Project Management Institute

Will the project manager with the most tools really win?

Concerns of Project Managers


Audrey K. Decker, Robinstone Tower Incorporated, Boerne, Texas


No doubt you've seen the “techie” slogan, “The one with the most tools wins.” It illustrates our penchant for electronic gadgetry and software solutions. Project managers (PMs) are not immune to this phenomena. They are inundated with promises of new products and professional development courses that predominately emphasize the tools of project management. Here are a few recent examples:

  • “Project Management Gets Easier [with project management software]”
  • “[Project management] Software That Delivers”
  • “Develop [project management] Control Mechanisms and Reporting Systems”
  • “Project Management Objectives Checklist” [where consistent naming conventions, task dependencies, time and durations, schedule, are listed]
  • “Gain Support From the Higher-Ups [with project management systems]”

The implication is that to be successful, a project manager need only apply a standard tool, a simplistic process or a “user friendly” software program. The underlying thread is that these packaged “silver bullet” solutions each focus upon tools of the trade. And little wonder. Tools intrigue us. Like toys, they satisfy our “left brain” tendencies. However, experience tells us that “true salvation lies not in tools but in people” [1]. Thus, understanding motivational and operational methodologies (i.e., the more “right brained” practices) may provide greater results. “Experience also points to the fact that project managers can be successful only to the degree that they are able to subdivide complex, interdisciplinary projects into tasks that can be completed by autonomous groups with homogeneous skills” [2].

Our penchant for tools offers too simplistic an answer to the complex issues inherent in the role of project management. Such an approach hides the true role of a project manager…integrating, coordinating and managing people rather than merely scheduling tasks and reviewing computerized Gantt charts. Regrettably, the latter has been the focus of too many PMs. This statement is the finding of several consulting experiences.

  • Like the project manager in a dockyard who spent most of his time in a portable building attempting to reconcile his computerized 30,000 plus task schedule with the actual work being done by the tradesmen who had no input into the planning.
  • Or the automotive executive who hired a consulting company to provide visibility of three new car programs. Only after weeks of developing thousands of functional activities and schedules did they begin the fun of integrating all these detailed requirements. Unfortunately, the finished plan didn't match the reality of the workplace.

In these case examples, emphasis on tools and techniques caused project management to become an administrative burden (perhaps even to the point of being disruptive) rather than the valuable management methodology it was intended to be.


A few years ago, Ann Margaret illustrated why we must focus less upon tools and techniques and more upon the real value-added elements of effective project management. In her bawdy Las Vegas act, she correctly identified…“It ain't whatcha do, it's the way whatcha do it.” For example, no maestro can successfully conduct a symphony orchestra unless they can blend the nuances of the instruments, the skills of the musicians, the intent of the composer, the theory and composition of the score, and an appreciation of the historical time period in which the piece was written.

Leonard Bernstein would not have achieved greatness by merely marking time like a metronome, scheduling when the various instrumental sections should begin and end. To the contrary. Success requires intimate artistic, historical and human understanding, as well as personal musicology skills. Similarly, a project manager cannot merely “orchestrate” functions to scheduled time slots and expect success to have occurred at the end of the project schedule. There is also a major difference in these two models. A project gets only one “run through,” whereas a symphony can be rehearsed. Unlike a conductor, a project manager has to get it right the first time.


As a manager of a multi-million-dollar project, sitting across the table from my foreign customer, the least of my concerns was what icon should I click in order to bring up a resource histogram. Instead, my critical concerns were:

  • How do I effectively negotiate with my client?
  • Is my team sufficiently credible to sustain my client's confidence?
  • Have I effectively communicated their requirements into actionable tasks?
  • How do I blend and optimize the skills of each member of my team?
  • Have I identified and contained the critical project risks?

As such, “drawing activity boxes on a computer screen” was secondary to the jugular issues: correctly defining the project's scope, appropriately allocating project targets, obtaining appropriate resources, proactively identifying and containing risks, and effectively managing costs. Accomplishing these challenges demands more than reliance upon software tools and generic checklists. What's needed by every successful project manager, and yet seldom emphasized, is an intimate knowledge of the project to be managed and the environment in which it is to be achieved.

