Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.
As its coming into the summer break for many of my regular readers, I thought I would write on something different.
What seems like a very long time ago, I studied for degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Economics. I have never worked as an engineer or an economist. Much of what I learnt has been discarded to the dim recesses of my mind. But this does not mean studying was in vain. The approaches from each discipline still influence my way of thinking. I think this is more useful than any specific facts or ideas from studying a subject.
I seem to have come full circle with my writing. For those of you unfamiliar with my works, which is the vast majority of the world, I am a fairly minor author. So far, my published books are mostly business and management books. I am well known in my niche, but not much beyond. To give an idea of scale - good sales for me are over 20,000 copies of a book. Bad sales are a few thousand copies.
I have been involved in projects and programmes for a long time. Long enough that I sometimes think I can smell the state of a programme when I am first engaged on it. By smell of course, I really mean pick up certain small aspects of behaviour that give me a feeling of confidence or concern.
I have just sent back the corrected proofs for the second edition of my book Project Management Step-by-Step. This is one of my best sellers, and even though it is 10 years old – quite an age for a professional book – it still sells a few thousand copies a year. Perhaps not the huge sales of a best-selling novel, but for a niche writer like myself, pretty respectable for a book of that age.
Imagine you are working on a project and it is going to finish late. It is a scenario that many of us will be familiar with. Is the project a failure? That depends. There are many situations in which a project is late. There are many situations in which a project – or at least a properly defined and well run project looks late, but isn’t. This happens when we confuse aspirations with plans.
We’ve all heard the joke: a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. What makes the joke funny, in the way Dilbert is funny, is that we know there is some truth in it. I don’t want to tar all consultants with the same brush, but some consultants really do just borrow your watch to tell you the time. To be fair, many don’t and even when they do, sometimes it’s what the client asked for.
In the UK TV comedy Dad’s Army, Corporal Jones was a character who at regular intervals would run around shouting “Don’t panic! Don’t Panic!” The joke was he was always panicking.
It feels like this on many of the projects I am involved in. There is some pretence about being calm, but there are many signs of panicking. And what is everyone panicking about? Usually, time and money.
There are many reasons projects and programs get in trouble. Problems we are all familiar with include: poorly defined goals, lack of sponsorship, ineffective prioritisation and access to resources, and when there is no drive to make progress. I have been involved in lots of projects in my career, and I’d love to say every one of them was a success, but it would be a lie. Quite a big lie. I have been in projects with every one of these problems, sometimes all of them.
This article contains a speech originally given in London in December 2015.
Thanks for the introduction, and good morning everyone. It’s nice to be here talking to a community of my fellow project managers. It can be an interesting job being a project manager. But it’s one of those jobs that unless you have done it, or worked very closely with, you don’t really have a good grasp of what it entails. Our discipline has been a domain of huge debate over the last 10 years or so, focusing on the battle between aficionados of Agile and traditionalists keeping the flame of waterfall going.