Project management pop quiz

J. Ronald Carey, Ph.D., PMP, Our Lady of the Lake University
Sandra Harley Carey, Ph.D., Southwest Texas State University

Introduction

This paper explores some popular assumptions about project management. It is designed around an examination addressing some of the more important issues being faced in this arena.

With a fresh look at these issues, the authors contend that common knowledge may be neither. A broadened perspective is called for when elements of project management's popular culture have been accepted without serious challenge.

For example, if one were asked to look at the critical fields of business (accounting, economics, information systems, finance, management and marketing) and then to rank order them in order of importance to a project manager, two outcomes are likely. The first response would be that each is important in its own way so no distinction may be made. The second response is that of course management is most important since that is in the job title. Both would be wrong. The explanation comes later.

The program manager's job is made easier by eliminating unnecessary concepts and cliches. Simple, clearheaded addressing of issues is not aided by the baroque and trite language of “empowerment,” “facilitation,” “paradigms,” and “rightsizing.” We need to return to clarity and understanding, such as

  • The world was created (it wasn't finalized).
  • The Magna Carta was signed (it wasn't coordinated).
  • The Declaration of Independence was framed (it wasn't staffed).

Everyone already knows the slogans such as, “We need to do more with less.” Practitioners are wondering if this is realistic and some are fast becoming cynical. Everyone knows, “We need to work smarter, not harder.” They would even like to do it, if they knew how. Many have accepted the need to be “leaner and meaner” even if it does sound unnecessarily militant and they are not sure that “mean” is a good thing. People are even exerting energy trying to “think outside the box” even when they are thoroughly boxed in by rules, requirements, regulations, laws and supervisors who really don't want to get sidetracked by innovation or take the risks inherent in trying something new.

Those then, are the conditions we face as we try to complete our project so that our customers are happy and we can take pride in what we have done. Those same conditions have led some of us to accept as gospel that which is not in the project management bible. By taking the examination that follows one will learn the extent of the influence of what seems right based on what has been accepted and is in general use.

The Examination

Multiple Choice

1. Which of the following fields of business is most important in determining a project manager's success?

A. Accounting

B. Economics

C. Finance

D. Information Systems

E. Management

F. Marketing

2. Which of the following documents is the most important to the project manager?

A. Charter

B. Flow chart

C. Project plan

D. Value analysis

E. Work Breakdown Structure

3. Which of the following is the source of most of the project manager's problems?

A. Internally within the project management office

B. Outside the project management office but within the larger organization

C. Outside the organization

4. Which of the following words should be banned from a project management office?

A. Paradigms

B. Empowerment

C. Facilitator

D. Rightsizing

E. All of the above

5. Which of the following expressions should be banned from a project management office?

A. We need to do more with less

B. We need to work smarter, not harder

C. It is time to implement either Total Quality Management, Zero Defects or some other management program

D. Our thinking should be outside the box

E. All of the above

True/False

6. The project manager's primary duty is to accomplish the mission.

7. It is easier to stay on schedule than to get back on schedule.

8. The way to solve a serious problem is to focus on it.

9. There is no such thing as a “slip” in the schedule.

10. Time and schedule can be measured accurately; quality cannot.

11. "The organization does well what the project manager checks.”

12. E-mail has improved communications within the project management office.

13. Among other duties, it is the project manager's job to defend the project.

14. When your project is going through a review by a panel there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Fill in the Blank

The three words project managers should say more often are ___________ ___________ ___________.

The two words project managers should say more often are ___________ ___________.

The one word that PMs should say more often is ___________.

Discussion

In Question Order Sequence

1. Q. Which of the fields of business is most important in determining a project manager's success?

A. Certainly we need to know something about all elements of business. Finance tells us how to get money; accounting tells us how we spend it; economics tells us about the conditions we face; information systems give us a picture of the organization and management allows us to allocate resources. What remains is how well we have designed our project to fit the customer's requirements plus how well we present our project to the stakeholders. The process is to find out what people want—what they really want—and then giving it to them. We need to make people happy. That is marketing. And that is what we need most to do.

2. Q. Which document is most important to the project manager?

A. Often the shortest, least complicated document is the most powerful. To say the charter is the foundation of the project is simplistic. It implies that as the project evolves people tend to forget about it because they are working on other elements. In fact, the charter is often referred to through all stages. The project manager's authority will be challenged at various points. If the charter is not strong enough and clear enough the project manager's ability will be eroded. A wise project manager seeks a written, rock solid mandate at the start. The time a project manager has the greatest amount of influence on the project is at the beginning when the negotiations are taking place regarding the project manager's scope and power. It is almost impossible to go back later and, successfully, ask for more. Get it all up front.

3. Q. Which is the source of most of the project manager's problems?

A. Within your own group you have the most influence. If there is trouble you usually have the clout to solve it. You have much less power outside your organization. Fortunately, most people out there don't care that much about you or what you are doing. They have little incentive to cause trouble. But inside your larger organization, and outside your project management office, is where the snakes slither. This is where the jealousy looms if you are successful and the joy erupts if you fail. Every dollar in your budget must come from someone else's pot. It is given up grudgingly. The praise you receive is resented by your contemporaries.

