Project management requires the use of a solid framework and an experienced project manager to ensure the success of any project, any size, in any industry
I was hooked on watching the Iron Chef – what got me interested in this show was the project manager in me. Watching these highly skilled chefs be provided with the exact same ingredients, tools, time, and assistance; yet, only one gets crowned as the iron chef by a panel of experts. I linked it to project management immediately, why is it if both chefs were following the same guidelines and having the same constraints in preparation, using same ingredients, why would one chef be better than the other. Similarly, the same projects with the same set of parameters and given two different project managers will have different outcomes.
In cooking all ingredients must come together at the right time – and the more expert the chef is, the better the integration and the blending of these ingredients that will result in the perfect dish. Does this sound familiar for project managers? Similarly, in project management, Project Management Institute’s (PMI) nine knowledge areas (Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human Resources, Communication, Risk, and Procurement) must integrate and blend with the 5 processes (Initiation, Planning, Execution, Closing, and Control) to ensure smooth and proper expedition of any endeavor from start to finish.
PMI’s framework provides organizations and project managers with a complete method and structure that if followed in the order prescribed, will allow all projects to succeed equally, and we will never hear of project issues such as time delays, budget overruns, scope changes, resource utilization, etc. Do we wonder why all projects do not follow the above steps, and do we wonder why they are not all equally successful?
I do not believe one element makes a project successful or unsuccessful. However, there is one element that is very important from my experience – in addition to following a great industry standard project framework such as PMI’s. That important element is the project manager (i.e. the Iron Chef in my food analogy example). The project manager is the person who is blending all elements of project management to bring on the right integration and to deliver as expected by his/her organization and the client’s organization (similar to the food judge panelists in my food example). We all must have seen or heard at least once throughout our career that if the same project is being run by two different project managers and they both follow the same steps, one project may succeed and the other may fail or may not succeed as well. Why is it when project managers follow same steps one would be more successful than the other? I believe it is the project manager, the third dimension to project management that I would like to explore, and that dimension makes a huge difference in projects successes and failures.
Defining the third dimension of project management
All PMI’s elements – project manager, environment, government regulation, and company’s policies must integrate well and come together to bring on the desired result; and who is better than the project manager to make that happen. The first and second dimensions consist of the PM framework and processes; the third consists of the project manager.
There are human elements that belong to each of us that make us all unique almost similar to fingerprints. Project managers’ uniqueness ensures when applying the science to a project, the art in us as human whether it is experience, intuition, intelligence, etc makes a difference in the way projects are run and in the outcome of these projects.
To explore the project manager success criteria, I will assume all other areas will remain stable (i.e. taking two project managers to run same project for the same client, under same set of environmental and government regulatory conditions). From my experience, the elements that set project managers apart are:
Leadership is required and needs to be demonstrated by all managers whether they are called functional managers, technology managers, or project managers. Since I am listing a successful criterion that sets project managers apart, I will focus on what I have experienced:
- Lead and coach – A good project manager is both a leader and coach; he or she teaches, encourages, motivates, and corrects the project team if needed. It is important for a successful project manager to understand the different points of view and to educate and encourage. It is as important to act as a true coach, to lead project team by example. As the project manager points out the mistakes for the members, he/she needs to make sure to admit when making a mistake.
- – A successful project manager will practice what he/she preaches. I have seen how this not only sets project managers apart, but binds project teams or breaks them. As in “Lead and coach” if the project manager punishes for mistakes or point out others’ mistakes, but does not admit to self-made mistakes, credibility will be lost. A good project manager will be consistent with his/her behavior and the action taken will demonstrate the statements made and vice versa.
- Manage change – Managing change is one of the most challenging criteria. A change is not limited only to project plans and schedules only; It is managing all changes whether pertaining to clients (such as scope, budget, delivery, or pertaining to upper management (such as new organizational directions, policies, constraints), or pertaining to team members (such as morale, turn over, workload management). Managing current risks in addition to anticipating unforeseen events will make any project manager the perfect juggler, and the ability to control all these balls in the air will set the project manager apart.
It is an overrated topic; everyone in project management talks about the project manager being a good communicator. What does that mean? It means that the project manager needs to be in front of the happenings and not behind them. What that means is that to know what to communicate, when to communicate, who to communicate to, and how to. All the above should be described as part of communication plan which should include PMI’s identified inputs and outputs.
- Involve your management – I find most successful project managers are the ones who got their management engaged throughout the project life cycle; therefore surprises are near none. On the other hand, when project managers communicate only when issues arise or when requests are made, outcomes are less successful when a project manager has lost the element of engaging throughout the process. An element of surprise for clients and the project manager’s bosses will always be a concern, creating a false impression especially if the project manager only communicates when there is an issue.
- Keep your clients informed – Another communication tactic is keeping the client and stakeholders well informed and goes beyond a status report once a month, a week, etc. How to communicate is very important and keeping the client well informed at all times at all levels makes a huge difference as the project progresses. I am talking about calling clients checking how they are viewing the project progress, informal conversations not only with the executive rank, but also with the ones in charge of data entry on a system if this was an application implementation to gauge and engage them to get the required feedback.
Examples of means of communication can be: create a collaboration tool for people to share documents, post success stories, status reports, have your stakeholders and/or your management attend some of the core team meetings at times.
