Project Management Institute

The key to survival on projects

knowledge or awareness?


by Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP, Contributing Editor

WHAT'S IT TAKE for a body to survive and prosper in the weirdo world of projects? How can a project management practitioner possibly field the wacky demands the market trumps up? Is it possible to hold up under the accelerating crunch of companies saddled with churning out products faster, cheaper, and better? Can mere human beings deal with it all?

There's both good and bad news for people involved in project work. The good: Knowledge for managing single projects is readily available through PMI® and other sources. The bad: The equation for successful projects goes beyond conventional project knowledge in most fast-tracking, multiproject environments.

So, paradoxically, while information is at hand for steady-state, single-project settings, in the whirlwind that surrounds most projects, a sizeable void exists when it comes to looking for a holistic approach to managing projects. Some of that void is covered in PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), which spotlights three cornerstones for successful project management, as shown in Exhibit 1.

Knowledge of project management. This is the primary theme of the PMBOK® Guide, which targets the nine knowledge areas: the management of scope, time, cost, quality, risk, human resources, communication, procurement, and integration. The PMBOK® Guide also addresses issues of structure, process, and context. Hundreds of other project management publications complete the body of knowledge on the topic.

Knowledge of general management. General management abilities also are needed to manage projects effectively. These topics, specifically excluded from the PMBOK® Guide, encompass classic management areas like leadership, administration, finance, and marketing. General management knowledge is available in diverse management books, magazines, and courses.


Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP, PMI Fellow, is the author of eight books, including Managing Organizations by Projects: Winning Through Enterprise Project Management [Amacom, 1998]. He is president of Dinsmore Associates, affiliated with Management Consultants International Group, with headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Reach him by e-mail at comments on this column to

Knowledge of application area. Successful projects depend on competency in the dominant technologies involved in the undertaking. For instance, information technology projects require solid code writing, civil engineering endeavors call for safe structural calculations, and research and development projects require deep scientific knowledge. These knowledge bases are documented in each of their respective fields of specialization.

The three-tiered knowledge dimension outlined in the PMBOK® Guide provides guidance for organizing, planning, directing, and controlling specific projects. If applied properly, that knowledge helps ride herd on a given project, and should keep folks from going berserk half way through the scheduled work span.

Iceberg Ahoy!

Another dimension sits in the background and is largely responsible for personal survival and professional success in the crazy world of projects. It's not as apparent as the knowledge dimension, but is highly significant in impact—a bit like the submerged part of an iceberg. It can't be seen but is critical in mass!

This other dimension encompasses awareness. As opposed to the knowledge dimension, where hard information and technique are the essence, the awareness dimension is based on the premise that dynamic consciousness is the key to success. This dimension covers global, personal, and organizational awareness. Each area brings major impact on project managers’ ability to survive and succeed in modern-day project settings. The awareness dimension is shown in Exhibit 2.

Hang On For the Ride

Global awareness means keeping in tune with the times. Thirty years ago, in his bestseller Future Shock [Amereon Ltd., 1970], Alvin Toffler alerted the world to the tornado of information and the topsy-turvy marketplace that would soon surround us. So here we are, subjected to media overload, warped time due to technological advances, huge work demands, a need for ubiquity—being in different spots at the same time, a compacted learning curve, around-the-clock projects, and quantum leaps in communication.

This, drawn from the PMBOK® Guide (Figure 1-2), shows the relationship among three areas of knowledge

Exhibit 1. This, drawn from the PMBOK® Guide (Figure 1-2), shows the relationship among three areas of knowledge.

Personal, global, and organizational are the three areas of the awareness dimension

Exhibit 2. Personal, global, and organizational are the three areas of the awareness dimension.

Keeping globally aware doesn't mean trying to absorb all the information that is shouted at the universe on a daily basis. Two newspapers, three websites, three magazines, and a periodic external seminar should keep most people up to date. Global awareness takes initiative and discipline to stay in tune with the trends and speed of the global economy, which ultimately defines performance parameters for managing projects.

Get a Life

Personal awareness involves self-perception and dealing with your own life within the context of everything that is going on. Much of the success and survival in project work has to do with an individual's way of looking at life.

The journey to personal happiness assumes reasonable equilibrium among the following parts of our selves: intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual. If those parts are askew, you run the risk of going off track and, in extreme cases, “going bananas.” One simple litmus test is to size up each component of your life and decide where extra effort needs to be placed to bring things into balance.

A time management audit is another way to see if your life is in balance. You do this by making a diary of how you spend your time over a three-week period. By reviewing your time usage, it is easy to see if your life is in balance and if you have developed a desired degree of personal awareness.

Do These Dudes Have a Clue?

If you sometimes feel that the folks who run your organization don't know what they are doing, you may be partially right. After all, who can possibly be on target all the time in this crazy world? But they are probably making the best effort they can. They may be placing emphasis on a different priority than yours or may simply be applying a managerial philosophy that plays to the tune of a different drummer.

Organizational awareness means understanding the overriding company culture and knowing how to deal with it. Here's a checklist to make sure you are fully aware of your organization:

What is the company's mission, vision, and strategy?

What is special about your project? How does your project fit into the overall company picture?

Is your company supportive of formal project procedures, or does it use more of an ad hoc approach?

What is the company's primary challenge at this moment?

What are the expectations of the company stakeholders who most impact your project and your work?

Organizational awareness helps the project practitioner to meld with the surrounding culture and take full advantage of its attributes. Awareness of the organization also is handy when the culture needs to be breached, so that care can be taken to safeguard against probable backlash.

THE AWARENESS DIMENSION adds depth and meaning to the challenge of managing projects and represents the seven-eighths of the iceberg that's not apparent but is there. It's not seen and is seldom thought about in the context of projects.

So if you are involved in rampaging projects and sometimes think you may go bananas, reflect on the following.

If you need more knowledge about project management, general management, or an area of technical expertise, plunge ahead, study for your Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification, go for your master's degree, take short courses, fill the gaps where your knowledge is lacking.

If, however, you are up to date on knowledge but need to boost your awareness level from a global, personal, and organizational standpoint, then do a quick size-up on the three facets of the awareness dimension: Are you keeping up to date with the world? Are you fully aware of the personal aspects of your life? Are you aligned with the organization's objectives and culture?

A solid grasp of the knowledge dimension (project management, general management, and technical expertise) is fundamental for practitioners to achieve success on projects. But global, personal, and organizational awareness also is key. ■

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.

PM Network December 2000



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