How the project manager and their team can get to where they want to be

Written by: Graham Pitcher | Published:

If you’re not managing projects today, it may not be too long before the phone rings and the boss passes on the good news that you have been chosen to drive the company’s next project. So what might you expect?

Simon Naylor, head of consumer and industrial project management with Cambridge Consultants, said a project manager’s involvement can start at many points – from a blank sheet of paper to a mature design. “But what determines the success, or otherwise, of your project frequently isn’t the technical side,” he warned. “It often comes down to the project’s stakeholders, its leadership team and your ability to control things.”

One of the first things a project manager needs to understand is just who has an interest. “There are always stakeholders external to the project team,” he said. “When I first discuss a project, I hope there are two or three key stakeholders and there is access to them. Fewer than this and the chances are there are stakeholders we don’t know about. In this situation, the project is destined for an unpleasant realignment when missing stakeholders reveal themselves.”

Too many, Naylor added, and you could be in for a difficult time. “You could end up with something ‘designed by committee’ because you can’t make the necessary decisions.”

You should also hope that stakeholders talk to each other and have complementary views and aims. And one should have the authority to make quick and lasting decisions.

Before the project kicks off, talk to the stakeholders, understand who they are and what’s driving their involvement. “If there’s uncertainty, that will be an area of risk and it’s worth investing time to work out the relationships.

“As a project manager, you want to have control over what you’re promising to deliver. The worst case is when there are fixed timescales, development effort and deliverables – for the typical project, that’s a ‘car crash’ waiting to happen.”

But a project manager doesn’t have to be responsible for everything. “They will be responsible for the timescales,” Naylor pointed out, “and the deliverables. But, ideally, they will have a ‘partner in crime’ – the technical authority or lead – who will be responsible for the technical stuff.”

His analogy is a rally car. The project manager is the driver, with the technical authority navigating. “Between you, you work out the best way of getting to where you need to be.”

Another area of risk is a fixed specification. “Specs are things that are hard to make 100% complete and are prone to interpretation differences. It’s an important document and something you need the ability to work on.

“Think of it as a discussion document; one of its purposes is to extract information from stakeholders and to then get rid of possible misunderstandings.”

If you’re handed a complete spec, he added, it might be OK. “But make sure you have control over timescales and costs,” he advised. “However, when things are written down and you weren’t involved, that represents a danger area – you won’t understand why they were written down. In reality, the world is grey scale, rather than black and white, so if you have worked on the spec, you will have a better understanding of what’s really needed.”

Any project leadership team worth its salt should identify the high risk areas. “Pick them out and prototype them,” Naylor said, “or check them against the Laws of Physics to convince yourself the project can proceed.”

There are three important elements to project definition – commercial, technical and management. “All three should be represented,” Naylor asserted. “Commercial people want to sell something, technical people push functionality, while the project manager wants to deliver something. There will always be tension between them.”

Project management triangle

Naylor said there are three elements to project management and these can be considered as a triangle. “They are cost, deliverables and timescales,” he explained. “You can’t have all three; there has to be room for manoeuvre. Quality is a further issue, particularly if you’re developing a medical device. Then, the area of the triangle will become larger. You have to be able to trade these elements off against each other; if they’re fixed, then that’s a big risk.”

Project managers have to perform this trade-off constantly, Naylor continued. “If not, then it will be hard to deliver the project. But the priority at any point depends what’s driving the stakeholders. You might need to show something at an exhibition; that’s a fixed date, so development effort or functionality will need to be flexible. Remember that things change and the project will need continual discussion.”

Teamwork

One of the important factors which impinges on the success or otherwise of a project is the team. “The key thing is whether you assemble the team or inherit it,” Naylor warned. “You’re responsible for whether it functions and has the right skills.”

Be mindful of the onset of Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming and performing. “There’s a natural process through which teams go. You shouldn’t be alarmed by this and it can be useful. It’s not about them or the project; it’s group behaviour. But if you see issues, you have to step in and help to resolve them – ultimately, it could mean a change of personnel.”

A good project manager will allow the team to be custodian of the project. “If you have to drive everyone all the time,” Naylor said, “it’s exhausting, so you need the team to take responsibility. But it will be your role to ensure progress.”

Communication

“It’s everything,” Naylor highlighted. “Share things. If you see trouble brewing and don’t mention it, that’s crazy. If it becomes a problem, that will be a shock to the stakeholders. However, make sure you say what you’re doing about potential problems.”

Another useful communication technique is ‘play back’ – getting people to tell you in their own words what they think you asked for. “And write up what you do,” Naylor continued. “Do it regularly and it’s no big thing. If you’re writing something, then share it. Make sure your project continues to go in the right direction.”

Finally, be flexible. “Everything moves quickly,” Naylor pointed out. “Although many don’t like it, change is part of engineering. Without the ability to change, you’ll design a product which the market doesn’t need. But change doesn’t come for free; something has to give and small changes build up. Document change,” he concluded. “It doesn’t take long to write down the nuggets.”

Naylor’s tips

  • Focusing on immediate tasks means you neglect the future. Take time to look ahead
  • When you’re firefighting, it’s easy to stop communicating. Communication is essential
  • When you promise to deliver something, be clear about maturity levels. Does it have to be reviewed and updated? Does it need stakeholder approval? Be precise about your promises
  • Be careful when under pressure; the temptation is to focus on things you’re good at and assume everything else is OK
  • Manage change. Beware of ‘death by 1000 cuts’ by accepting lots of little changes without agreeing trade offs, extra time or budget.



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