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What is Project Management?

Today we are asking ourselves the age old question what exactly is Project Management?

Project management is more than just time management sheets, project status reports and the occasional rah-rah speech delivered with a slice of pizza before the next all-nighter. Team members shouldn’t accept it, sponsors shouldn’t condone it and the project managers shouldn’t do it. Yet many organisations have come to accept a strange limbo where there is enough perception of value that we keep managing that way even in the face of general frustration about not totally getting what we want from project management.


Part of the challenge of project management is that a lot of organisations still don’t understand what a project is — not in the generalised sense, but in the specific context of how project management is viewed as a desirable means of delivering particular initiatives in our organisations. When is something a project, and when is it just work that we need to do? Where does operational effort stop and project work start? What are the functions we value of our project managers, and what tools and authority are we providing to support them?

Rather than answer these questions directly and thoroughly, we latch on to new flavours and fads. We embrace a trend like Extreme, Agile or Lean Project as the solution that will finally make everything ‘click.’ These and other frameworks are typically model ideas to describe a way that teams like to work, especially in developing new products. In a certain context, in a certain environment and for certain types of projects, they are probably great. In others, they would fail just as quickly as other approaches.

There is no single, universal way of operating that involves actual, breathing, thinking human beings that will work, in all cases, out of the box. The honest answer to how appropriate and applicable any one technique would be in a given situation will always be prefaced with the words ‘It depends…’

The biggest problem associated with the challenge of making project management work lies in how we have defined project management in the first place, and how we try to practice it. The gold standard, rightly or wrongly, is the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) as defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Every other product that PMI produces, and many products and training courses in the wider marketplace, aligns with the framework of knowledge areas and process groups articulated in the PMBOK. While this is not surprising, the struggle comes when organisations try to manage a project using the PMBOK. The PMBOK is a standard, not a process. It is a checklist of considerations, not a step-by-step how-to guide. And while PMI acknowledges its role as a standard, there is a widespread perception that it is something more. There are people who will directly tell you that you can’t manage a project by the PMBOK, but there are just as many others who declare they use the PMBOK to manage their projects or demand that a project must be managed using the PMBOK. The fact that the PMBOK can’t do this — and isn’t designed to do it — falls on deaf ears.

Equally frustrating is those who hold up the PMBOK as the illustration of why project management won’t and can’t work — because it doesn’t define how to manage projects. Anybody picked up the ISO standard recently and tried to figure out how to do quality? You simply cannot get there from here. Standards tell you how to comply with the standard, not how to do great work. As a result, there are just as many bad suppliers certified ISO as there are bad projects managed “by PMBOK.” (And, frankly, just as many good ones.)

Project management, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What makes project management work in any individual organisation is defining what a project is, what project management is, what the project management function is, and how the project manager’s role contributes to delivering value and realising the project results. It doesn’t matter what process or approach you use, or what standard you proclaim to adhere to. Successful project management is the negotiated intersection of the authority we are given, the freedom we take and the educated risks we assume.

The danger in all of this, of course, is the qualifier: “it depends.” The appropriate role for project management in your organisation isn’t something that you can order from a parts catalogue. It isn’t about a book you buy, a manifesto you sign, or a standard you adopt. Successfully introducing and using project management is about the very real, very messy, and very time consuming work of figuring out what works and doesn’t for you. What authority and autonomy works in your culture? What flexibility do you need in delivering projects for your customers? What flexibility or conformity do they need for you? What requirements are imposed by the contracts you work under?

All of these questions, and many more, are what will determine what you call project management, and whether it can actually deliver results. We need to stop taking short cuts by trying to graft other peoples’ solutions onto our situations, and start figuring out how we really want to work with this thing called project management.

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