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Putting the Project Manager in the Driver

A project manager’s training, skills and techniques serve to accomplish one major objective; to provide the project manager a vehicle to successfully attain a goal or target. As with any vehicle the operator must have some training to maneuver and control its progress. The vehicle itself provides no guarantee of reaching the destination or of successful goal attainment. Vehicle quality may also have a bearing on the overall performance and experience. It is the driver that must determine the direction, the route and the rate of speed given the vehicle’s characteristics. Such is the case with project management.

A project manager’s training is relatively well defined. The training or vehicle, so to speak, comes in many shapes and sizes with different levels of performance. Suffice to say that vehicle specifications are generally standard in that there are basic requirements to creating a mode of transportation. Not unlike a project manager’s training. There are basic requirements in a PM’s training that are relatively standard. Take the PMBOK for instance representing the specifications to assemble a knowledge-based vehicle for the project manager to utilize. Once mastered it requires that innate or learned ability to take that vehicle and embark on a journey towards a goal. In most cases, as the project manager/driver, you will have passengers who rely on your judgment and will experience your abilities as a driver and leader. On occasion your passengers or team members will have some input that you may wish to consider in your journey.

This brings us to the next level of a project manager’s development, which deals with maturity and ability. Not all trained drivers can master a vehicle with ease, so too is the case with project managers. A fortunate few are born with an innate ability and reach their comfort zone relatively easily and quickly. The vast majorities are left with a time of trial and error and sweating the details until it becomes second nature. Many of us struggle to get the feel of it and find ourselves constantly challenged in an effort to achieve balance from project to project.

Armed with training, experience and a few times at the wheel you tend to organize your mental stimuli on each project to determine what needs your attention most, when is it needed, and to what level of involvement it is needed. It helps also to determine what requires little of your attention. Consider your progress as a driver: As you became more adept and mature, you tended to focus on the aspects of driving that got you safely and expeditiously to your destination. During your initial days at the wheel, you read each and every sign posted and followed every marking so as not to miss any details. In some cases this attention to detail affected your progress, or may have even got you lost, which left you exhausted and consumed when you finally arrived at your destination. Similarly, with project management we must achieve a level of maturity from the knowledge and experience that helps us zero in and ”feel” the project, not just read all the dashboards and reports to reach conclusions.

There are some basic steps to acquiring a comfortable level of maturity. It takes a well-trained eye and a bit of experience to develop to this stage. Following an in-depth and clear understanding of the undertaking, the PM will recognize three aspects that play a leading role in determining the project’s “feel”. The first aspect is Awareness. The second is Priority and the third aspect is Urgency. (APU).

Awareness involves information gathering. It requires early stage analysis of scope, data, documents, contracts, organizational structures, politics, personnel and whatever details may be available. As the project develops through its stages so does the requirement to become aware of each added feature to the overall scheme. Awareness is primarily a quantitative analysis. It requires some judgment but also requires considerable understanding of the role each piece of knowledge base plays in the big picture. This step gives you the basic raw materials needed to assemble the framework from which you will build your model of management. You will, in all likelihood, have a checklist of standard features you feel are required to complete your model of how the project should be managed. You may introduce features such as scheduling or cost control, or you may find that your model requires expertise and, therefore, additional resources. After completing this stage of knowledge absorption, the next step is setting the priorities.

Priorities involve identifying those features or activities you absorbed in the awareness stage, which will create a “no go” situation in your overall progress if a non-compliance should occur. A non-compliance can be a delay in progress, a missing document, or an unfulfilled step in the process. As a project manager it becomes crucial to identify these potential non-conformances and devote additional attention to them to prevent them from crippling your program. It serves to make efficient use of the PM’s time, thus avoiding excessive effort on non-essential activities. In many cases, a well-defined network schedule or cost plan is very useful in identifying these priorities. However, in several instances the plan may not hold enough information to be useful in all cases. Take for instance a departmental political situation that may be affecting a judgment call crucial to the project. In another instance a minor unresolved engineering detail may delay a larger issue of information, or a financial foul-up could stop activities due to lack of funds. Being fully aware of the critical aspects allows the PM to surgically focus his attention. In addition, it is vital to document and communicate these priorities and focus on them during meetings and dealings with members of the project team. This increases the team’s awareness and places more eyes and ears on the potential problem, which then leads us to the aspect of urgency.

Urgency is the level of effort that will be injected into each feature of your program or project, based on its priority. Urgency must be measured very carefully to avoid the “cry wolf” syndrome. The PM with his awareness stage completed, his priorities determined and with his judgment in tact will then decide how hard to press on the throttle. It is this aspect of his responsibilities that may determine the success or failure of the project. Urgency is generally preceded by a decision to act in some form. Similar to driving a car, reckless or indiscriminate use of urgency fosters fear and distrust thus loosing the support and confidence of those who you need most to achieve success. Applying urgency appropriately and justifiably helps build trust in your judgment and confidence in the actions needed to resolve a crisis. It also helps you attain maturity and respect.

In conclusion a project manager needs formal training in the skills of PM but must also develop a sense of awareness, priority and urgency to apply the skills learned and needed. This sense quite often is the result of trial and error through one’s developmental stages or via a mentoring program. Experienced managers generally recognize the difficulty in transferring this sense, or savvy, to new managers since, having spent years developing this intangible in themselves, they often feel that only time and practice can help develop it in a new PM.

Robert Mattia is a project manager and operations manager with The State Group International L.L.C, which is embarking on a joint venture business development with S.S. Lootah International in the UAE. He has been with The State Group for the last 14 years and possesses a Bachelor of Technology from Ryerson Polytechnical University (1978) with a major in Project Management. He is a designated A.Sc.T. with the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists, and holds a Certificate in ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution).

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