Project Management: Back to Basics

Project Management has made a lot of progress since the days the Department of Defense (of War?) built the weapons systems of WW2, or NASA sent a man to the moon. The need to apply knowledge, tools and techniques to project activities to reach the desired outcomes remains and our ability has improved. 

However, as we move into the 21st century, and a whole new generation enters the workforce, how do we pass on those lessons? As a microcosm of this problem, how do we enable a new Project Manager to become effective? With a focus on technology, agile development, and all manner of tool and technique, I think we may be missing a focus on the fundamentals.

I am a good project manager. But I have worked with better. Much better. And what makes a good project manager great? I think great project managers have made the fundamentals look so easy and second nature that we forget many of these are learned skills, and we have failed to pass them on to the new generation. A multi-million dollar project portfolio tool is not going to fix this. Actually, it is going to make it worse.

So what is the agenda for the meeting? Did we have action items coming out of the meeting? What are the major milestones? Dependencies? Budget? These things are the bread and butter of a project manager, but these are learned skills. We cannot assume a Project Manager has them. We have to teach and agree on standards of behavior.

I think that a severe lack of business leadership combined with a lack of understanding of this problem has led to a belief that Project Management is not a “real” job, but a “role” that can be tacked on to someone’s job description. And this attitude is dangerous as it ignores decades of proven work performed by Project Managers is a multitude of industries. At the other side of the spectrum, some Project Managers become so consumed with the minutiae of reports and plans they lose the forest from the trees.

So, let’s get back to some basics.

1. Project Management is a real job. Yes there are people called “Project Managers”, and their job is to manage projects. It seems silly to have to lay this down as a basic, but this is, after all, getting back to basics. You cannot add the “role” of Project Manager to someone else, either a Sales person or an Operations Manager, and expect them to do it. You need a dedicated, professional, trained Project Manager.

This could potentially involve changes to HR systems to create new job descriptions, a job career path (Project Coordinator to Project Manager to Senior Project Manager), changes to compensation, management training, etc. But the result is the identification and assignment of qualified individuals to fulfill this job. 

2. You need a methodology. There are plenty of methodologies and accepted methods of doing things, so no need to reinvent the wheel. But you do need to invent it once. What is your project lifecycle? What does a status report look like? How do you track your budget? You need to define and agree on the fundamentals. You need common tools, even if it just Microsoft Excel. So that every project is reported and tracked the same way. Trust me, this will work wonders when you move on from the basics to do portfolio management, or when you have to onboard a new Project Manager. 

3. You need a Project Management Office. Once you have 3 or 4 Project Managers, you will have enough critical mass for a PMO. It can be informal at first, and grow and evolve as your portfolio grows. But someone has to mind the candy store. Someone has to ensure consistency, support and coach the Project Managers, bring all their work together into some manner of Program management. Someone has to onboard new PMs and ensure the knowledge is shared and passed on. This concept has been tried successfully for decades. Trying to reinvent this concept at this stage of the game is pointless. Project Managers without a PMO are just that – a group of Project Managers. Their work disjointed, inconsistent, and lacking a single minded purpose and direction.

So, you need Project Managers, you need a methodology for them to follow, and you need some mechanism to ensure consistency, to support them and to onboard new Project Managers to your organization.

You should focus on your Project Managers and make sure they have the tools to succeed. Don’t assume they know every meeting needs an agenda, or that they know how to report status. You need to provide them guidance and support so that they can manage the fundamentals in a consistent and effective manner. Only then you can work your way up to loftier goals of portfolio management and program management. Without a strong foundation, anything you build will surely crumble. Don’t forget the basics.

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