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Project Management and the Pursuit of Assurance


This expands upon points introduced August 24, 2010 in a post at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com.


  Watts Humphrey, the software engineering guru, noted that, even in software projects, 90 percent of the manager's responsibilities involve the people doing the work . . . but the manager typically focuses solely on the technical 10 percent. Why? Because technology challenges, however serious, never remotely approach those presented by the human ones.


  I once polled a large group of court clerks to determine what they considered their most difficult problem. Their top answer: The public. If only those pesky citizens would leave them alone with the internal hierarchy and documentation of the legal system, they could get their work done. Forget who is paying for it all, and at the same time is most in need of expert attention.


  Then there was the head of a nine-person newspaper copy desk who commented that, if it weren't for his staff members, this would be a great job. Editing as a process was fine with him, but he needed nine people to handle the volume of work. Managing those people drove him nuts (he returned the favor). So, in his opinion, if you could get rid of the management work, managing could be really nice work.   

     Consider, for a moment, the management style and approach that result from such avoidance of the human issues in the managers' work. You don't reduce or eliminate the people problems by evading them. The problems don't go away – they get worse. The manager fails. His/her practices suppress effective use of the available talent. They also prevent the development of people's potential.

     Managers must, above all, recognize and act upon the prime principle of their work. And that is: Once you become responsible for the work of just one other person, even a part-timer, then people management is your first responsibility. Get good at it, or else.

      This is pre-eminently true of project management, because project management is conventional management in a pressure cooker. Everything the functional manager faces is present for the project manager, too, but in an extremely tense atmosphere. Unlike conventional management, the very nature of project management is defined by demanding schedules, limited resources, little/no authority, quality demands and risk and uncertainty. It's a very tight box.

      Yet, many project managers are their own worst enemies. They attempt to accomplish the work by focusing on the superficial activities and metrics of the process, without squarely engaging the essentials. Their assumptions, conscious or otherwise, do not place the correct priority on getting the people matter right.

      If, on the other hand, you make it your business to have good people, properly equipped, highly motivated and well led, you can achieve wonders. The real challenge for the project manager is to find or develop the good people, equip them with the process they need, and provide real leadership. Do that, and problems either don't appear or are much more easily subdued.

      Making this happen starts with a project manager who is clear on what his/her very first job is in this people management business. That job is managing the understanding with whoever had the power to call up the project, and has the authority to provide support and resources once it's under way. It's under way the second the project manager is assigned to it.

      At that moment, the project manager must establish a strong mutual understanding with the organizational authority. That doesn't make everything else easy, but it makes everything else possible. The project manager must know what he/she is going to need from that authoritative person, in specific detail, and not just at the beginning. That understanding must be communicated, negotiated and completely agreed to by the person wielding the power.

      There needs to be such clarity of expectation, and explicit mutual agreement, with every key participant in the entire project process. The project manager makes that happen, through effective personal persuasion and concrete project documentation. To be persuasive, you need to know what each participant must do and when, how it is to be measured and what it will look like when it's done.

      You need also to make sure the person is thoroughly bought in, by sharing in establishment of his/her requirements and/or by articulating unmistakable intention to complete what is assigned. Buy-in is accomplished through the express detail required in the project documentation, through the leadership of the project manager and, as necessary, through the active application of senior management authority.

      While the project manager sets the direction and makes the crucial decisions, motivation is encouraged through delegating much of the specific action planning to the people who will be directly involved in the work. Work package specifications prepared at the working level and cleared with project leadership are excellent vehicles for establishing expectations – and making sure they get met.

      When projects do not succeed, it is because the process is not conducted in a way that creates a realistic plan and builds in motivation throughout the team. Without such a process, people's natural risk aversion will determine the outcome.

     Nobody hands you certitude. You have to go out and earn it. But the pursuit of assurance is no mystery -- we call it “Project Management.”


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