4. Q. Which words should be banned from a project management office?

A. Each is a euphemism; each is bandied about by those who want to use insider terms. Plain English is the victim. The discussion of paradigms makes for an interesting set of videotapes that look good but have little content. Empowerment is done only by those who actually do it, but they don't use the word. Facilitators often take over the meeting for their own personal advancement somewhat like a DJ at a wedding reception who forgets that the day belongs to the bride and groom. Rightsizing is dubious and cruel—employees who are affected are not only out of a job but told, by implication, that there is something wrong with them.

5. Q. Which expressions should be banned from a project management office?

A. Let's face it; no one can do more with less. We can only do less with less. Most people are already working as smart as they can. Total Quality Management, the daughter of Zero Defects, is a self-indictment (management admitting it does not have quality) by supervisors. Thinking outside the box often brings disaster; the real problem is that the box is not big enough. All of these are management fads that fade. But not soon enough.

6. Q. The project manager's primary duty is to accomplish the mission?

A. The job of the staff is to accomplish the mission. The job of the project manager is to support the staff. The project manager hires good people, trains them, gives them a goal, gets them the resources to do their work, rewards them when they succeed and stays out of their way. Every time the project manager gets involved in mission accomplishment he or she demoralizes the staff and interferes with operations.

7. Q. It is easier to stay on schedule than to get back on schedule?

A. As with budgeting, as soon as a project goes off schedule there are problems. The “I told you so” comments begin. Other aspects of the project are questioned. Support from external sources erodes. Invitations to parties are lost in the mail.

8. Q. The way to solve a serious problem is to focus on it?

A. Have you ever noticed that if you are driving and see a pothole in the road ahead, you hit it? The reason is your eyes are on the hole and you automatically steer toward where you are looking. You were concentrating on the problem. We all do that. When something bothers us we stew about it. What we should do is figure out what the solution is and devote all attention to that. On the road the correct response is to look to see if it is wiser to go around the pothole to the left or right. Then look at the route you will take and sure enough that is where the car will go. Same with a project. After you have analyzed the problem and developed a solution, forget about the problem. Spend all your time on the fix.

9. Q. There is no such thing as a “slip” in the schedule?

A. A project goes off schedule because either something happened or something didn't happen. “Slip” implies something without a known cause; a kind of accident. It's “just one of those things that happens” to projects. The truth is that the sources of going off schedule are but two: (1) Something went wrong within the project management office or (2) Some outside event had an adverse impact on the project. In other words, schedules either: (1) fall or (2) are pushed. They never just “slip.”

10. Q. Time and schedule can be measured accurately; quality cannot?

A. Dollar and time measures are precise. Quality is not so easy. Or is it? Quality is in the eyes of the important beholders. That would of course be the customers. You will know how well you did by how happy they are (see Question 1). That happiness can be measured by asking them.

11. Q. “The organization does well what the project manager checks?”

A. We often hear something like, if I want it done right I have to do it myself. If that is true in a project management office there is real trouble. But since some project managers believe that, they check everything. In your job, how much of what you do every day does your boss know about? Probably very little. How often, unknown to your boss, in the last week did you do something to keep your boss out of trouble? Probably often. Then it is clear you do things well that are unchecked and you take care of the chief. So if you have chosen and developed your staff wisely, there is little need for your constant checking.

12. Q. E-mail has improved communications within the project management office?

A. E-mail has certainly added to communication attempts. We are deluged. But the problem is not just the amount; it is the receiver's inability to judge the intensity of the words. In a field test, the Army discovered that e-mail communications were not nearly as effective as voice. Picture this. The words transmitted are, “I need help.” The words themselves are merely symbols. The meaning lies in how they are delivered. They could be off hand or they could be life threatening. True communications exist only in person.

13. Q. Among other duties, it is the project manager's job to defend the project?”

A. Defending the project is the job of the person in the organization who signed the charter. A project is seldom the idea of the project manager. It originated within the larger organization. That person, or group, wants the project done and it is their job to defend it. The project manager defends the way the project is being done.

14. Q. When your project is going through a review by a panel there is no such thing as a stupid question?

A. Just as surely as “The customer is always right” is wrong (the customer who brings back the large screen television for a refund the day after the Super Bowl) so too is the comment that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Project managers get them every day. The point is not to treat them as such.

15. Q. What are the three words project managers should say more often?

A. When we are wrong we look good if we admit it. The acknowledgement of credit given where it is deserved will endear the recipient to us.

16. Q. What are the two words project managers should say more often?

A. Appreciation must be shown for every act of support.

17. Q. What is the one word project managers should say more often?

A. Project managers take on too much. If you try to please everyone, no one will end up happy. Better to cut it off early than to disappoint later. The acceptance of every request ensures the project manager's burden will be too great. If saying “No” is hard, refer back to Question 2.

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 or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA

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