The past few years have seen an accelerating pace of change, from pandemic related changes to global economic forces, and organizations are responding by enhancing business processes and technology to maintain market and competitive position. The ecosystem of services and technologies has become more diverse and distributed, increasing the complexity of change. Business processes now include more participants, entities, and geographies, and modern technology architecture includes the use of a wide range of cloud-based micro-services and application programming interfaces (API) to create digitized processes. Successfully effecting change in this distributed environment requires a new level of coordination and collaboration, and a strong project management culture.
Over the years the project management role has evolved from activities that were simply added to a manager’s normal duties to a dedicated role allowing focus on specific change initiatives. As part of this evolution a lot of literature has been published describing methodology and techniques, much of which suggests that the art of project management can be distilled into simple mechanical activities. While the administrative aspects of project management – tasking, scheduling, issue tracking, and status reporting – are very important, they are only a small part of the role. The most important aspects of project management are problem solving, collaboration, and communications.
The Core of Project Management
Project management must mobilize and coordinate the efforts of multiple teams that have a variety of needs and objectives, overcome obstacles, make adjustments, and provide a roadmap while keeping everyone informed. This requires expertise in three critical areas:
Problem solving – is a key aspect of project management and what differentiates it from project administration, which consists of the mechanical components. Every project starts as a research exercise to determine who will be impacted, who needs to contribute, what processes and systems will need to change, what vendors will be involved, and what risks need to be addressed. After a plan is established and adopted, the process of making adjustments and overcoming obstacles begins as unanticipated issues arise and the details and exceptions to the plan emerge. Anticipating changes to the plan is a key aspect of project management and continuous contingency planning is a hallmark of experienced managers. The reality is that no plan, no matter how well researched and conceived, will be accurate and comprehensive through the life of a project – there will always be adjustments and it is critical for the project manager to anticipate and quickly coordinate these changes across the impacted teams. The ability to anticipate potential issues and needed adjustments, and find solutions that meet the needs of all the impacted teams, is the core of problem solving.
Collaboration – is a combination of identifying all the impacted people, or stakeholders, determining how they will be impacted, and incorporating their requirements, constraints, and perspectives into the broad plan in a way this is consistent with the considerations of each other impacted team and overall project objective. This is probably the most time-consuming aspect of project management and requires a variety of skills including negotiation, interviewing, facilitation, presentation, and patience. It is important to recognize that each stakeholder is on a spectrum of effort and benefit and that this will impact their level of engagement throughout the project. For example, stakeholders that must expend effort but receive only modest benefits are likely to engage differently than a team that will receive significant benefit.
Communication – is the glue that holds project management together, encompassing messaging to all impacted teams about the nature of the impact, expectations, and required participation. Status reporting, executive reporting, and tailoring messages to specific audiences to maintain engagement, understanding, and support. Much of communication is translating information from one team to another in a way that is understood by the receiving team. It is important to develop communications in a form and format that can be easily consumed and understood by all the impacted teams. Experienced project managers will often use templates to ensure consistency of communications, but it is equally important to ensure the content of the messages are accurate and easily understood. Some of the most common communications are charters, designs, issues, and status. Each of these are extremely important as they establish a common understanding of the effort and progress toward the objectives. For issues, it is important to clearly describe the underlying problem- as opposed to only a description of the effects of the problem- as well as specific teams and efforts that will be required to resolve the issue. For status, it is important to focus on accomplishments – as opposed to activities, obstacles to planned progress, and an accurate assessment of the impact to planned completion timelines.
These three focus areas will help any project manager navigate challenging projects and create successful outcomes, and can be applied along with any of the myriad of project models or techniques that the organization has selected.
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