Project Management Institute

In your own backyard

Hutchison Port Holdings uses Project Management Institute methodologies to create a global port management system





QUESTION: I'm new to project management and right now I'm managing a small project. I've been invited to transfer to a much larger effort within our firm. Will I learn more by leading my own small project or by being one of many project managers on a much larger (and more important) venture?

Certainly, there are advantages to being part of a big project. More resources, better visibility to senior management, the satisfaction of being associated with a great team and the chance to shape the future of your company are all reasons to move up to the “big time.”

Still, small projects have advantages as well. For one thing, you're more likely to get real responsibility. That's a double-edged sword, of course, because greater responsibility also means greater risk. And a small project rarely leaves room to hide when things go wrong.

But there's another advantage that's often overlooked. The small project is a great learning environment, because it so perfectly mirrors its larger counterparts. All the problems that arise in a multimillion-dollar undertaking are also present—albeit in miniature form—in a small effort.

I just proved this to myself—again—with a new project. Aided by my project management master of business administration class, I've spent the past months managing the construction of what's become known as “The Mancave,” a 600-square-foot backyard workshop/storage building/Harley motorcycle garage.

The project has not gone flawlessly. In fact, I admit to a certain embarrassment at the number of lessons learned—and relearned—from running even this small effort. Among the insights:

1. Scope creep is not limited to large projects. Recessed lighting certainly wasn't part of the original plan, but the older I get, the dimmer the world becomes. Plus, those 12 extra spotlights will allow me to create better woodwork, won't they? Same with that cable TV connection, the cathedral ceiling, the checkerboard floor …

2. The character of your team is more critical than your contract. Weeks into the project, it became clear that although the contract called for insulated walls, it said nothing about insulating the ceiling. I pointed this out to the builder, fully expecting him to capitalize on my oversight by proposing a price change order. What a shock. He rubbed his chin for a moment, then said, “Hell, only a damned fool would insulate the walls and not include the ceiling. Of course that's what we meant, so it's in the price.”

3. Conflict and communication problems are universal. Our builder was no kid—nearly 70 years old and tough as old shoe leather. Our electrician was cocky, smart and young enough to be his grandson. The only thing they had in common was that both seemed to have mobile phones permanently grafted to their ears. Despite that, and the obvious need to closely coordinate their work, neither would call the other, ever. I think it was a matter of saving face, but whatever the root cause, I ended up as the middleman in every communication between the two.

4. Surprises will happen. If projects were routine and predictable, we wouldn't call them projects. The backhoe operator will cut through your swimming pool electrical lines, no matter how many times you warn him not to. And when your hardworking crew leader gets tossed into jail, you'd better have a backup plan.

5. The essence of a project manager is integration. If you've chosen your team well, they already know how to do their jobs. They don't need you to watch over their shoulders, but rather to ensure the individual pieces come together in a coherent way. There's little glamour in integration, but when the drywall guys lock the doors because they don't know the electrical inspector is on his way, the importance of a project manager who can see the big picture becomes starkly evident. PM


img ANSWER: Whether the initiatives are big or small, the nature of project management doesn't change much.


Bud Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Please send questions for Ask PM Network to [email protected].

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