The lazy project manager salutes the project superstars

Abstract

How many people know what you do? Beyond your fellow project managers and outside your close family, who really understands what being a project manager is about? Perhaps even your close family members wave you goodbye each day without really understanding what you do.

Taking project management “out of the box” will spread the word outside our immediate community about what a great bunch of people we are and how project management is a valuable to skill for just about everybody.

We should appreciate how we are seen from “outside” our project management world and understand which of our many skills others would value.

I want to shout to the world about project management and tell all the great work that I and my fellow project managers do, but is the world listening?

Introduction

What is a project manager or, stated another way, what are you? What do you do between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. each work day (and on a very good work day, I might add!)?

The Internet provides several definitions for project manager:

  • A project manager is a professional in the field of project management.
  • The person with the authority to manage a project.
  • The person responsible for the project.
  • Individual or body with the authority, accountability, and responsibility for managing a project to achieve specific objectives.
  • The individual in charge of the progress and performance of the project on behalf of the project owner.
  • The individual accountable for all aspects of a project.

Ask someone that question and demand a fast answer in return, and chances are that he or she will reply as follows:

“What is a project manager?” “Someone who manages projects”

So, there is no great enlightenment there; but, to be fair, it is hard, isn't it? How do we describe to other people, people outside our closed world, exactly what we do and why what we do is so important? And, how do we make it all sound exciting (unlike the above definitions), because it is exciting, isn't it?

But, It Is Important!

How Important Is It?

“With one fifth of the world's GDP being spent on projects this year, clearly, business isn't just about operations anymore. Competitiveness, innovation, talent—these are the things you’re worrying about every day.” www.pmi-projectimpact.org/

This adds up to about US$12 trillion!

And that is really important!

How Important?

The whole world is challenged and that is for sure!

On one hand we faced the Global Recession, with all the impact that this had on people and business, and on the other hand we are a dynamic, resourceful and ever evolving world that demands change as part of its survival. And change demands projects and projects demand project managers.

Whilst we can all produce evidence of project success within our own sphere of experience we do have to recognise a history littered with significant project failure as well; The Standish Report 2009 clearly shows we may not always learn from our experiences and that history may well be repeated in many cases.

Now is the time that it is even more critical to succeed, and succeed with a higher level of certainty than ever seen before, because those projects that will be commissioned in the future, as well as the ones that are allowed to continue in the current climate, will be expected to deliver higher business impact, be under closer scrutiny from senior management, and be under far more pressure to succeed.

And, guess what, who will be the one under the most pressure? The project manager!

Very Important?

So, it seems we, the project managers of the world, are pretty important in the total scheme of things—mostly not “life or death” important, but still important nonetheless.

So, why is it still so difficult explaining to “outsiders” what we do?

A good statement to remember here is perhaps this one: “Project management is a verb; not a noun.”

The Importance of Project Management (i.e.,You)

Can You Name Three Famous Project Managers?

If asked this question, you could be thinking of the following areas:

  • Science and Art: Leonardo da Vinci
  • Engineering: Isambard Kingdom Brunel
  • Manufacturing: Henry Ford
  • Military: Attila the Hun
  • Cultural: Nelson Mandela

On the other hand, you might not.

Brunel stated: “I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.” So, he was no fan of rigid discipline but rather allowing for innovation and development.

Da Vinci said: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” So, this is not exactly in line with our project closure theory.

Ford declared: “I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can't be done.” Again, a very open and flexible approach is desired.

Attila the Hun probably came up with some great quotes but we don't have those recorded for posterity (probably they were mostly words about attacking and killing).
But, why even try to name three famous project managers? Well, to demonstrate that most names you think of will be famous for other matters and not pure and simple project management.

I know we could probably name three names. I would perhaps suggest Dr. Harold Kerzner (IIL), Dr. David Hillson (Risk Doctor), and Frank Saladis (International Project Management day founder). I could certainly add to that list, as I am sure you could also, but the point is that, outside the field of project management, these people are unknown.

No one, within our project world, has yet to be universally recognized It is all about the project, not the project manager!

Even The Lazy Project Manager (2009) has not yet reached that level of fame.

Does Everybody “Do” Project Management These Days, Then?

Is it because project management is perhaps just a commodity?

Is it perhaps because everybody “does” project management now?

We know that project management is fast becoming the preferred way for companies to get things done. In a global economy, project management will make a company more competitive than the traditional methods of managing work.

So, for all managers there is now the need to understand the dynamics of projects, along with the skills and processes of project management (verb) in order to make the most out of their organizations’ investments.

The Question

Is project management, therefore, no longer a niche capability, the home of project management office members and external contractors? Has it become a core skill that all executives and senior management need to understand?

I recently conducted a survey through a LinkedIn survey (poll) in which that very question was asked: “Is project management a core skill and no longer a niche capability?” to see what a wider community of business people thought.

347 people responded to the survey and I am grateful for their time and consideration, as well as the follow-up comments that many people left for me to review. These respondents represented a good mix, which spanned all business areas, job roles, titles, genders, and ages.

The Answer(s) (Exhibits 1 and 2)

Survey Summary

Exhibit 1: Survey Summary

In the overall results, there was a fairly even split between “a core skill” and “both a core skill and a niche capability,” with a smaller number believing that it is “a niche capability.” but I guess it would be fair to say that the survey contributors were divided in their views and strongly divided in some cases, based on the comments exchanged.

Gender played no part in these results, with an almost identical view from both groups, and job title seemed to influence the results in only a small way. Age played the most significant part.

Age Analysis

Exhibit 2: Age Analysis

The majority of respondents were in the 25- to 54-year-old age range and the younger the viewpoint, the more likely it was that there was a belief that it was a “core skill” or the non-belief that it was a “niche capability.”