For example, how can I identify and proactively manage my project risks and budget unless I:

  • 1. Am familiar with the developmental processes required to achieve the requirements of my project.
  • 2. Understand how the supporting functions of my company work.

How can I integrate, coordinate and manage my project team unless I:

  • 1. Recognize and acknowledge the spectrum of human skills, knowledge and experience necessary to fulfill project requirements.
  • 2. Am skilled in personally motivating and leading people, especially highly skilled knowledge workers.


Despite decades of practice, the objectives of project management are more difficult to achieve than one would believe. Part of the reason is that Wall Street magnates and business schools of the ‘80s and ‘90s have sent young professional men and women an erroneous message. Their message stressed that intellectualizing faddish “jargon” and automated accouterments were more important than developing in-depth personal business acumen.

As a result of these experiences, the corporate world is filled with executives, managers, professionals and project managers who have drifted from the more difficult pursuit of discovering how their businesses operate. Ironically, this scenario creates a dichotomy in which discerning project managers can maximize their contribution by focusing on the art (methodology) rather than on the science (tools) of project management. Women, in particular, have used this opportunity to overcome several previous barriers to project management. Such hurdles include a history of institutionalized social mores that have limited women from exposure to mechanical or technical experience and skills. This is not offered as an excuse, for no excuse is needed. However, it is also true that in their inquisitive and formative years few women were encouraged to fix their bicycle, change their car's spark plugs, or seek manufacturing, construction or engineering careers…the arena of most project management opportunities,

Since women are newer to the project management scene, they also bring other qualities and experiences to the planning table. First, fewer have had an opportunity to adopt a focus upon tools.

Second, since they are not “expected” to possess a wealth of technical or business experience, they are freer to question the way things have always been…the operational status quo. Such “innocent questioning” often facilitates innovation and creativity.

Third, and on a lighter side, one Fortune 100 executive recently made a profound discovery. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that a predominately female team completed their project in much less time than expected. When asked why, he attributed their success to the fact that “They immediately addressed the critical issues. Unlike us men, they didn't spend an inordinate amount of time posturing and ‘marking their territorial spots’.”


An old cliché, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail,” highlights the mindset that can occur when too much emphasis is placed upon a tool. They are only an avenue, not the raison d'etre. There is another ominous result of relying upon such a philosophy: reliance upon tools can limit one's creativity.

Rather than encouraging innovation, “cut and paste” tools tend to foster creativity-stifling standardized project “templates.” Instead, project managers must bring a fresh viewpoint to their project. They must couple honed communication skills and intuitiveness to melt parochial interests and enable each team member to contribute to their fullest potential. Project managers cannot forego their leadership role to be reduced to a scheduler of meetings and tasks.

Results, not the configuration of tools, are the only measure of project success. Tools, techniques and checklists should remain transparent to the client and to the project team. After all, aren't tools really a communication vehicle or electronic memory of decisions that have taken place with the client or the team? Isn't this the essence of project management?

Project managers of the ‘80s and ‘90s may have emphasized tools and techniques as key prerequisites. However, I suggest that the global business environment of the 21st century will demand greater qualities of leadership, knowledge, experience, creativity, judgment, trust and credibility. Tomorrow's challenge for successful project managers will be one of humanizing the business of business, still incorporating transparent new tools, but winning by emphasizing the “way whatcha do it.”


1. “The Answer Is People, Not Tools,” COMPUTERWORLD, Letters To The Editor, November 8, 1993, page 32.

2. Ibid.   ❏


Audrey K. Decker is chairman of the board of Robinstone Tower Incorporated, a research and management consulting firrn located near Boerne, Texas. She provides executive guidance and insight toward the advancement of avant garde management approaches for business leader-s of the 21st century. She is co-author of Competitive Product Development, guide for successfully managing product development teams in the ‘90s and beyond.

Ms. Decker has extensive experience in the electronics and aerospace industries, where she has negotiated and managed multi-million-dollar, high-tech programs with Fortune 100 companies and world governments. She graduated magna cum laude with a B.M.E. from Texas Christian University, with M.B.A. work at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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.

PMNETwork • March 1994



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