This is the logic often used in appointing project managers:
Major Premise: The best project managers create project plans.
Minor Premise: Bob created a project plan.
Conclusion: Therefore, Bob is one of the best project managers.
But then Bob’s project becomes a train wreck and Bob and the project team are clueless as to why that happened or what should be done. The problem was in the approach to project management. Let’s go back to the major premise that was used.
The best project managers create project plans. There are several flaws in this logic. First, although it is true that the “best project managers” create project plans, there is no statement about what the “worst project managers” do. In fact, many of the worst project managers also create project plans. And some of those project plans use all of the latest forms, templates, software and are full of excruciating detail.
Second, the “best project managers” do much more than just create project plans. They execute their project plans. They regularly do status checks and risk reviews. They manage the stakeholder interactions and project teams wisely and well. It is an ongoing continuous set of interactions that are not part of planning – but are necessary for success.
Project plans come in all levels of accuracy and completeness. Project plans that are based upon incorrect assumptions about resource availability, technical capability, or stakeholder interactions are doomed from the start. I have seen many books and courses on how to do project planning. They often gloss over some of these points and instead focus on things like the format of the WBS or critical path calculations. If the underlying assumptions about the project conditions are wrong, everything else in the plan is just a fantasy.
Project management gurus often talk about the need for upfront planning in a project. The focus of that effort should not be just the technical planning activities; it should be identifying and testing the assumptions and constraints. There are assumptions about business conditions and assumptions about project objectives. There are constraints on resources and constraints on project options. If any of these are missed, it can destroy the validity of the best formatted and calculated project plan.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple (or even complex) equation that can be applied to identify and test the assumptions and constraints. Rather, the project manager must meet with the stakeholders and ask probing questions about goals and risks. They need to determine how much support the stakeholders will really provide to the project – it is just cheering on from the side lines, or will they dedicate time and money. The project manager needs to determine realistic resource capability and capacity, regardless of what is promised. These activities require cross-functional and multi-level communication skills. It is one of the hardest things to teach technical professionals. One of the most challenging aspects of this activity is that you don’t know if you did it well until the project is over – which may be months or years later.
A project plan is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for excellent project management. The plan must still be executed – or at least a variation on the plan must be executed. Inevitably, something unexpected happens. The project manager must be regularly pulsing the project to recognize the change and make the appropriate adjustment. A project manager who blindly follows a project plan, even after a risk or issue has invalidated elements of the plan, can lead the project into disaster.
In addition to regular updates and adjustments to the plan, the project manager must interact with stakeholders and team members to ensure appropriate decisions and actions. In many cases the project team members are matrixed onto the project team. They still have other responsibilities, often simultaneously working on multiple projects. The project manager must keep them engaged and focused. This usually requires strong interpersonal skills and negotiating skills.
The stakeholders who are involved in project decisions can delay and derail a project if they are not engaged regularly and kept informed of the project status and project risks. Stakeholders often change during a project. The project manager must bring the new stakeholders up to speed. The stakeholders often are looking at the “big picture” in the business and the project manager is often focused on “immediate details.” If the project manager is not careful, the project communication will actually confuse and irritate the stakeholders. A good project manager is able to switch between the perspectives and effectively communicate and manage both “big picture” and “immediate details.”
The Real Logic of Project Management
So let’s review. An organization that only focuses project managers on creating complete and intricate project plans will likely be disappointed in the actual project performance. A good project plan is needed, but the most important aspect of planning is to understand and account for the assumptions and constraints – not just filling out forms and spreadsheets. Then once the plan is in place, the project manager must stay flexible to modify the plan when appropriate. And the plan is not enough; the project manager must engage the stakeholders and team members to keep things running smoothly and achieve project success.
This leads us to a new logical statement:
Major Premise 1: The best project managers create project plans based upon realistic project assumptions and constraints.
Major Premise 2: The best project managers adapt their plans throughout the project to reflect changing conditions.
Major Premise 3: The best project managers interact with stakeholders and team members regularly to ensure alignment and appropriate actions and decisions.
Minor Premise: Jill creates project plans that are based upon realistic assumptions and constraints; she modifies them to reflect changing conditions; and she regularly interacts with stakeholders and team members to ensure alignment and appropriate actions and decisions.
Conclusion: Jill is one of the best project managers.