Many of us are accidental project managers. We entered our profession with a different path in mind but we were recognized as individuals who were technically competent, focused and detail-oriented. Often we were given project assignments with little or no preparation or training in project management and we had to figure out how to use the skills we had in different ways in order to meet the different expectations of project stakeholders.
Project managers certainly need to attend to the details in their projects but they also need to see the big picture. As much as anything else, project management is about balance. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, (PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition, Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013 says that project management is “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements” (PMBOK® Guide Glossary, page 554). This definition clearly implies the multifaceted requirements of project managers. We need to be knowledgeable of the processes, knowledge areas and process groups that comprise project management. We also need to know and understand the corporate, political and communications environments within which our projects occur. We also need to know enough about the technical aspects of the project to understand the work that our teams help to define and then execute. However, knowledge alone will not enable us to deliver successful projects. In fact, too great a focus on knowledge, particularly technical knowledge, tends to lead project managers astray by encouraging too much focus on technical details to the neglect of stakeholder engagement and communications.
As with knowledge, project managers need skills — skills to apply the project management processes, skills to lead and manage others, and skills to manage ourselves, just to mention a few. The PMBOK® Guide provides a basic list of the range of interpersonal skills required to effectively manage projects in Appendix X3 of the (pages 513-515). Those skills include: leadership, team building, communication, motivation, influencing, decision making, political and cultural awareness, negotiation, trust building, conflict management and coaching. There is a close relationship between these basic skills and the knowledge we need as project managers, but skills are focused on the effective application of what we know to what is required. Attention to our skills and the continuous development of those skills is critical to successful project management but cannot make up for a lack of knowledge or over reliance on process, tools and techniques.
Often when performance is inconsistent or unpredictable, we look for a new tool, technique or both as the solution. Again, the PMBOK® Guide distinguishes between tools and techniques by defining a tool as “something tangible…used in performing an activity to produce a product or result” and a technique as “a defined systematic procedure employed by a human resource to perform an activity to produce a product or result or deliver a service, that may employ one or more tools” (page 565). Tools and techniques certainly do help us work more efficiently and consistently but they are rarely the complete answer. Looking to tools, like our project management software, to ensure consistent, predictable project performance is always a mistake because the results are determined by the skillful use of the tool, not the tool itself. Techniques are systematic procedures that we define and follow to accomplish the results required; but again, techniques are only as reliable when they are skillfully applied and followed and when the tools employed are appropriately aligned. Over reliance on our tools and techniques leads us to a false sense of confidence and often to consistent frustration with the disparity between real performance and expected performance.
Project management is all about balance. Balance in our focus on the big picture versus the details in our plans. Balance in our acquisition, application and development of the requisite knowledge, skills, tools and techniques. Balance among the major project constraints such as scope, schedule, budget, resources, risks and quality. Balance in the frequency and level of detail in our communications with our stakeholders. During the life of every project, more attention may be required in one area as opposed to the others, but over the project life as a whole, it is the ability to attend to all areas, ensuring appropriate alignment with the objectives and expectations of the stakeholders that will deliver success.
“So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact.
And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act. And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
Kid, you’ll move mountains.”
-Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!