The effective project manager
University of Southern California
Why has the job of the project manager become so difficult? The answer can be put into one word — complexity. Today’s social and civil problems are extremely complex. Most of the vexing problems facing the world today are so complex that they cannot be solved within the confines of a single discipline. Such multidisciplinary problems do not yield easily to solution because although the basic approach may be technical, the most important aspects of the problem may be “people” inputs, public, political and social implications. The most important facet of the project manager’s job is learning to live with complexity. Our whole future existence may depend on our learning to live with complexity.
The project manager can be compared with the juggler trying to keep all the parts of his project going at the same time. When seen from this perspective, it is apparent that the technical portion of his project may be minor in comparison with the total project. The problem facing industry today is, more project managers who can cope with complexity and can deal with our large civil and social problems are needed.
School of “Hard Knocks”
The method of choosing project managers has been approached rather casually in industry. Baumgartner1 indicates that, “Normally, the project manager and his staff are selected from functional areas within the company, or from other projects which are phasing down. Upon completion of the project, they return to functional organizations until a new project comes along.” A review of project management as used in aerospace and other industries indicates that this approach is not always the most effective. Once a proficient project manager has been developed (or discovered), he should remain in a project function. A review of aerospace projects also indicates that experience has been the only effective means to develop good project managers.
Project managers in construction, aerospace and other industries have generally been of two types:
(1) Those who were taken from the ranks of fairly senior functional or line managers
(2) Those who worked their way up from the bottom as assistant project managers or even as administrative assistants in the project office. Recent college graduates normally enter the project office via this route to obtain the needed project experience.
The assumption has been that experience in the management of a discipline is automatically good training for the job of the project manager. This is not necessarily true; an entirely different type of training and experience is necessary to produce a proficient manager. Aerospace project management leaves little room for doubt as to which type of experience (functional or project) makes the best project managers. The path to success is strewn with the bodies of project managers who were originally functional line managers and then went into project management. Occasionally, a line manager who was sufficiently mature could make the transition from line to project management successfully in a short time and without too much anguish. But he was the exception rather than the rule. Most truly successful project managers spent many years in apprenticeship in the project office.
The Project Manager’s Job
There are four areas of major importance in every project manager’s job:
(1) Program planning, scheduling and budgeting,
(2) Technical program status evaluation,
(3) Financial status evaluation,
(4) Customer relations.
Overemphasis on any one of these areas while neglecting the others will bring disaster to the project manager. A typical situation involved an experienced line manager who was made a project manager. In most cases, the line manager was very technically oriented and very proficient. However, a line manager, formerly in charge of “widget” design, usually tended to forget that there were many other components of the complex system that were of equal or greater importance than the “widget.” He rarely was able to see the “big picture” or the overall view of his project.
Equally disastrous was the situation where an accountant was made project manager. Fiscal mileposts became the only criteria for success and achievement of technical mileposts was minimized. One is reminded of the McNamara “whiz kids” and their futile attempt to put the Department of Defense in an accounting straight jacket.
Another disastrous type of project manager frequently encountered in defense industries was the public relations expert. This project manager thought that his only job was to see that the customer was kept happy. He thrived on the expense account circuit, conferring with the government or customer project office, and his entire job revolved around this effort. He did not realize that he was little more than an errand boy between the customer and the people who were doing the work and actually directing the project. The customer usually lost faith in this project manager and often bypassed him in an effort to determine what was really going on in the project.
(1) Project managers have usually been chosen from among the most experienced people in the organization.
(2) Project managers have usually been chosen from line or functional discipline managers in the organization.
(3) Prospective project managers have seldom had specific training to prepare them for their new job.
(4) Project managers have learned the special skills needed to do their job by working at it — i.e., on the job.
(5) The most successful project managers have usually started as assistants in the project office and worked their way up the ladder to project managers as they learned the job and developed the necessary skills.
(6) A good many years of working in a project office or as a project manager have been necessary to provide the breadth of knowledge necessary to produce a really proficient project manager.
Almost without exception, the most effective project managers have come from the ranks of the assistant project managers. The important element appears to be time, so we might wonder whether we can reduce the time necessary to produce good project managers. There are two factors involved:
(1) The ability to see the overall view of a complex project is not developed overnight. It takes time to develop the unique ability to see the “Big Picture.”
(2) An interdisciplinary orientation is not easily or quickly developed. It takes many years for a project manager to put the narrow discipline in which he has received intensive training into perspective, and to realize that there are dozens of equally important disciplines. He also must realize that he must have a working knowledge of every one of these disciplines which has a major impact on his project.
1. John S. Baumgartner, Project Management, Richard D. Irwin, Inc., Homewood, Illinois (1963), p. 12.