Getting project management "out of the box"

Introduction

How many people know what you do? Beyond your fellow project managers and outside of your close family, who really understands what “being a project manager” is all about? Possibly even your close family wave goodbye to you each morning without really understanding what you actually do.

Taking project management “out of the box” will spread the word outside our community about what a great bunch of people we are and how project management is a skill that is valuable to pretty much everybody.

We should appreciate how we are seen from “outside” our project world, and we should also understand which of our many skills are ones that others would value.

I want to shout to the world about project management and tell about all the great work that I and my fellow project managers do—but is the world listening?

The Web has a number of definitions for project manager:

  • A professional in the field of project management
  • The person with authority to manage a project
  • The person responsible for the project
  • The individual or body with authority, accountability, and responsibility for managing a project to achieve specific objectives
  • The individual in charge of the progress and performance of the project on behalf of the project owner.
  • The individual accountable for all aspects of a project

Ask the average person to define project manager, and if you ask that he or she answer as quickly as possible, the chances are that that person will reply as follows:

“Someone who manages projects.”

or

“What is a project manager?”

So in other words, the person is not likely to show a great deal of enlightenment, but to be fair, project management is hard to explain, isn’t it? How do we describe to other people, people outside our closed world, exactly what we do and why what we do is so important? And how do we make it sound exciting (unlike the web definitions we just reviewed)—because it is exciting, after all, isn’t it?

Project Management is Important

How Important is Project Management?

“With one-fifth of the world’s GDP being spent on projects this year, clearly business isn’t just about operations anymore. Competitiveness, innovation, talent—these are the things you’re worrying about every day” (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008).

That is about US$12 trillion!

That is really important.

The whole world is affected by project management, that’s for sure!

On one hand, we have faced the global recession, with all the impact that this has had on people and business, and, on the other hand, we are a dynamic, resourceful, and ever-evolving world that demands change as part of its survival. Change demands projects, and projects demand project managers.

We have a history littered with significant project failures, although there have been spectacular successes as well The Standish Report 2009 clearly shows that history may well be repeated in many cases.

Now is the time when it is most critical to succeed, and to succeed with a higher level of certainty than in the past, because those projects that will be commissioned in the future, as well as the ones that are allowed to continue in the current climate, will be expected to deliver higher business impact, be under closer scrutiny from senior management, and be under far more pressure to succeed.

And guess who will be the one that is under the most pressure? The project manager!

Very important?

So it seems that we, the project managers of the world, are pretty important in the scheme of things. Usually we are not dealing with “matters of life or death,” but our work is nevertheless still very important.

So why does it remain so difficult to explain to “outsiders” what we do?

A good statement to remember here is perhaps this one: “Project management is a verb, not a noun.”

Getting “Out of the Box”

Can You Name Three Famous Project Managers?

If you were asked this question, you might well be inclined to give the following answers:

  • Science and Art: Leonardo da Vinci
  • Engineering: Isambard Kingdom Brunel
  • Manufacturing: Henry Ford
  • Military: Attila the Hun
  • Cultural: Nelson Mandela

But then again, while these persons may be considered “geniuses” or “leaders” in innovation, they may not actually represent good project managers.

Brunel stated, “I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.” So, as we can see, he was no fan of rigid discipline but rather allowing for innovation and development.

Da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” This is not exactly in line with our project closure theory.

Ford declared, “I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.” Again a very open and flexible approach is desired.

Attila the Hun probably came up with some great quotes, too, but unfortunately they weren’t recorded for posterity.

But why even try to name three famous project managers? Well, to demonstrate that most names that you will come up will in fact be famous for other reasons and not actually for project management per se. I know that we could probably come up with three names; I would perhaps suggest Dr. Harold Kerzner (IIL), Dr. David Hillson (Risk Doctor), and Rita Mulcahy (PMP Prep). I could certainly add to that list, as I’m sure you could as well, but the point is that outside of the project management field, these people are essentially unknown. No one within our project world has yet been universally recognized (as yet). It is “all about” the project and not the project manager.

