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The quick route to better project management

How do you become a better project manager? It is bold to promise to answer this question in a short article. But my experience tells me it is promise I can keep, at least for some readers. There is one simple truth for project managers - and for that matter any manager.

All successful managers apply this lesson. It is this: start every activity by thinking, briefly, why you are doing it. Never start by thinking what do you need to do, or how should you do it. That should always be the second step.

Developing professionalism

Project management is a specialised form of management with various characteristics that make the role different from other management roles. Over time, project management has developed a variety of tools, techniques to enable it to fulfil this role. As the processes and tools have developed so has a series of accreditation and qualifications. These range from the widespread (in the UK) 

Prince 2 practitioner through to undergraduate and post graduate degrees. In the UK, the profession is moving towards chartered status. This trend is to be welcomed. The standards and professionalism of project managers have improved significantly in the time I have been a project manager. But it does bring a possible trap with it.

In learning to be a project manager there is often a focus on learning what processes need to be followed and how they are done. Such learning often goes under the dubious and rarely deserved moniker of best practice. Of course, people need to understand what and how to do things – but more fundamentally it is critical to understand why certain things must be done.

The real world

The real world is not made up of a series of identical situations which require identical management styles or approaches. The real world is made up of a continuous stream of unique situations. Thankfully, there is some similarity between these situations else we could never learn and could never develop reusable processes. But each situation is sufficiently distinct to require choices to be made. What processes are optimal for this specific situation? How should they be applied?

Central to being a manager is the application of judgement. Judgement is more of an art than a science, but that does not mean it cannot be learnt. It is learnt with experience, but can also be learnt by examining and discussing case studies where judgement has to be made. Judgement improves with a greater focus on why various management activities are undertaken, and a willingness to reject the mindless adherence to process.

There is a frequently taken, but usually unspoken, assumption that if an individual knows what is required of a job then they will be good at doing that job. The problem is that in the infinite variety of life there is no one right way of doing any complex task that is right in all situations. My approach, which is reflected in my writing, always starts by thinking about why certain activities are undertaken. If you know why something must be done, what the outcomes from the activity are, you are in a good position to do the task well irrespective of the situation.

Thinking about why

What happens if you don’t know why an activity is undertaken? There are several undesirable effects, including:

  • Poor quality outcomes - Inappropriate process leads, in the end, to poor outcomes. Projects which apply the wrong processes are more likely to fail or suffer from avoidable problems.
  • Needless application of bureaucracy - This is a common problem in project management. Consider the largest and most complex programme. In this situation, the programme manager needs to apply the full power of project management. On the other hand, too often I see simple projects burdened down with all sorts of forms and templates which will just result in slowing the project down. This leads in time, to the project manager being seen as a bureaucrat. This devalues the profession and leads to project managers being positioned as junior administrators rather than senior 
  • Not judging when more is needed - In the previous point I encouraged avoiding bureaucracy, but we must also avoid being lazy project managers. Lazy project managers skip over processes because “we don’t need that kind of bureaucracy here”. By failing to ask why, such project managers don’t see the risks they take in missing out vital project management processes. Project managers regularly need to make the judgement between too much and too little.

Let’s take as an example the need to develop a project plan. If I am asked to review the plans of inexperienced or weak project managers they suffer from too much or too little detail, inappropriate contents, sub optimal formatting and lack of clarity. These project managers start with the mindset “I need to create a project plan because that is what project managers do”. If instead they start by thinking through “why am I creating a plan?” the results are usually much better.

You create a project plan because, amongst other things, it:

  • Provides an understanding of the activities involved in a project.
  • Enables you to understand how long a project will take, what resources will be required and how much it will cost to do.
  • Facilitates explaining the project to stakeholders and team members.
  • Allows you to allocate work to different people in the project team.
  • Supports wider business planning and management commitment making.

When you think about these end goals what is required in a project plan – the level of detail, the relevant tasks, the format of presentation and so on, becomes much clearer.

Applying this more generally

The same can be said about all sorts of other project management processes – from risk management, to reporting, stakeholder management and communications planning. If you understand why you need to do something you will do it better. If you don’t understand why then you cannot make judgements. If you cannot make relevant judgements in your domain of expertise you don’t deserve the title of ‘manager’.

As we move forward as a profession, we should seize every opportunity to be value adding managers who continuously make judgements appropriate to the individual situation. The basis for making good judgements is a clear understanding of why you are undertaking any activity in the first place.

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