No-one will hold your hand


“As long as you get there!” This is what many of our clients and project managers hear from their sponsors when they are setting up a project. Yet, it is what remains unspoken and still rings loudly in their ears: “I don’t really care how you and your team get to the results and don’t bother me until you succeed.”

And here is the crux of the matter. In my opinion it is how well you do your project management that determines if you will be a manager of successful projects or not. Professional project management warrants the desired results within time and budget. And in the end, this is what project sponsors expect, but they often do not support their project managers through the process. As project managers we are faced with many challenges. It takes courage, integrity and skill to overcome them.

It all starts with a question: Can the work ahead can be classed as a project? Over the last five to ten years I have observed that the word “project” has been used in an inflationary way. At its core it is the organisational complexity that is pivotal to whether a task is “big” and complex enough to require a full project (meaning a temporary organisation different from the line organisation) or not. Nowadays many tasks—perhaps difficult or complicated, but which can be realised by one or two people—are called projects. Let’s be honest: They are not! And so these “task managers” are not project managers. So, once you are dealing with a real project, what makes a real professional project manager? I have identified five markers that make the difference.

1. Professional project management training

Project management is a discipline that is defined and can be learned. It is not enough to be a talented expert in the project’s subject matter (e.g. IT, engineering or pharmaceutical research). Being a specialist in IT when an IT project is launched and needs a manager does not automatically make you an IT project manager. You would not want to be operated on by someone simply because he happens to know how to work with a knife as a well-trained and experienced taxidermist, would you?

Unfortunately, most project managers still become project managers by declaration only and without any further preparation to do the job. Granted, project management is not rocket science, but there are proven methods, processes, and organisational and leadership aspects which need to be applied. A professional project manager needs to be trained as such so that they can apply the tools of the trade.

2. Application of relevant PM methodology

Once a project manager has received the appropriate training, they need to apply methodology with thought and understanding. It is not about “filling in” project management templates in solitude behind closed doors. This is where some of the training might fall short. They focus too much on international certificates and theory without teaching how to apply this theory in real, messy project life.

I am often confronted with project managers who try to make sense of an organisation’s PM-governance and find it to be a lot of paperwork and over-administration.

Project management in these cases has degenerated into resented report writing. This almost amounts to a CFO assuring his CEO that all is well by presenting an annual financial statement that he has reluctantly set up at the last minute to fulfil some SOPs. So, in essence, the documents are no end in themselves. They are a logical consequence of useful project management work that happens with your team and your relevant stakeholders. Professional project managers know the value of each and every PM-method and are able to decide when and how it will be useful for achieving their project objectives.

3. Focus on leadership skills

If managing a project does not mean administering documentation but creating meaningful project plans through engaging with project team members and relevant stakeholders, it should not come as a surprise that leadership and communication skills cannot be valued enough in a project manager. A professional project manager needs to be able to lead and motivate their team members. They need to be able to talk to the members of the steering committee, stakeholders, suppliers, clients and team members in an appropriate and meaningful way. All of this needs well-developed people skills, the skills of working with and through people.

4. Determination of project boundaries based on solid planning

To this day I see all too often that project dates and budgets have been locked into place before even 10% of the relevant project information is available. Everyone is keen to get going and do something.

In July 2014 I had the pleasure of
listening to Klaus Grewe—leader of the programme office for the infrastructure of the London Summer Olympics 2012. With this extraordinary project, Grewe accomplished an almost unprecedented success as his team delivered under budget and before the deadline. One of the key stories during his talk is now burnt into my brain. Out of the roughly seven-year duration of this project, the project team spent four years planning, without doing any implementation. That is more than 50% of their total time!

I am not suggesting that for every
project, planning should take up more than 50% of its duration. However, I certainly believe that a professional project manager knows how to plan properly. He or she will not accept a project mandate before planning is concluded.

5. Telling uncomfortable truths and standing up for your convictions

The last marker I look for in a professional project manager is whether they have the courage of their convictions. Does the person stand up for their project? Do they ask the difficult questions? Do they insist on a clear mandate and a realistic plan? Do they keep the bigger picture in mind to ensure that the project is still viable and on course? Or do they vanish into the details, getting stuck in problem-solving and extinguishing fires? Some project managers see themselves as technical experts who are much more keen on developing a technical solution while the management aspect gets lost.

As managers we have to make the
difficult decisions and we need to speak difficult truths to our superiors. No one will hold our hand or give us permission to do our job correctly. That is why it takes courage to be a professional project manager. It takes courage to uphold the standards of our profession, often in the face of opposition. And that is the nature of projects, because real projects are associated with risk. Otherwise they would not be projects, and we would not have to manage them.

Tina Hiller

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This edition

Issue 29


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