The project of a lifetime
How can project management help us manage the most important project of them all—our own life? Can we use project management techniques to help us manage our family, our career, our problems, and even our relationships?
Our own life seems to meet all the criteria necessary to be considered a “project” according to the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition definition. If we can speak of our life as a project, then we can certainly try to manage it according to best practices, that is, by applying project management techniques. We'll have to be very flexible though, because our stakeholders (spouse, children, colleagues, neighbors, friends, in-laws, etc.) can be very demanding, and the terms of our (typically unwritten) contracts are usually unlimited in scope.
This paper will analyze how we can effectively use the methodologies, techniques, and skills of project management to organize our lives and help us reach the goals we have set for it.
Managing Our Life
Do we have the proper tools and methodologies we need to manage our own life? It doesn't seem so given all the difficulties we encounter along the way. Maybe it's worth the trouble to make another and more serious attempt.
As project managers, we have been using project management processes and tools in order to bring our projects to successful completion, to prevent threats from occurring, to discover new opportunities, to solve problems, to ensure stakeholder satisfaction, etc. But, aren't these the same objectives we have for our life as well? So why shouldn't we apply the same or similar processes and tools to our own life? The first question to answer is…
Is Our Life a Project?
Here is the definition of a project as given by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008): “A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique […] result” (p. 442).
We concluded that our own lives can be considered to fit these definitions. And what other project could be of more concern to us than our own life? If we look more carefully at it, our life seems to meet all the fundamental criteria to be considered as a project:
It has unique objectives
For sure, our life has some (or many), more or less formalized, objectives—or at least it should. (If it does not, then we have more serious problems that are beyond the scope of this paper and project management.)
The objectives can be quite different depending on our individual values and beliefs, for example:
• Either enjoying life while taking it easy or living a strict and virtuous life according to a rigorous moral code;
• Either making lots of money to make life easier or looking for starker habits while concentrating on the quality of our relationships;
• Either enjoying any kind of adventure and challenge or looking for a secure existence; and
• Either living the single life or having a big family.
The problem to solve is how we organize and manage these objectives in order to harmonize and meet them.
It involves a complex effort
Life is not easy and making it a success is quite complex. All of us, with a few very lucky exceptions, know that well. Most of us feel frustrated by the perception that we do not have the right means to govern our life and to change it as we would wish.
We need, as well, to involve and satisfy a great many stakeholders who are usually very demanding of us. The issue is how to use properly the resources available to us to meet our success criteria for our life, and to meet the needs of the stakeholders.
It is temporary in nature
No doubt about it, without exception, our life is temporary in nature. Even if it is not our objective to shorten the overall schedule of our life (with a few unlucky exceptions), we usually try to meet our specific goals as soon as possible. Many of them, if not reached within a certain time, will never be reached. So time is certainly of concern to our life.
Certainly, our ultimate objectives change with time. To some degree, our inner motivations and values are much more stable with respect to our beliefs. In any case, to take into account this variation, we can speak of a “life cycle” for our project of a lifetime—and the term is certainly suitable.
How to Apply Project Management to Our Life
If we are going to consider our life as a project, then project management methodology and relevant tools and techniques can certainly play an important role to turn it into a success. Let's review them in order to understand how to apply them in a profitable way. In order to do that we will analyze the Knowledge Areas of project management according to the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008):
- Integration Management
- Scope Management
- Time Management
- Cost Management
- Quality Management
- Human resource Management
- Communications Management
- Risk Management
- Procurement Management
We'll treat Integration Management last, for the reasons that will be clarified later.
Have you considered the main objectives of your life? Have you ever recorded them on a piece of paper and ranked the top three? If not, it is probably worthwhile to do that. It could be surprising to discover how little time we devote to the three most important things in our life, and how much time is devoted to some things that are not even listed in the top 50. After focusing on the main objectives, we should identify those activities that are needed to achieve them.
Here are some examples of possible main objectives:
- Getting a satisfactory job providing us with means to satisfy all our material needs;
- Having a family and enriching the rest of our life;
- Having friends and colleagues who trust us and help us in the moment of need;
- Getting a nice and comfortable house;
- Spending enough time with the people we care about the most; and
- Spending less time on things we don't care about.
We should try to work out a sort of scope of work for our life, identifying required activities, expected deliverables, required processes, desired quality, etc. We might also identify and rank all our stakeholders.
