I recently overheard a senior manager saying to one of the new project managers “I like you. You are not like a project manager, you have common sense.” I have long thought that the key differentiator between a standard project manager and a great project manager is just that. Being confident about when to call something, when to use one of the tools and techniques and when, dare I say it, to take a short cut.
|Project Management is really
just about common sense
(Image © Scott Marshall www.lumaxart.com/)
When I started contracting, I was determined not to just fall straight back into one of the clients that I had had in my consultancy days. I was confident that those relationships would always be there to fall back on but that I needed to prove myself as being able to source new clients first. A tough few weeks followed where I learnt a great deal about the way that agents seek to find and place clients and the dramatic difference between that process and delivering what the client needed.
One of the most telling things though was the obsession with qualifications. To a certain extent, that in itself didn’t worry me. It was the focus on qualifications that ensured that you understood a process rather than understood project or indeed programme management. At that point, I had a thorough grounding in various in house corporate methodologies, was PMP trained (in the era when passing the PMP qualification was backed by an audit of experience rather than the more diluted version that exists now) but didn’t have the Prince 2 qualification.
I had worked on P2 projects, indeed had two elapsed years experience of this gathered over eight years. However I didn’t have the qualification itself. £1000 pounds lighter after a four day course, I was the proud owner of a Prince 2 practitioner certificate and just four days later landed my first freelance role with full responsibility for managing a multiple million pound public sector project.
I was aware even then that that qualification had got me the role. Or at the very least had got me the interview. My problem with this is that I had obtained the certificate in four days, could probably have gained it in one and it didn’t make me a better project manager. Indeed as the trainer repeatedly said, the easiest way to pass the exam was to park all your knowledge and experience at the door, learn the process and the products and recite it parrot fashion in the exam. Nothing then that made me, or demonstrated that I was a better project manager than the next cv. In fact entirely the opposite.
My difficulty with this approach is that it creates robots. It creates project managers that merely follow process. Of more concern is that it creates project managers who cannot cope with any situation which falls outside if this process. Any decision that may need to be made quickly to avoid massive potential cost impact for instance gets shoe horned into the best available model. If the robot follows the model, they won’t get into trouble. Chances are they won’t get the project delivered either of course. Organisations are desperately keen to jump on the bandwagon of the process based approach. It enables them to create low cost project managers who can follow an easily assured, easily monitored process. It also kills dynamism, kills and tenacity or desire to drive projects through aggressively and above all it kills common sense.
I am not advocating that we aim to deliver projects without process. The project management products that Prince, PMP and the internal corporate methodologies are built around are the backbone of good project management. The stages of projects by which organisations manage their programmes and projects are powerful from a decision making point of view, an assurance ability and for communication. Every project needs a project plan, every project should be driven by risks and issue registers. Every project needs clear success criteria and scope.
However these are merely the toolkit to project management. Every project manager should have this toolkit to deliver their projects. There are too many project managers, too many organisations that believe that that toolset provides the ability to make decisions, to prioritise, to judge and manage the risks and issues and to ultimately deliver the project. One wouldn’t employ a carpenter to craft a high end piece by merely looking into his van, noting his tools and assuming he was good. Yet this is how many companies choose their project managers. A graduate entrant is sent on a Prince course and is given the in house tailoring of that methodologies and is then a Project Manager.
The real skill of successful project management is knowing how light or deep to go into the processes. Knowing which particular tool to use and to what degree in any given circumstance. It’s in using that common sense for every issue, thinking outside the box, outside the regimented discipline of the methodologies in order to get things delivered that the true skills lie. Too often I find ‘project managers’ who are keen to hide behind the process, indeed feel safe in not looking for the quick way to work through an issue because they are protected by the internal process.