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25 September 2013

Jon on "What does project management mean to me?" #PMFlashBlog


I honestly have mixed feelings about project management, the very idea of projects, and the role we now call project manager. They truly are a great jumble of meanings, emotions, opinions, and mobilising forces. Overall they probably are ‘Goods’ in Aristotelian ways. What I mean by that is that through the practice of project management individual project managers feel an increased sense of happiness and achievement, and so do, generally speaking, the stakeholders of projects. Anyway I thought I would take this opportunity to muse a little on the powerful influences of projects, their management, and their managers, and what this all means to me.

On the project

Evolutionary science could describe the concept or idea of a project as a ‘weak force’. In and of itself the concept of a project is a small matter. But when you play it out in the minds of a phenomenally large amount of people it has a big impact. None of us really truly believes that there is a thing called a project. It’s just a way of thinking about work that we can’t or choose not to approach in an operational way. It’s a way of thinking about work that we don’t want to, or can’t, put on a production line. The project is a ‘thinking algorithm’ about work. But just because you can’t hit it with a hammer doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Consider the metaphor of an invisible cord which is often used by teachers of ballet to correct the posture of a young dancer. The dancer is told to imagine an invisible cord running up through their body, from their toes, out through the top of their head, and up to the sky! Consequently, the dancer’s behaviour is changed and their posture is considerably improved. However, both teacher and dancer know that the cord does not really exist. The invisible cord is just a ‘thinking device’ or ‘thinking tool’, which when used produces behaviour that proves to be beneficial to the dancer and the teacher. Imagine how ridiculous it would be to argue and defend the cord’s various dimensions and parameters. We wouldn't argue about the dimensions and parameters projects and complex projects and agile projects. We wouldn't set up a whole discipline about how to manage invisible cords… I mean projects, would we?

Nevertheless, the concept of a project does generate behaviour of enormous proportions. If millions of people run this thinking algorithm in their heads it literally begins to change the shape of our modern world. The advent of steam allowed the factory to move away from the river system. The concept of the production line and its optimisation revolutionised manufacturing and production. And couple all this with the microprocessor and organisations have been able to break free of all physical bounds. The production environment is no longer in one geographical space. It can be in many, and it can be mobile. The concept of ‘the project’ has played a significant role in the liberation of production. Steam released us from the waterways. Projects have released us from the production line. However, it is this last point that creates a tension in manufacturing and production which is difficult to grapple with. Resolving the tension is perhaps not the solution, whereas learning to live with it is. More about tensions shortly.

On project management 
A very simple rationale underpins project management. It stems from the thought that project work cannot look after itself, therefore it needs managing. At a superficial level project management is the application of a bunch of tools that have been adapted from other disciplines to apply to a body of work that can’t quite be handled in an operational manner. More sophisticatedly, projects coupled with project management, are a way for an organisation to structure itself so that it can flexibly adapt to its environment; speculate with new products or services, or make improvements to the current production capability. But with this flexibility comes a lack of control.

Project management has also given rise to the role of the project manager. After all, who else will apply the project management tools and attempt to manage the project. And thus a new niche discipline is created; the managers of projects.

On the project manager
The lot of a project manager is not an easy one. They have more in common with project managers in other organisations than they do with employees in their own. They share common burdens. They don’t completely fit in with the organisational structure, but they are absolutely and completely necessary. To a certain extent their work is unplannable and hard to control, but they are expected to plan and be in control. They work in a world of largely guessed at estimates, yet they are held accountable to budgets. They can be paid good money, but work is not always guaranteed. They can be deemed as responsible, but often have little decision-making power. And when they are able to make decisions, how should the project manager know what the right or good decision is? What decision-making framework should they use? Should it be what’s right for the project, or what’s right for the organisation, or what’s right for the client, or what’s right for themself and their career? Should it be a combination of these or just one? The project manager lives in a world of tensions and dilemmas.

And so to tensions
For the modern organisation to be fit to survive its environment it needs to hold together as a cohesive group yet it also needs to be flexible enough to respond and change with the various competitive pressures it faces. It needs strong governance, but not too strong. It needs structure, but not too much structure. It needs to be stable, but not too stable. It needs to present as confident, visionary, and self-assured, but it must be able to renege on its vision and plans if needs must and its survival is threatened. And where does the project manager live? They live right in the middle of all this tension. They are pulled between the fruitful opportunities of serendipity on the project front-line and the powerful gravitational like forces of the structures of corporate governance. But let us not forget that project managers like it.

So to me true project management is an individual response to the taunting forces in modern work. And it is the project manager's way of handling the tensions as they all have somewhat unconquerable souls.