- Know when to communicate – Knowing when to communicate is as important as what is communicated. Does a project manager communicate after an event took place, before, or both? What I have seen and experienced and that worked mostly is providing pre-event (giving heads-up), assuring people of what about to be performed, the expected outcome and the counter plan if the expected outcome was not the desirable outcome. Post-event is to tell those who need to know the achieved outcome which at this time will not be surprise either way because the project manager would have prepared his/her audience in the Pre-event communication to either outcome.
Planning for communication in advance and executing the plan would be one of the most successful tasks a project manager can do. I have seen many examples where the work is done on the target, but days passed and the project manager has not updated the affected plan or informed stakeholders, which will leave the outcome open for interpretation. I have really found that pre-event, post-event communication can keep people engaged and would address issues more proactively.
What makes some Project Managers outstanding when compared to others is their ability to follow-through in many different directions until bringing on the required deliverables regardless of the complexity that might be involved, the more complex the situation is, and obviously the more work and follow-through will be required. The three most important components in follow-through are:
- Delegation and empowerment – I have put delegation and empowerment together since I have seen it abused. Someone will be delegated to carry on with projects commitments, but are not empowered to take the action required to deliver these commitment and that causes huge issues in addition to bad morale. In my experience, delegation without empowerment does not work. Individuals will never own their efforts or become accountable if they are told to do the work asked of them without authority to carry it out. A proficient and successful project manager will be able to delegate through proper planning and assigning components of projects to technical leads and other project managers (depending on size and type of project) and trust that they will complete their deliverables, escalate accordingly and make the right call once they are armed with help, support, and open door policy system. Empowering people does not mean that someone should make a decision that will be in conflict to scope, budget, or the success criteria, or commitment to deliverable. Empowerment allows the SME (subject matter expert) to apply his/her skills comfortably and feel empowered to do so without external interference that will impede the success of their outcome.
- Drive and motivation – A successful project manager instills drive and motivation into the project team. He/she must be driven by goals and results. Goals must be set up to ensure there is a target he/she is working towards, and results need to be achieved and measured to determine success. I have seen that there are enough project managers that just do what they are told by their bosses, stakeholders, or clients while they should understand the goals and be confidant to achieve the results these groups are asking for. An excellent project manager manages the bosses and stakeholders through the goals and keeps everyone involved, focused on the target.
If the project manager is positive and motivated, it reflects on his/her team and they will adopt a similar attitude. There are the occasional bad apples, but that should be dealt with immediately so that it does not affect the team. On the other hand, there should be a reward system to award people who step above and beyond their normal duties to motivate others and to encourage those who were rewarded to continue their fine performance.
It is difficult enough to keep oneself motivated especially through rough times; to keep the project team motivated is a lot more difficult task to achieve. However, ensuring that there are goals set and that the project team is part of that activity, empowering the individuals on the team to carry on tasks, as well as having a reward system will make a huge difference in driving and motivating as well as making a huge difference between project managers who are able to do that and the ones who are not able.
- Closure and decisiveness – Closure in this context is not project closure or contract closure; these have been described in details in the PMBOK. I am referring to the project manager’s decisiveness in getting closure to project related items (whether it is scope change, running meetings, schedule planning, cost controlling, etc). As simple as that may sound, running project meetings can demonstrate a lot about a project manager. There are many areas where those two elements set project managers apart in many engagements whether it is in procurement, scope change control, contract closure.
I have been in many project status meetings that neither had form nor control structure to them. The project manager had an open ended discussion and everything was up in the air. People in the meeting neither knew the objective, nor what to be prepared with or what to get out of the meeting.
A successful project manager would have set-up the timing, expectation, tone, and objective for the meeting. Projects may have multiple meetings with different purpose and objectives, some formal or informal. In each meeting, everyone would have time to speak, and issues should be either resolved by the project manager or escalated through the proper channels to be resolved. The ability to bring closure to issues and the meeting is very important in this example, otherwise it will be chaotic and counter- productive. Leading meetings with clarity ensures closure and shows decisiveness, which are two key elements for a successful project manager.
Attention to details
Although the project manager should remain as generic as possible and not get into functional details, there can be an aspect when he/she should understand the details of the project components to be able to provide input, make right decisions and be able to describe project related information to his/her clients and management.
A successful project manager should rely on the SME to describe the functional view and be able to determine its impact. However, it is not good enough to rely on SMEs without fully understanding and going through the details and the root cause of the issue. For example, I have recently observed an IT project of “upgrading SQL dbase” on a suite of a products that a company owns. I have seen it where the project manager was a “scheduler”, created a schedule but did not know the dynamics, risk impact on what product should be upgraded first and why. There was a technical architect who made that call and the project manager was monitoring the schedule for the technical architect for timesheet purposes only. It was de-motivating for this particular project manager who was kept away from the details to pay attention to details, since he did not understand enough about the technology to understand any of the discussions.
In another engagement, the project manager was the technical SME, and this person functioned in both roles, but was so technical that he neglected his project management activities in favor of his technical responsibilities, so the project plan was never documented fully and stakeholders were not fully informed about issues in non-technical language. In each case, balance between project management and SME details was lacking.
Leadership quality augmented with superior communication skills, attention for details, and consistent follow through are the main elements that define a successful project manager and bring on the third dimension to project management that is often taken for granted. Since every project must have a project manager, the main criteria for success on any project is the quality of that iron chef. Similar to how project integration management ties PMBOK’s other knowledge areas together, the success of a project manager lies in his/her unique abilities and capabilities that allows the project manager to know how and when to tie the science and apply the art with control and flexibility to ensure success of a project.