Even the book The Lazy Project Manager (Taylor, 2009 ) has not yet reached that level of fame.

Does Everybody “Do” Project Management These Days, Then?

Perhaps projects are recognized more than project managers because project management is just a commodity? Maybe everybody “does” project management now?

We know that project management is fast becoming the preferred way for companies to get things done. In a global economy, project management will make a company more competitive than the traditional methods of managing work. All managers today need to understand the dynamics of projects, together with the skill and process of project management (the verb), in order to make the most of their organization’s investments.

So, is project management no longer a niche capability, the home of project management office members and external contractors? Is it now a core skill that all executives and senior management need to understand?

I recently conducted a survey through a LinkedIn survey (poll), where that very question was asked—“Is project management a core skill and no longer a niche capability?”—to see what a wider community of business people thought.

Three hundred forty-seven people responded to the survey and I am grateful for their time and consideration, as well as for the follow-up comments that many people left for me to review. These respondents represented a good mix across all business areas, job roles, titles, genders, and age groups.

The Answer(s)

Survey summary

Exhibit 1: Survey summary.

In the overall results, there was a fairly even split between the answers “a core skill” and “both a core skill and a niche capability,” with a smaller number believing that it is “a niche capability” only. But I guess it would be fair to say that the survey contributors were divided in their views, and strongly divided in some cases based on the comments exchanged.

Gender played no part in these results; both men and women shared almost identical views on the question, and job title seemed to influence the results in a small way only. Differences in age accounted for the most significant differences in answers.

Age analysis

Exhibit 2: Age analysis.

The majority of respondents were in the 25–54 years age range, and the younger the respondent, the more likely the viewpoint that project management is a “core skill” or that project management is not a “niche capability.”

The most consistent argument that can be made is that project management methodology is a “core skill” that all managers need to be aware of, but that the actual project management activity is still a “niche capability” that requires additional training and experience in order to be successful.

Managing a small, simple project is no big deal; most people can do it. Managing a large, complex project with substantial risk, diverse stakeholders, a geographically distributed team, multiple constraints, and high stakes, however, is best reserved for real experts.

The successful business of the twenty-first century recognizes the value of “niche” project managers working under a supportive executive who has a foundation of project “core skills.”

So does that mean that project management should be understood by a wider audience than it is today?

When Will I Be Famous?

It’s Magic

A project manager asks his administrator what two plus two equals. The administrator states in absolute terms that two plus two equals four.

The project manager then asks his accountant what two plus two equals. The accountant states in relative terms that two plus two equals four plus or minus.

Finally, the project manager asks his project controller what two plus two equals. The project controller turns off the lights, walks over and closes the blinds, sits down by the project manager and whispers, “What do you want it to equal?”

Give a project to a good project manager (supported in all the right ways with sponsorship and resources, etc.), and “magic happens.” So then why can’t the skills of the project manager be appreciated by the general public? We should all be famous (if not rich) by now.

Others Do It

There is a growing trend in the United Kingdom, originating from the United States, I believe, wherein children are encouraged to take their parents to school to talk about their jobs.

I have never been asked to go in to my children’s school!

They have had a policeman in, who no doubt talked about road safety and not talking to strangers; they have had a nurse in who talked about healthcare issues and how to look after yourself; and they have had a fireman in to explain about the dangers of fires and what to do if you are in such danger. These are all important and seemingly (to children) exciting jobs. But project management is neither apparently exciting nor do project managers wear a special uniform (something I’ve noted that the people who have been asked to the school to describe their jobs have in common).

Should we perhaps design an interesting uniform for project managers? We already know that we are exciting.

But consider this: We can easily state that “doctors make people better,” that ‘policemen catch bad people,” that “builders make homes,” that “authors write books,” that “movie stars make films,” and so on. But we can’t say “project managers manage projects” because that doesn’t tell people anything. We all know what that means, but my children don’t, and my friends don’t, and “Joe Public” doesn’t know either.

