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Posted: March 16, 2012

Management: An uncertain science

Here are some tips for project managers

Chris Bart

Management is an uncertain science at best. Ask 25 managers how they do it, and you are likely to get 25 different answers. This can be discouraging to the manager seeking clear direction for strengthening his/her skills and creating better outcomes. What can a manager do to improve?

Ask trained Project Managers how they most effectively manage, and they will give you variations on the same theme: the tools of professional Project Management. Unlike any current management fad, the tools of Project Management have been around for decades. In fact, the most commonly-used tool is over 100 years old! These tools have endured because they work.

So, how can a non-Project Manager use these tools? For starters, don’t be so sure you aren’t a Project Manager. Did you ever consider the difference between managing a project and a department? Any activity is a project if there is a scheduled goal.  If the work you do, or any part of it, can be structured as Start-Finish-Goal, then you are a Project Manager! This may seem unimportant, but consider that setting and scheduling a goal is the fundamental way to motivate people, and this tactic is built into every project.

Further, suppose you reformat every possible aspect of your work into projects. There may be other segments left over that cannot be structured that way. However, there are still parts of the project definition that apply. For example, you are conducting research without knowing how long it will take. This means that there is a start and a goal, but the end time is not known in advance. You might say that this is Start-Goal management.

To complete the equation, estimate a reasonable schedule and targeted end-point—to ensure the accountability that comes from including all Project Management elements. Creating a schedule where none exists is a key skill for any manager. For example, the researcher may work with a quarterly or annual budget. At the close of each period, there may be a requirement to document what’s been done to further the project. Inability to deliver may lead to de-funding. By including all elements of Start-Finish-Goal—even when the timeline is only an estimate—can help track progress and measure results.

So, what information should you seek to gain Project Management skills, and where can you find it? There are thousands of books on the subject. Another approach is to get on Google.com and type in: “wiki project management.” That will take you to Wikipedia, which has excellent information on Project Management. If you are looking for something a bit more structured than that, an introductory class on Project Management or Situation Management might fill the bill.

Whether or not you are a full-time PM (Project Manager) it would be very useful to know systems that can easily scale to any size of challenge now and down the road. Whether this is a “stand around the water cooler project,” or one that involves a large team taking years, one comprehensive system should fit your needs. The tools of Project Management do just that.

A class or book will be dramatically more helpful if it comes from an experienced Project Manager. Check the teacher’s or author’s own Project Management background. Theory and lecture classes are fine, but active managers need practical tools they can apply right away back on the job. Look for sessions or volumes that include these practical tips.

Another consideration: There are now two schools of thought in Project Management. One is called waterfall, or traditional Project Management. This is espoused by the Project Management Institute (PMI). The other is called Agile, which is claimed by the Scrum Alliance, among others. Both camps claim to have absorbed the key concepts of the other. PMI even offers certification in Agile, but it might be better to seek a trainer certified in both techniques. Their eventual merger is quite likely, but you should have the whole story.

Here are some key takeaways that may serve you well:

  1. Know there are three ways to lay out your project; identify which is favored overwhelmingly by top PMs
  2. Identify the simple model that you can use to analyze every project
  3. Become familiar with the set of steps used by all trained Risk Managers
  4. Gain proficiency in formal problem-solving
  5. Establish the sequence of documents you must generate to control a project
  6. Determine what to do when a project goes out of control
  7. Understand the difference between a task and a user story

Chris Bart, a Project Management Professional a Certified Scrum Master and the author of “ZengWay: the Arrows of Situation Management”.  Please contact Mission Critical Systems for Project Management Training from Chris.

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