Thursday, June 3, 2010

Project Management? Yeah, I do that too

Time after time I've been asked "What do you do?" and I have a hard time trying my best to explain what exactly I do... Project Management is not all that easy to explain to some people working in the area, so how do you explain it to someone who doesn't know the first thing about it? How do you explain it to your kids at home? Here's a possible dialog:
- Kid: Dad, what exactly do you do at work?
- Project Manager: Well son, dad's a Project Manager.
- K: Yeah, I know that. But what do you do?
- PM: What do you mean? I manage projects, that's what I do...
- K: Ok, and what is a project?
- PM: Err... a project is what dad manages...

I don't think you can explain what Project Management is without recurrence, that is, you'll have to go through what a project is so you can explain what project management is.Thus, Project Management is managing projects. And a project is...?

Well, you can define what a project is in many different ways, the safest way to go at it is saying that any project must have 3 components in it:
- something unique as a result
- a temporary effort
- a continuous effort

So a project can be almost anything, right? Yeah, that's about it. And also, everyone is doing projects. Developing a new product, building a house or some piece of software, putting a satellite on orbit or some medicine on the market in the form of a pill, you name it... those are all projects. And what is *not* a project? Well, if one of those three conditions fail then you don't have a project. So what is not a project?
- Having dinner is not a project (probably you have dinner everyday, right?)
- Your kids are not a project (they're not really temporary, are they?)
- Your next vacation is not a project (probably you don't make a continuous effort on it)

But why do these examples look like projects? Actually, there are a few reasons but the main ones are:
  1. They share some of the components of projects and so they have some of the same needs. Making dinner, for instance, is temporary and is a continuous effort. Agree? But it takes the 3 components simultaneously in order to have a project. Nevertheless, some of the needs are the same and they can range from making sure dinner is ready on time to plan your vacation so you get to see and do what you wanted to.
  2. And, depending on context, these very same examples of non-projects can turn into real projects: if you're making a special dinner like a dinner party for your wife's 40th birthday that's actually something unique with some unique end results - and so dinner can be a project, depending on the context.
And this take us a bit further on understanding what Project Management is (that is, beyond that Project Management is managing projects) and it's all about these needs. You can read all about it any Project Management book, but in short these are (skip this part if you just want to get the juicy parts out this post):
  1. Human Resources: You have to get someone to do the work. You can do it yourself sometimes, but someone has to do it - always. Who will do it, will people be happy to do it, these are some of the things you have to think about.
  2. Scope: What are the project results? What will it deliver? You have to make sure that you know what you want to get at the end. Is dinner going to be pasta? For how many people? Does everyone like pasta? Are there enough seats for everyone at the table? What needs to be done?
  3. Quality: Will these project results fit what started the project in the first place? You can make dinner just to feed yourself and the family but you can also want a dinner party because it's someone's birthday or you can do something really elaborated for fun, to please your senses and the senses of those coming for dinner. It looks like the same dinner dish can't really workout in all these different contexts, doesn't it?
  4. Time: Who is doing what needs to be done? How long will it take? When will it be done? What needs to be done first?
  5. Cost: How much money do you need? And when? Do you have enough money for that?
  6. Procurement: You'll probably need to buy some stuff for dinner. Do you have all the tools needed? Who has the stuff you need to buy? How long will it take to buy it? How will you decide where to buy the stuff from?
  7. Communication: Does everyone know what to do? What time is dinner starting? And where?
  8. Risk: What can go wrong? What can be done in order to prevent that? What will you do if something actually goes wrong? Can you buy pizzas if dinner is burned?
Now these needs are all interconnected, each of them depends on several others directly, and so you have entropy set in. Add people to that and entropy becomes what is technically called a chaotic mess. And so (drums rolls, please...):

Project Management is the art and science of making a mess workout right.
In short, mess management.

And the people making sure that the mess works out are Project Managers (or mess managers). Which brings us to a distinction that's so hard to explain: if Project Management is so complex and complicated as it looks, then Projects Managers don't really have the time to do work on the projects they manage so they actually don't do project work - and when they do it they perform poorly (both as project managers and as team members).

Bottom line is: everyone has a mess to clean up sometime, so everyone is really a project manager and could benefit from knowing a bit more about the tools, skills and processes involved - what works most of time. The only difference is that professional project managers are those that make a living out of making messes workout right, they just do it more often then others - and hopefully have more experience and knowledge than the others so they do it better.

Bringing this to a conclusion: anyone on this planet who is a project manager (professional, part-time, amateur or even not knowing that he/she is a project manager). And if you know where you stand and what you need to know to get better at it, than you can know how to improve and...
Then you can be a better project manager!

Images taken and adapted from Project Cartoon.

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Bill Dow said...

Great article... Thanks....

Bill Dow said...

Great article, really enjoyed it.