While I’d have loved to start with something juicier, I find myself out of the habit of narrative writing. As a result, to get back into the habit I’m making things easier on myself by writing more straightforward posts to get things going.
There is a surprising amount of ambiguity when people say ‘project management’ given how long the discipline has existed. Part of the problem sits with the variety of ways companies use the title ‘Project Manager’ – from team lead type roles to designated nagging managers through full-blown classic project managers and scrum masters. This post aims to cut through the confusion and hopefully make people realize that just because there is a person with the title ‘Project Manager’ doesn’t mean they are doing project management.
The best high-level description of project management I’ve found captures the base motivation:
“Project management is how grown-ups manage risk and uncertainty.”
New undertakings always have things that can go wrong and things which aren’t known at the start. At a certain point the cost of failure becomes great enough that some process needs to be put in place to make sure that a project completes or failures are detected as early as possible and avoided where possible. To get to an actual project management definition, we need to add a concept of what we need to do to achieve the goal.
Gren B. Alleman, who blogs at Herding Cats, provides the best breakdown of what needs to be done in order to be considered ‘doing project management,’ phrased in terms of 5 questions that must be answered:
- What does ‘done’ look like?
- How do we get to ‘done’?
- Do we have the resources to get to ‘done’?
- What obstacles may we encounter on our path to ‘done’?
- How do we know we’re making progress?
These ‘Immutable Priciples” are not aspects of any particular project management methodology (e.g. Agile, PRINCE2, APM, PMI/PMBOK) but are rather features and questions that any methodology needs to cover. Glen goes into great depth describing each of these at his site, so I won’t duplicate his efforts here. The answers may take different forms depending on the methodology and may (or may not) be backed up by data and analytical tools – that they are being answered is what is important. One major point note – these are living questions and while they are most obviously asked at the start of a project they also need to continuously re-answered as things change.
Early in my project management training I heard two key ideas which have stuck with me and I feel contribute to a working definition of Project Management:
- “Everything will be known, it is just a question of when.”
- “Never let your project live a lie”
Combined, these speak directly to applying the 5 questions with integrity. Project management is largely an attempt to learn things as early as possible, such as obstacles that may be encountered. If we’re not actively keeping our answers to the five questions fresh, our project may be headed for an issue we’re unprepared for or miss its schedule. As is often said, “hope is not a plan” so lets make sure we’re being proactive about evolving our plans and hunting out issues rather then keep our fingers crossed that things don’t take a turn for the worse.
Just asking the 5 questions regularly I believe helps even the least formally organized project meet its goals. One would think then that given the wealth of additional techniques and methods that exist projects should be like clockwork, yet frustrations abound. While I’ve hinted at what goes wrong, I’ll cover it in depth in my next post – “Project Management is good, Project Managers commonly aren’t.” (hopefully I’ll come up with a catchier title…)
- Project Management is good, Project Managers commonly aren’t
- Bad useful tools