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What You Can Learn From Professional Project Managers

 
6/4/2001
The successful planning, execution, and completion of a project depends on the expertise of the individual in charge, whether he or she is solely responsible or is overseeing several project managers. As business becomes more competitive and complex, having the skills to complete projects on time and efficiently is becoming increasingly more important. Professional project managers highlight the importance of this discipline and offer tips for successful project management.
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What You Can Learn from Professional Project Managers

Companies that manage large capital projects or a multitude of simultaneous projects—manufacturing, engineering, and construction firms—have long recognized the need for expertise in the techniques of planning, scheduling, and controlling work. But over the past decade, non-project-driven firms—especially those that see themselves as selling solutions rather than products to their customers—have gotten religion, too. As a result, project management has become increasingly important—and complex. Today, notes Harold Kerzner in Project Management, it's a professional discipline in its own right, integrating the tools of planning and scheduling with four other methodologies:

  • total quality management, ensuring that the end result meets the customer's expectations;
  • concurrent engineering, "performing work in parallel rather than in series in order to compress the schedule without incurring serious risks";
  • scope change control, "controlling the configuration of the end result" such that value is added; and
  • risk management, quantifying and "responding to the risks of [a] project without any material impact on the project's objectives."

Even if you're not a certified project manager, you can still benefit from the professionalization of the field. The following advice will prove useful whether you're overseeing project managers or managing a project yourself.

When choosing project managers, emphasize people skills and business acumen over technical prowess. Kerzner, a professor of systems management at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and president of Project Management Associates, a consulting and training organization, suggests that you begin by looking within your firm. Seek out line managers with the people skills necessary for creating partnerships with other individuals and groups whose cooperation will be critical to the project's success. Deep expertise in the skills of project management can sometimes be a detriment, he adds. A manager "should not come to the project with preset views other than the mission before him or her."

Dan Gontcharenko, director of marketing for Finance Resources FCU (Johnson & Johnson's federal credit union, located in Bridgewater, N.J.), concurs: "There are software packages you can purchase that will support your project-management efforts." An understanding of the business case behind the project is far more important, because that's what enables a manager to decide how to tailor the project-management methodologies to fit the project's purpose. Bill Marshall, a global project "prime" (manager) at the telecommunications-solution company Nortel Networks says his firm uses three different process engines depending on whether the product being produced is intended for outside sales, infrastructure, or R&D.

Create project charters for the managers you've chosen. A charter is a written document that "describes the business or strategic goal that the project was undertaken to address," says James Taylor, a technical curriculum consultant for the project-management training firm ESI (Arlington, Va.) and author of The Project Management Workshop. If the organization "manages by project," the charter should also "assign a priority to the project relative to the other projects in the organization." Difficult as this may be, it "makes it easier for a project manager to negotiate for critical resources."

Set up a project office to coordinate all the projects you're sponsoring. Line managers who periodically head up projects aren't likely to remember all the valuable lessons learned from prior assignments. So mistakes get repeated and the cost of rework adds up. Firms such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter have found that a project office helps minimize this risk, says Kerzner. A project office serves as a centralized repository—benchmarking internal and external project-management efforts and communicating best practices to the other project teams. In addition to providing administrative support, says J. Davidson Frame, dean of academic affairs at the University of Management & Technology (Arlington, Va.) and author of Building Project Management Competence, it also helps you develop and maintain standards for the use of scheduling, database, spreadsheet, and graphics software.

When assigned a project to manage, question the assumptions handed down to you. Too often, managers placed in charge of projects will accept senior executives' expectations without vetting the assumptions. Thorough due diligence, says Saralee Newell, a project-management specialist for BrightStar Information Technology Group (Pleasanton, Calif.) should include:

  • a Gantt chart showing how different tasks will occur over time,
  • a network diagram such as a PERT/CPM (Performance Evaluation and Review Technique/Critical Path Method) showing which activities must be completed before others can get under way, and
  • an earned-value chart that measures the percentage of work actually performed against the budget for work scheduled to be completed by a given date. "Sometimes," says Mike Newell, vice president of PSM Consulting Services (Slidell, La.) "a team will look good in terms of milestones met—it will be ahead of schedule—but it might have spent more to get there. The earned-value chart will show that."

Be sure to pack your political skills. You'll need them if the due diligence described above leads you to conclude that the upper echelon's expectations are unrealistic. Granted, your ultimate success depends on your work with the front lines, acknowledges Bob Smith, president of McFadden Communications, a consulting firm in West Trenton, N.J. But you won't win front-line employees' cooperation "until you have the trust and support of someone from senior management. Those who will have to provide sweat capital are cautious unless you can show them the return on investment, which often takes the form of a senior executive extolling the benefits of the project." Translation: it's up to you to win over at least one upper-level champion for your project—without agreeing to impossible time or budget constraints.

Create a scope document. If your project sponsor hasn't given you a project charter, a scope document helps clarify the mission. If you have a charter, the scope document provides a forum for addressing any disagreements among stakeholders concerning accountability and deliverables, says Saralee Newell. When Gontcharenko was associated with a commercial bank earlier in his career, he was given an unrealistic deadline for developing a new product. "They gave me a project with an impossible deadline," he recalls. "I went back to them with a timeline that my team and I were more comfortable with. They may have had to wait longer than they expected, but they got the finished project on the date we promised."

Typically, Newell continues, a scope document includes a workflow diagram that identifies each step needed to achieve the outcome and a cost-benefit analysis that compares the benefits of the proposed project against the estimated costs.

Develop a robust stakeholder communication system. Stakeholders include not only functional managers who lend you their staff, but also anyone else who stands to benefit from the project. Paying attention to stakeholders' concerns can make the difference in your project's finishing on time and under budget. Be forewarned: this work often amounts to "a project within a project," says Taylor. "After you've assessed the various stakeholders' attitudes toward the project, identify strategies for turning those who are opposed or indifferent into enthusiastic supporters."

Business today is all about completing projects faster, cheaper, and better. You may not need a certificate in project-management skills to carry out your responsibilities, but the maturation of the field can only help you work more efficiently.

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Reprinted from "What You Can Learn from Professional Project Managers" with permission from Harvard Management Update, February 2001.

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