To make a plan, we need to know where we want to go and how. Without a baseline, without a firm direction, we lose a lot of energy in diverging efforts. We often feel pressed by things that need to be done, here and soon, but are we sure we really need to do them to meet our main goals? Are we spending enough time in selecting the things to be done before actually doing them?
Proper scope management could be of help in getting our efforts, and those of our stakeholders, properly focused on what we really care about. Many project management methods and tools can be very useful in this respect. Have you ever considered submitting your life to a system of well-organized reviews (not just the one after your 40th anniversary)? Are you maintaining a properly prioritized action item list? Are you defining clear roles and responsibilities for your team (e.g., your family), before complaining when things have not been done? The list of examples can be longer, but we believe the concept is clear.
Time is a critical aspect of all our life's accomplishments. How we manage our time in order to reach objectives and not to miss opportunities is, therefore, a critical issue.
The first step to implement our lifetime strategic plan is to translate relevant long-term goals into short- and medium-term objectives, to be reached within a specific time frame—for example, by the end of the year. With that in mind, we may proceed to develop and control our short- and medium-term life plan. Some of the project management tools that would be essential include the following:
Program evaluation and review technique (PERT) analysis could be very useful in understanding the relationships between tasks necessary to meet our long-term objectives, by working on specific short- and medium-term activities, which are a prerequisite to them. Having a clear plan with associated milestones will certainly improve our chance of success.
Gantt charts are probably the best tool to provide a graphical view of our personal and family road map. A yearly schedule (derived from our long-term strategic plan), with a rolling wave approach on the forthcoming quarter, is probably the most effective approach.
Monitoring and Control
When our yearly schedule is in place, we have to monitor our achievements with respect to planned milestones and define control actions needed to ensure adherence to our short- and medium-term objectives.
Most of us are under a lot of pressure due to the large number of urgent activities that must be done almost continuously throughout our daily life. How to treat urgency vs. importance is crucial to properly manage our life.
The method proposed by Covey (1989), in his best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is particularly effective. This is based on the four-quadrant table shown in Exhibit 1.
It often happens that we spend a lot of our time in quadrant 1 working on things that are urgent, but unimportant. Worse still, we waste a lot of time working on things in quadrants 3 and 4 that are not even important whether or not they are urgent and with the results you might expect.
Effective people, according to Covey (1989), concentrate on activities in quadrant 2: they are building-up their future and preventing important things from becoming urgent (and thus entering quadrant 1).
Given that many people spend a great part of their lives trying to earn more money, it seems they never have enough of it. The question is “Does this help us achieve our ultimate objectives?” We believe that such people are confusing their objectives with one of the means to reach them. They convince themselves that earning more money is improving their lives, and to prove that, they consequently need to spend more and more (if they spend a lot, they consequently need to earn more money). However, to earn more, they need to dedicate more and more time to work and less and less time on actually achieving their ultimate objectives. So, what is the right balance to achieve among cost, time, and performance/quality on our project of a lifetime?
Probably the answer is still given by the approach proposed by Covey (1989) for time management: additional money is helping us achieve real objectives to the extent that it allows us to remove problems and issues from quadrant 1. Need of additional money could then be balanced by a more careful control of our expenditures, benefiting from the best practices of project management in the area of monitoring and control.
From this perspective, other aspects of our job (besides the money we earn) should be valued more: the opportunity to grow, the enjoyment we get from doing it, the climate in which we work, etc.
A better understanding of “how” we spend our money (monitoring) usually allows a better use of our budget by improving the quality of our expenditures, as well as their return on investment (toward our ultimate objectives). A basic knowledge of cost control principles should be sufficient to allow satisfactory budget control, requiring a very rough understanding of earned value. This is in fact the ultimate measure of how we have spent our money, and how this has contributed to achieving our short-term targets.
We all strive for a certain level of quality in our lives. There are two elements that should not be confused: (1) standard of living, and (2) quality of life.
Standard of living refers to “the quality and quantity of goods and services available to people” (Wikipedia). This can contribute to overall quality of life, but only to a limited extent. Coming back to the concepts of the previous paragraphs, more money does certainly contribute to a higher standard of living, but this has only an indirect and limited effect on the quality of life.
