Identity, power and relationships matter. Project management is a multifaceted tool that can help you manage yours.
I have been blogging on project management since - holy cow - 2005. You would think by now that I would have this question answered. And once upon a time I did. And then I learned more and I didn’t again. And then I learned more, and I was able to answer the question again. And today I am not so sure. The lessons are never ending, but there are probably a few fundamental truths at the heart of it.
Let me start with looking at what a project manager is.
Am I a project manager? I am a person with multiple aspects to my identity. There is work me, parent me, partner me, son me, friend me, blogger me, chaotic social networker me and more. Project management is one aspect of my identity. I do it as a job sometimes, and sometimes I do it as an activity within a different job role. Sometimes, I am not a project manager at all.
So I might be a project manager, depending on what I am doing and where I am when you ask me. Or I might not. I suspect the same is true for you.
Job roles, and the related characteristics of identity are an award of organisational power. It’s pretty good to have a power job title when you want to influence other people with their identity wrapped up in their ideas of power and control at work. It gets you access to other people in power, particularly the ones that manage the status quo.
Project management can bring power, yes. But not on it’s own. You have to step up and take it. You have to be there. You have to have a point of view. You need confidence in yourself with these people or you’ll get dismissed and probably never be able to recover until you change companies or departments.
Fortunately project management gives you a toolbox of things to be an expert in, which people have come to value over the years. I am not sure whether people value these competencies for any universal reason, but the project management industry has done a good job of selling the benefits of bringing in a project manager who does formal, recognized Project Management Things.
For a while I suspected the fundamental value of a project manager was the ability to manage forward estimates. We do this differently from other people. We apply disciplined and arcane planning and estimating practices that factor in things like past performance, uncertainty and risk.
This is a particular differentiation from a normal 'non-project' manager, because things like managing, processes, and products are “normal” management activities. I learned that when I read the PMBOK years ago. Normal management was out of scope of the Body of Knowledge, because it was standing apart from normal management. Not because normal management skills such as listening to staff and helping them be successful were not things to be done, but because they were considered ‘default’ behaviors.
Paying attention to people, the ones on the team, and the clients and customers we work for, is our main job. It’s not an explicit part of the project manager lore, but it is the most important thing we do at work. As people doing work with people for other people, we need to improve our skills in listening and understanding. While that’s not exclusive to project management it is tied inextricably to what we do. How can we be successful in the work we do without paying attention to people.
As project managers, we need to understand what motivates our staff and what our clients and customer value. To do that we need to know them, to spend time with them and to understand them. A critically important idea is that we need to learn to connect with our customers and understand them better.
The other, lesser, but still important parts of project management are to bring discipline and technique to planning, forecasting and managing uncertainty while the project is underway. These are useful things, but not sufficient in the context that matters; providing value for our clients. And yet, they are things you must excel at if you are to call yourself a project manager.
By building these planning and managing skills, you earn yourself a place in the discussions about what does matter to the organisation and to it’s customers. You will be invited to bring project management competencies and knowledge to the steering teams and client discussions that are highly valued and affect the strategy of your company. You will also participate as a human, not just a role. You will have the opportunity to bring your other knowledge and experience to the discussions. You will influence their decisions about what to do and how it should be done on both your and other projects. You will get to use your influence and place in these discussions to help the team be successful, by providing advice to partners and clients or brokering understanding across networks of people involved in the project.
What does success look like? Success comes before the end of the project, but not at the beginning, although you might have early clues about your chances. For me the beginning of a project provides an opportunity to feel success but you won’t be sure.
You know that frantic insanity that Hunter S Thompson opens Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? That sense of overwhelming paranoia? Anything and everything could go wrong, and you don’t know where the problems are going to start, or where they are going to come from. To me this is exhilarating and exciting. And important. It gives you urgency and mission. You just don’t know whether you’ll be able to beat the system or not, but you know you have to get started… now.
After a while, you knock out some wins and the project starts to build a rhythm and produce a set of valued outcomes. You’ll have some credibility with your clients and partners. You’ll have tested the delivery environment and understand the your chances of success and the various risks that will get in your way. If project management can be likened to a game, you’ll feel like you know the rules.
Success manifests in the people around you; the team are confident and regarded as doing a good job. The client and stakeholders feel informed and included, and part of a broader team. Success is palpable. Confidence is in the air. There's a noticeable lack of stress and worry. People are talking about value, and opportunities rather than risks and problems. You’ll know it when your there. You’ll feel it.
And when you consistently nail your projects this way you are ready to tackle the next level - bigger, tougher environments, more complex problems. And you start afresh, knowing that success is not an indicator of who you are, but a score in a game. And you’ll have the quiet confidence to go to work on these problems because you are constantly testing and challenging yourself to grow and be a better player.
You know that project performance doesn't mean you, as a person, are a success or failure. Your value as a person is something else. Your projects all deliver value in one form or another. Your job becomes one of generating mutual understanding about value and options rather than rushing to a deadline. Your personal successes will be measured in the relationships you form with people, with the value you see created from bringing people together and in helping the world around you navigate change.