Yesterday I had what will hopefully be the first of several meetings with a guy scoping me out to work with his team. I immediately felt a great rapport with him and wanted to be honest and open about what I bring to a team and what I don’t. He asked me something that nobody has ever asked me before:
“Do you update your PRINCE2 qualification every year?”
For those who don’t know, PRINCE2 is one of several project management qualifications that most project managers have. It’s a ‘waterfall’ project management style, meaning top-down – instructions are written from on high and cascade down like a deluge of liquid nourishment. I am the manager with the plan and you makers will follow my plan and we will reach our pre-assigned target as long as we all follow my excellent plan.
As soon as I started working as a junior project manager, four main things jumped out that are obvious to people who work on projects but apparently not to everyone else. To sum up:
- Are we solving the problem you think you have or the one you actually have?
- Needs can change.
- The people doing the work do it better than I can imagine.
- Top-down project management isn’t the only way.
Are we solving the problem you think you have or the one you actually have?
At the start of every project, the people who decide that the project needs to happen (often the senior management team) have identified something that needs doing. It could be an idea someone had, an area for improvement, a set of legal changes that need to be made for compliance or just a charlie foxtrot of things in a huge knot that need unpicking. A project manager is needed to make sure the thing that needs doing is done by the people who do them. If its progress should be monitored, a deadline must be reached, a budget is to be adhered to, hire a project manager. Being really specific here is where I think a lot of projects can quietly go off the rails. It’s not that anyone is particularly wrong at this early stage, just that it’s impossible for anyone to quantify what they don’t know they don’t know.
Needs can change.
Most of the time, the deliverables need tweaking, or it may turn out that we had less budget than we thought (or more!), or yes we have this hard and very strict deadline but actually the entire office runs on a skeleton staff for 3 weeks in March because everyone has to use up their annual leave so hope you factored that in.
I will spend 1-2 weeks putting together a sublime plan of action. Within budget, ahead of the deadline to mitigate unexpected gremlins, and specifically meeting the very specific deliverables that the SMT absolutely know they need. However what I often find is that exactly this app has already been created several years ago, or there has been a public outcry over that legal policy or the reason we’re in the charlie foxtrots is because our key stakeholder is a passionate and quick-wins oriented client but actually they’re leaving the organisation in a month anyway so we’ll need to review the scope of work when that happens. Then it becomes a balancing act between making sure the deliverables are strong enough to stick a plan onto but flexible enough to bend around.
The people doing the work do it better than I can imagine.
A software developer friend of mine recently told me, with great pride, that he doesn’t need project managers at his startup because everyone he employs already knows how to do their job. I guess he’s only worked with the kinds of PMs who tell others what to do and it’s an easy trap to get into if you’re used to working in PRINCE2, which is why I favour a combined approach of PRINCE2 for reporting and Agile for developing and creating. My team already know how to do their job, that’s why we pay them money. Project managers are there to remove blockers, to make sure that no one team member is left carrying the entire project, that consideration is given to all stakeholders, not weighted in any one direction and to do the daily task of reporting and monitoring what we’re doing in a way that makes sure the SMT know we have got this.
Those are my skills – understanding what everyone is doing and making sure we’re meeting our goals as a team. That and putting together killer queen spreadsheets.
Top-down project management isn’t the only way.
The biggest challenge of managing projects in my opinion is balancing all of these things in such a way that we all have the same goal in mind. The people in our team have a lifetime of knowledge each to contribute. All that experience! I merely facilitate their genius in a way that it gets the results the client wants. I make sure that their creative approach to problem solving is fully appreciated. By focusing only on top-down management, you can miss out on building a stronger and more confident team who speak up when they spot something that they know could be done better. By focusing only on bottom-up project management, you risk unintentionally pulling the project in a direction that doesn’t meet the client’s needs. By combining both, you end up with a tried and tested way of meeting all the goals set by the key stakeholders and a fearless team who are not shy about creative problem solving.
And that’s why it’s great to have that qualification, basically so you can build on it later.