you’ve been working on. This leads to the “undead stakeholder” phenomenon that seemed to strike a chord with everyone I mention it to.
So, what can you do if you’re managing a project for the first time? Or even if you’ve already managed your first project and weren’t happy with the results? There are a few things you can do:
- Educate yourself. Even though Project Management may not seem as real or worthwhile as development or design, it is still a valid skillset and there is a lot of information out there, notably some great books.
- Think back. When you were working on projects, who were the best project managers? Who do you remember fondly? Who do you definitely NOT want to emulate? Learn from their mistakes and adopt their best practices.
- Ask around. There are probably other young PMs in your organisation. Maybe you could even meet up and swap horror stories.
UPDATE: I’ve since written a book aimed at those just getting started in project management — have a look at The Principles of Project Management.