What is the difference between managing a project and doing other work? What sorts of people like doing projects and what does it take to be an effective project manager?
What Is a Project?
Projects are time-limited pieces of work, like building a bridge, as opposed to running an assembly line, which is ongoing. The differences between the two are not so clear today. At one time, ongoing work was not so closely managed, but competitive pressures have forced us to manage all work using similar skills and disciplines. Even if your work is not made up of projects, you could see every month as a project if you have targets to meet by the end of each month.
Still, projects get special treatment because they are so visible, especially high profile projects like building a bridge, making a movie or putting the first man on the moon. Not all projects are so momentous, however. Re-organizing your office is a project but no special management techniques are needed for small projects. Complex, expensive projects must meet strict success criteria that are agreed in advance between the paying client and the project manager. Typical success factors include cost, quality, user-friendliness and completion time. But, a bridge or an office building will also have to satisfy aesthetic criteria.
Project Management Techniques
There is now an elaborate technology for managing complex projects because of the vast number of resources that need to be deployed efficiently and coordinated to produce an integrated whole in line with agreed project success criteria. Effective project managers are highly organized, conscientious and attentive to detail. In addition, they are adept at managing and coordinating diverse contributors and stakeholders. While many of the skills required are no different than for any other management job, the high visibility of projects means that there is little room for incompetence or sloppiness. Because so much is at stake, the project sponsors pay more attention than they do to ongoing operations. There is no place to hide if anything goes wrong.
The Appeal of Project Management
Many people are attracted to the management consulting profession because all the work done in this industry is made up of projects. This is appealing to people who find ongoing kinds of work boring. In some jobs, there seems to be no beginning and no end. An effectively completed project provides a great deal of job satisfaction and there tends to be much more variety in project work. However, such people are often best suited to quite short projects, those that take under 6 months to complete. Also, being easily bored often goes hand in hand with being more creative than organized or disciplined. Engineering firms tend to work on longer projects and engineers generally have the organizational skills to manage large, complex projects effectively. While project work is appealing to some, it is a turn-off for others. Many people leave management consulting jobs because they don’t feel the same sense of ownership and completion they achieve in client organizations. Such people like to feel part of the whole enterprise of initiating and completing the projects with colleagues they work with on an ongoing basis.
Project Management Skills
The best project managers are often not very creative and, conversely, creative people tend to be disorganized. They get absorbed in developing a new idea, but then lose interest in the manufacture or implementation of their creation. This is why so many entrepreneurs go broke. They have the creative spark to develop a new product but not the discipline to manage a business profitably. They like the details of design but not the details related to cost, sales and distribution. Of course there are exceptions, people who are good at both. The best project managers are better at executing someone else’s idea than they are at generating their own. They enjoy the complex challenge of identifying everything that could go wrong, planning to avoid such mistakes and making it happen. Some project managers who excel on the engineering or task side are not so good at coordinating and managing the human resources and stakeholders involved. With complex, expensive projects, the project leader is skilled with people. This person employs project managers to run the mechanical side of the project.
In short, different projects require different skills. In some cases, there are ongoing conflicts among stakeholders that require the project leader to have astute political skills. Some projects are explicitly creative, as in the advertising industry, where projects need to use a mixture of organized and creative types to be effective.