Reflections on A Career in Project Management

17th July 2021

One of the top ten jobs in tech this year is Project Management. In this article my aim is to share some experience, notably connecting the theory with the reality of Project Management.

Tech Skills Most In-Demand – Source: Burning Glass

WHAT IS A PROJECT MANAGER ?

Project managers play the lead role in planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing projects. They are accountable for the entire project scope, project team, resources, and the success or failure of the project. Projects might be big e.g.

  • Software and app development
  • Hardware installations
  • Network upgrades
  • Cloud computing and virtualization rollouts

Projects might be smaller eg designing and building a new website for a client.

I have met inexperienced and newly qualified Project Managers who can do exactly what the client wants by following what the qualification they have studied recommends. They are like novice cooks following a recipe for a customer who knows they want a cheese omelette. 

So what can possibly go wrong? Problems arise when the client isn’t able to clearly articulate what they want, or the idea being implemented is so novel to the organisation that the ‘Dummy’s Guide to Projects’ is not really helpful. 

In my view a good Project Leader is more like a coach, using questions and discussion to help define and document the intended outcome in a way that can be used to gain consensus, clarity, coordination and collaboration. 

“Project Management is more about people and stakeholder management than following a process or a recipe”

When this is achieved, and only when this is achieved could you then perhaps delegate the process to a Project Manager in the same way a Chef might direct a Cook.  But in my experience the ambiguity doesn’t go away and there is a constant need to discuss, review and revise plans. 

This means Project Management is more about people and stakeholder management than following a process or a recipe. You can see how important good project management is by studying (and learning from) the failures!

CLASSIC PROJECT FAILURES

The underestimation of complexity, cost and/or schedule

The National Program for IT (NPfIT) in the National Health Service (NHS) was the largest public-sector IT program ever attempted in the UK, originally budgeted to cost approximately £4.6 billion.

The aim of the NPfIT was the introduction of integrated electronic patient record systems and online referral and prescription services.

It was hit by delays, stakeholder opposition and roll-out problems but it took 10 years and a change of government to cancel it at a cost of more than £10 billion.

Failure to establish appropriate control over requirements and/or scope

Rate Collection Agency – Northern Ireland – A new £10.5million IT system resulted in nearly £150 million worth of property tax payments going uncollected. 

Poor requirement specifications, missing requirements, problems migrating data from legacy systems, pressure to deploy the system before adequate testing had been completed.

Poor Communication

Department of homeland security – USA – Efforts to upgrade existing anti-terror tracking systems ran into serious architectural and quality flaws. The system failed to perform basic Boolean functions (AND, OR, etc) and serious performance concerns surfaced.

Failure by the government to staff key oversight roles, quality flaws and inter-agency battles contributed to problems and delays.

Failure to engage stakeholders

Qantas – “Jetsmart” engineering parts management system is renamed “Dumbjet” by aircraft engineers because the system is so difficult to use.

Failure to engage the engineers who would be the eventual users of the system into the requirements and design processes resulted in a system that the engineers deemed to be unusable once it was launched. 

WHAT IS IMPORTANT?

By speaking to experienced project managers Sam Elbeik and Mark Thomas attempted to identify the critical factors that must be addressed if a project is to be completed successfully. They developed a six stage process for managing projects: 

Define, Plan, Build the Team, Lead and Motivate, Control Communications, Review. 

It is interesting to think about what is really important in the context of why projects fail (or how they succeed)

The key success factors in rank order are:

1 Clearly defined objectives

2 Good planning and control methods

3 Good quality of project managers

4 Good management support

5 Enough time and resources

6 Commitment by all

7 High user involvement

8 Good communication

9 Good project organisation and structure

10 Being able to stop a project

These factors can easily be mapped onto Elbeik and Thomas’s six stages but at the heart of both these stages and factors and so ultimately the key to success in Project Management is the ability to be able to Plan, Communicate Effectively, and Support People to get tasks done.

MY LESSONS AND LEARNING

I started as a computer programmer and later became Head of IT. I had a logical thinking discipline and analytical approach to problem solving.

I then got involved in non-technology change when first working in retail – thinking about shoppers, suppliers, staff and the need to work with groups and teams with different needs and priorities. 

This then went up a level when I took responsibility for the ‘privatisation’ of a business and necessarily had to start thinking about laws, legislation, unions, policies and politicians. It was in this period that I did my MBA. At each stage of increasing complexity I learned more; sometimes getting it right, and sometimes learning from mistakes. 

I became a ICF Trained Coach and IoD Business Mentor when I realised that I understood systems and processes better than I understood people. I could discuss, design, build and deploy changes in banking, retail, public service or improve processes and performance in manufacture or service but I knew very little about psychology or the cognitive processes of change and the unconscious concerns that often underpin resistance or fear of change. 

Ironically I am a World Champs and Commonwealth Games athlete, but I never applied the mindset of sport into the management of people because despite the frequent comparison they are very different! Nonetheless the combined experience of sport, technology, business, change, processes and people has been valuable especially with underpinning this all with qualifications. 

“This it not about the badge, but the books. It isn’t about the certificate but the knowledge”

MY ADVICE

Read wisely, there are a few books from which you can gain many years of knowledge in a few weeks.  There is brilliant material on the internet but a book is often better than a brochure or a blog when it comes to deeper learning.

Gain experience, take the jobs at the edge of your comfort-zone and work really hard to understand everything around that new role, sector or circumstance. When I took a role in a bank I also took a Corporate Diploma in Banking so that I properly understood the client, industry and culture as well as the project and planned changes.

Work hard to help people achieve their goals. Not every moment has been a success, but people will forgive you and work hard if they believe you are genuinely committed to helping them or their organisation achieve something important. 

Ask people what they think. In the battle of ideas yours may have only one-vote, whereas others will come wrapped with different experiences and perspectives. Examine these very closely and then seek consensus rather than compliance.

Tim HJ Rogers 

MBA Management Consultant + Change Practitioner 

ICF Trained Coach IoD Business Mentor

Tutor / Trainer for the Chartered Management Institute.

Tim@AdaptConsultingCompany.com 

National Coding Week: 13th September 2021