Quality of life is instead defined as “the degree of well-being felt by an individual or group of people” (Wikipedia). Unlike standard of living, it is not a tangible concept and is not directly measurable. It consists of two components: physical (health, diet, physical robustness, lack of pain and disease, etc.) and psychological (sense of pleasure, freedom, safety, relaxation, lack of worry, etc.).
The component of quality we are more interested in is the psychological one (even if the physical one should not be disregarded). The combination and degree of attributes that leads one person to perceive a good quality of life, and be satisfied with that, is largely individual. As an example, a high degree of safety, certainly appreciated by the majority of people, could be perceived negatively by some others, who interpret that as a lack of challenge and adventure.
Project management techniques can be useful in managing both components of quality, in particular for balancing the various aspects of our “project” of a lifetime: cost, time, and performance. It is, in fact, always a matter of balancing these three aspects that makes the difference in the results, and this is actually the art of project management. How we perceive the quality of our life strongly depends of what is surrounding us, and furthermore “who” is surrounding us—our stakeholders.
Human Resource Management
When dealing with our life, we have to interact with hundreds of people that are important to us (family members and relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors, etc.). Establishing mutually satisfying relationships is fundamental to the quality of our life.
The most useful abilities in this respect are the so-called project management “soft skills” (Verma, 1995): team building, effective communication, leadership, ability to influence and motivate people, understanding and resolving conflicts, negotiation, etc. All of these are basic skills very useful to manage our relationship, in particular with our core team: family members and friends. These are the people who make the difference in our life.
Most of us have been frustrated by having ruined a good relationship for some “stupid” reason, and we don't understand how it could have happened. Often, the apparent reason is just a pretext. The actual reason is found elsewhere—a long period during which soft skills has not been practiced adequately. Lack of effective communication (and in particular empathic listening) is often the root cause, followed by surfacing of conflicts related to lack of mutual understanding, and eventually by the actual crisis.
Experienced project managers usually know how to deal with such difficulties in the business context, but sometimes they fail when dealing with them at home or in social contexts. This could happen, for example, because they think that “she” (their wives) or “he” (their husbands) “will understand.” In addition, this is usually a reasonable expectation, if those relationships have been nurtured by mutual “understanding” through empathic listening and effective communication. It is instead an unreasonable expectation when simply based on roles (being married or being friends).
We should never lose sight of the fact that people are the most important and powerful resource we have on our project (of a lifetime) and we should never stop nurturing our relationships.
How many failures in our life are probably due only (or mainly) to bad communication? How many of them could have been brought to a better end by improving our communication (mainly listening) skills? According to Louis D. Brandeis (an American lawyer and Supreme Court Justice) “Nine-tenths of the serious controversies that arise in life result from misunderstanding” (Brandeis, 2009).
As on any project, no activity can actually be “managed” without managing the relevant communications network. Communication is vital not only to maintain any relationship (marriage, friendship, cooperation, etc.), but also for our personal growth. The higher the number of communication channels we establish (personal, social and business networks), the higher will be our growth rate (we give always as one, but we receive according to the dimension of our networks). Let us think of the small communities isolated from the rest of the world. Their development is slower than the rest by several orders of magnitude.
To improve communication, we need to put in place a “communication plan” (even if informal). We must plan for communication opportunities with all our stakeholders (and in particular with the core team), fighting against other competing communication means (television, radio, telephone, the stakeholders of our stakeholders, etc.). Television and telephone calls (in particular in the era of wide screens and mobile phones) are by far the more dangerous enemies of effective communication and emphatic listening on our core team. Our communication plan should foresee some preventive measures to reduce their intrusiveness.
Managing threats that could affect our future is incredibly important for the safety and quality of our life. But managing opportunities can make the bigger difference. That means looking at the same things, but from a much more positive perspective. As in project management, this requires a very “proactive” attitude, as expressed by John L. Hennessy, President of Stanford University: “The way to predict (our) future is to invent it.” (Hennessy, 2004) Proactive people are those who prefer to act in advance to prepare their future, rather than to react to events when they happen.