So This Is Where We Are

The Current Situation

Our description of project managers can be summarized as follows:

  • We are generally good at what we do
  • We are generally successful in our endeavors
  • We are getting better all the time
  • We do deliver “exciting things”
  • (We are mostly nice people, I’m sure)

So how can we get “out of that box” and into the spotlight so that the world in general can understand us and what we do?

It is Better Than You May Think

Take this easy test—the numbers no doubt will change all the time, but these are the results I got when I tried it (12 March, 2010).

Google “project failures” – I got 33 million hits.

Now google “project success” – I got 85 million hits.

Encouraging, wouldn’t you say?

Google “sad project manager” – I got 1.9 million hits.

Now google “happy project manager” – I got 41 million hits.

Nice.

And when I googled “nurse,” and then “fireman,” and then “policeman” and added the hits together, I got a total of 96 million hits, but when I googled “project manager,” I got 205 million hits.

Very nice.

Be proud and be happy

So all in all, we have a great deal to be both proud and happy about; so let’s be proud and happy about it!

Being a project manager is a great job, whether you intend on pursuing a project management career or whether you intend to move into a business role within a project-based business. Projects should never bore you; each one is different; and each day brings new challenges and interest. You will never stop learning those lessons.

Finally Reach Out With What You Do

Consider doing some or all of the following in order to help yourself (and project management in general) get “out of the box”:

  • Tell people you are a project manager. Don’t be shy; be brave and “come clean” about your job. You are not doing anything that you shouldn’t be loud and proud of.
  • Have that “elevator” speech ready when people ask you what you do. But whatever you say, don’t say, “I’m a project manager, I manage projects.” I recently asked the question “How would you explain project management to an alien from outer space,” and one of my favorite answers came from Penny Pullman: “Getting something new and exciting done with a group of people!”
  • Speak at non–project management events. In my role as “The Lazy Project Manager,” I have begun to speak more and more to groups of people outside project management, and you know what? They like what they hear about projects and project management (and about project managers).
  • Network with a broad group of people—again, outside project management.
  • Start some LinkedIn discussions such as my “How-would-you-explain-project-management-to-an-alien” one; you’ll have some great interaction with people from all over the world.
  • Twitter and blogs and Facebook and any and every social networking mechanism that works for you.
  • Offer your services outside of your work; you will find that many volunteer organizations are crying out for your projects skills—even if they don’t know what they are.
  • And, finally, why not scare your kids and go to that school or college day and talk about your exciting role of project manager?

You are a “Project Management Superstar”

I still want to shout to the world about project management and tell about all the great work that we do, and I want you to join me in that “shouting”—be loud and very proud of what you do. It is both essential and exciting.

Taking project management “out of the box” will spread the word outside our community about what a great bunch of people we are and how project management is a skill that’s valuable to pretty much everybody.

You are a “project management superstar” (definition: “someone who is dazzlingly skilled in any field”)—so don’t just get “out of the box,” but climb up and stand on it while you let everyone know just what you do and what you are.

You are a project manager.

“Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”
Chinese Proverb

References

Project Management Institute. (2008). Operations vs. projects. Retrieved March 11, 2010, from www.pmi-projectimpact.org

Standish Group, (2009) CHAOS Summary 2009, Boston MA: Standish Group

Taylor, P. B. (2009). The Lazy Project Manager: How to be Twice as Productive and Still Leave the Office Early. Oxford, UK: Infinite Ideas Limited.

Taylor, P. B. (2010). Success and projects. Retrieved March 12, 2010, from www.thelazyprojectmanager.com

Taylor, P. B. (2010). Is project management a core skill and no longer a niche capability? Retrieved March 12, 2010, from http://asapm.org/asapmag/articles/PMCoreSkills.pdf

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.

© 2010, Peter Taylor
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Milan, Italy

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