The most consistent argument that can be made is that project management methodology is a “core skill” that all managers need to be aware of, but the actual project management activity is still a “niche capability,” which requires additional training and experience in order to be successful.

Managing a small, simple project is no big deal and most people can do it. Managing a large, complex project with substantial risk, diverse stakeholders, a geographically distributed team, multiple constraints, and high stakes is best reserved for the real experts.

The successful business of the 21st-century recognizes the value of “niche” project managers working under a supportive executive with a fundamental knowledge of project “core skills.”

So, does this mean that project management should be understood by a wider audience than it is today?

When Will I Be Famous?

It's Magic!

A project manager asks his administrator what two plus two equals. The administrator states in absolute terms that two plus two equals four.

The project manager then asks his accountant what two plus two equals. The accountant states in relative terms that two plus two equals four, plus or minus.

Finally the project manager asks his project controller what two plus two equals. The project controller turns off the lights, walks over, closes the blinds, and sits down by the project manager to say in a whisper, “What do you want it to equal?”

Give a project to a good project manager (supported in all the right ways with sponsorship, resources, and so forth) then “magic happens.”

So then, why aren't the skills of the project manager appreciated by the general public? We should all be famous (if not rich) by now!

Others Do It!

There is a growing trend in the United Kingdom, which I believe originated in the United States, where children are encouraged to invite their parents to school and to talk about their jobs.

I have never been asked to visit my children's school!

Schools have had a policeman in who, no doubt, talked about road safety and not talking to strangers. They’ve had a nurse come and talk about healthcare issues and how to take care of yourself, and they’ve had a fireman talk about the dangers of fires and what to do if you are in such danger. These are all important and, seemingly (to children), exciting jobs, but project management is neither apparently exciting nor does it require a uniform (something I’ve noticed these people have in common).

Should we perhaps design a uniform for project managers? We already know we’re exciting!

But, consider this: we can easily state that “doctors make people better.” that “policemen catch bad people,” that “builders make homes,” that “authors write books,” that “movie stars make films,” and so on. But we can't say “project managers manage projects” because that doesn't tell people anything. We all know what it means, but my children don't, my friends don't, and neither does “Joe Public.”

So This is Where We Are

The Current Situation

The situation can be summarized as follows:

  • We are generally good at what we do
  • We are generally successful in our endeavours
  • We are getting better all the time
  • We do deliver “exciting things”
  • We are, for the most part, nice people, I’m sure

So, how can we get “out of that box” and into the spotlight so that the world, in general, can understand us and what we do?

It is Better than You Might Think

Take this easy test—the numbers undoubtedly change all the time, but these are the results I got when I tried it (on 24 June 2011):

Google “Project Failures” – I got 33 million hits
Now, Google “Project Success” – I got 85 million hits

Encouraging, wouldn't you say?

Google “Sad Project Manager” – I got 1.9 million hits
Now, Google “Happy Project Manager” – I got 41 million hits

Nice.

And, when I Googled “Nurse,” then “Fireman,” then “Policeman,” and added the hits together, I got 96 million hits, but when I Googlde “Project Manager” and I got 205 million hits.

Very nice.

Be Proud and Be Happy

So, all in all, we have a lot to be both proud of and happy about; so, let's be proud and happy!

Being a project manager is a great job, whether you intend on pursuing a project management career or whether you intend to move into a business role within a project-based business. Projects should never bore you, they are all different and each day will bring new challenges and interests. You will never stop learning those lessons.

Finally reach out with what you do

Consider doing some or all of the following in order to help yourself (and project management in general) get out of the box:

  • Tell people you are a project manager. Don't be shy. Be brave and come clean about your job—you are not doing anything that you shouldn't be and proud of.
  • Have that “elevator” speech ready when people ask you what you do. But, whatever you say, don't say “I’m a project manager, I manage projects.” Recently, I asked the question “How would you explain project management to an alien from outer space” and one of my favorite answers came from Penny Pullman: “Getting something new and exciting done with a group of people!”
  • Speak at non-project management events. In my role as The Lazy Project Manager, more and more I have started speaking to groups of people outside project management, and you know what? They like what they hear about projects and project management (and project managers).
  • Network with a broad group of people, again outside the field of project management.
  • Start some LinkedIn discussions, such as my “alien” discussion above, and you get some great interaction with people from all over the world.
  • Twitter, blog, and use Facebook and any and every social networking mechanism that works for you.
  • Offer your services outside of your work—you will find that many volunteer organizations are crying out for your projects skills, even if they don't know what they are.
  • And, finally, why not scare your kids and go to that school or college “bring your parent to school” day and talk about your exciting role as a project manager.

You are a Project Management Superstar – I salute you!

I still want to shout to the world about project management and tell everyone about the great work we do, and I want you to join me in that “shouting.” Be loud and very proud of what you do—it is both essential and exciting.

Taking project management “out of the box” will spread the word outside our community about what a great bunch of people we are and how project management is a valuable to skill for pretty much everybody.

You are a Project Management Superstar (definition “someone who is dazzlingly skilled in any field”), so don't only get “out of that box,” but climb up and stand on it while you let everyone know just what you do and who you are:

You are a project manager!

“Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand” Chinese Proverb

Taylor, P B (2009) The Lazy Project Manager. UK: Infinite Ideas Limited

PMI (2008) Operations vs. Projects. Retrieved on 10.07/11 from PMI New World of Businesss

Taylor, P B (2010a) Success and Projects. Retrieved on 03/12/10 from www.thelazyprojectmanager.com

Taylor, P B (2010b) Is Project Management a Core Skill and No Longer a Niche Capability? Retrieved on 03/12/10 from http://asapm.org/asapmag/articles/PMCoreSkills.pdf

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2011, Peter Taylor
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, USA

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