Prevention is the key to reducing the impact of problems. Given that the unfolding of our life is still largely unpredictable (notwithstanding our proactive effort to control it), problems will always arise. Here again, the project manager that is inside us will help us. That project manager knows that the first rule to follow if we want to properly handle and solve a problem is to “identify” the problem. This implies understanding if and why it is detrimental to our objectives and through what mechanisms. We'll never discover how many solutions exist to our problems, if we don't look for them. Or, to say it according to James Baldwin (an American writer): “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (Baldwin, 2009)
As we said in the “Cost Management” section, a better understanding of “how” we spend our money usually allows a better use of our budget by improving the quality of our expenditures. If we look at that from a procurement perspective, we will soon realize that using the “make, buy, team, or reuse” selection methodology could provide us with significant advantages. We should realize that procuring everything from the outside would not only increase significantly our budgetary needs, but as well decrease opportunity to develop specific abilities we may have that could contribute to self-accomplishment. On the other hand, while trying to do everything by ourselves, would not only decrease our standard of living (see “Quality Management” section) but also reduce significantly the time we may devote to our main objectives. As usual, by selecting a middle way we could try to better control our overall budget while keeping the best from our life.
Special attention should be devoted to the last two possibilities out of the four: “team or reuse.” By doing something together, someone else gives us the opportunity to exploit a social relationship while accomplishing a specific task. Learning together is much easier. Let us think about the opportunity to share tools we seldom use with some of our friends or neighbors (sometimes this can make the difference between being or not in condition to afford the cost of those tools): a swimming pool, a tennis court, etc. Eventually, maximizing the opportunities for reuse does not only drastically reduce budget needs but also contributes (even in a more significant way) to preserve our planet from becoming a big rubbish tip.
We left Integration Management (which is treated first by the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition [PMI, 2008]) as the last, but not least, Knowledge Area of “life management.” It is fact that the real difference can be made in this area.
How to balance the multiple constraints (scope, cost, time, quality, resources, etc.) of our lives is the key question all of us will answer while navigating throughout our existence. As in project management, the right balance is a function of all stakeholders’ (ourselves, our family, friends, and colleagues, etc.) needs, concerns, and expectations. Priorities will be set-up carefully to be consistent with our main objectives. It is in this area that we are called to make the hardest choices between competing objectives. Time and money are never sufficient to get everything we desire and getting more money we will need to invest time that will not be available for other purposes. But see it the other way: to get more time for ourselves or our family we shall be prepared to lose some money (we could have earned by using that time at work).
Every day, every moment, we are making choices of this kind. What does matter is to be aware of it and ensure the proper choice is made according to the objectives we have set. Be careful: if you feel you are not continuously choosing, this probably means you are losing the project of your life.
As we have seen, our life is much like a project and, consequently, project management techniques may be used to improve the performance of our project of a lifetime.
In summary, what is essential is to focus on the most important objectives we have in our life, and prioritize all those activities that will foster their achievement. Development of project management soft skills and a proactive attitude are the keys to success. Effective communication, reinforced through empathic listening, is the easier way to involve our stakeholders in reaching those objectives while satisfying their own expectations. According to Dean Rusk (United States Secretary of State from 1961 to 1969), “The best way to persuade others is with our ears.” (Forsberg, 2005)
According to Machiavelli (Machiavelli, 1532):
It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. […] Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.
An ancient Romans adage says that, “Audaces fortuna iuvat” (Fortune helps the bold). We would paraphrase that as “Proactivi fortuna iuvat” (Fortune helps the proactive). Good luck with your project of a lifetime.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.
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Brandeis, L (2009) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Louis_Brandeis
Forsberg K., Mooz H., Cotterman H. (2005) Visualizing Project Management – Models and Frameworks for Mastering Complex Systems, John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Gerosa, S. (2008). The tower of Babel: when communicating becomes a nightmare. Paper presented at the PMI EMEA Congress 2008, St. Julians, Malta.
Hennessy J. (2004) The way to predict the future is to invent it (video), Stanford University Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Speaker Series. Retrieved from: http://ecorner.stanford.edu/popularVideos.html [Video]
Machiavelli N. (1532) The Prince, Forgotten Books. Retrieved from: http://www.forgottenbooks.org/info/The_Prince
Morris G.K. (2006) In Pursuit of Leadership - Principles and Practices from the life of Moses, Xulon Press.
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Wikipedia. (2009). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_of_living
Verma, V. K. (1995). The human aspects of project management: Human resource skills for the project manager (Vol. 2). Newtown Square, PA, Project Management Institute.
© 2009, Sergio Gerosa & Jim De Piante
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI North America Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida