Project management is a serious business

I have used this title because I’m not sure whether new entrants to software development realise what a difficult and stressful job project management is. It seems that some people think that being a project manager (PM) is a ‘cool’ job because they have watched the reality TV program The Apprentice where in each program ‘project managers’ are appointed to manage each week’s activity.

I have been involved in various software and ERP projects on and off for close on 10 years, and unless things are going very well, I found that being a PM is a tough job.

If you want to get an idea about project management, follow the über-PM blog – Glen Alleman’s Herding Cats. He can get quite technical at times, especially concerning US defense and aerospace requirements, but has some great points. He points out the the key to managing a project is the following:

  • how do you evaluate what DONE is;
  • how do you determine where you are along the way to getting to DONE.

Here are his immutable activities of project management – “immutable because in the absence of these activities in some form, there is no management of the project”.

When I first started as a PM, risk wasn’t an issue we really focused on – if a project went over time or budget that was a problem for the business, IT’s job was just to deliver. But these days, that attitude has changed radically (and for the better). To understand the risk management process, here is a diagram I got from Glen’s blog.

Risk management processes

Mary Gerush at her Forrester Blog noted the skills that software project managers need to have in order to succeed:

  1. a solid understanding of the business;
  2. a solid understanding of technology;
  3. a strong foundation in project management practices;
  4. most importantly – an amazing array of updated soft skills.

Forrester Research 2009

One of the critical soft skills is an understanding of psychology. Projects are all about people – whether it’s the people on the team, or dealing with the stakeholders of the project (the business sponsors). I know some PMs who are very good on items 1 to 3, but fail badly on item 4.

Finally, for a light-hearted look at what project management, here is a great analogy – Five Parallels Between Golf and IT Projects. The ones that stand out for me are:

  • it looks simple but is not;
  • a very small error can lead to major problems;
  • it’s remarkably easy to second guess others – it’s easy to be an expert, with hindsight;
  • it’s very difficult to sustain a consistent level of performance.

Are there other aspects of project management, which I haven’t covered, which could be used as a PM primer? In some industries, project management is now taken seriously; banking I know is one (aerospace and pharma are others, I believe). But in too many small and medium businesses, which is where my experience has been lately, the concept of project management still isn’t very well understood or appreciated. The question is – where and how to start the process of education?

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3 thoughts on “Project management is a serious business

  1. Good one. I think great project managers in IT are a breed getting extinct fast, as more and more people get into it thinking that a tool and authority can equal success. The real project managers are the ones managing 3-5 year projects.

    On another note, I think the Agile folks would disagree with you that project managers are important in software 🙂

  2. We just published out 2010 Challenges research and the people challenges are still the top reason for difficulty with not just new programs but existing work. Too bad this message has not filtered up to top management after the repetitive beating of this drum for more than a decade.

    When I was trained and then taught PM, the PM was respected as a leader of both business and technology – empowered with significant decision making authority. However, the stress was/is intense and friends are hard to find when the inevitable challenges occur. I had included RISK MANAGEMENT upfront after my first global project where the inevitable happened.
    Today training is nil and support is nil. That is why hiring professional PM’s from consulting firms is still a early choice for many firms. They can buy-pass lots of politics and also have skills, methods and other types of support.

    We just published out 2010 Challenges research and the people challenges are still the top reason for difficulty with not just new programs but existing work. Too bad this message has not filtered up to top management after the repetitive beating of this drum for more than a decade.
    it at this link if you want to get it:
    http://www.clresearch.com/research/index.cfm?industry=&type=&free=0&search=2010&topic=&imageField.x=6&imageField.y=7

  3. Good post, Simon. Allow another Simon to chime in.

    I note from your post the requirements for a successful PM:

    1. a solid understanding of the business;
    2. a solid understanding of technology;
    3. a strong foundation in project management practices;
    4. most importantly – an amazing array of updated soft skills.

    It’s virtually impossible to find someone with all of these skills, in my view. I’ve a met fair number of people who have met two or three of these requirements, but the bar is pretty high.

    I’d also add to the list a willingness to disagree with key internal stakeholders, but perhaps you cover this in #4.

    In my first book (shameless plug, I know), I describe six types of PMs to avoid:

    • The Yes Man
    • The Micromanager
    • The Procrastinator
    • The Know It All
    • The Pollyanna
    • The Pessimist

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