Help for the Incidental Project Manager

Sept. 1, 2004
No matter what your job, one day you may be called upon to head up a project team. Will you be ready?

"Congratulations," says the boss. "You’re the new project manager."

Whether that’s happened to you or not, there may well be a project management assignment in your professional future. More companies today are adopting project management disciplines for a wider range of business activities. And as noted by author Stanley E. Portny in the opening chapter of the book, “Project Management For Dummies” (Wiley Publishing Inc., 2001), “…the majority of people who are becoming project managers aren’t doing so by choice. Instead, project management is often an unexpected but required progression in their chosen career paths.”

Career payoffs

For many, however, project management is an excursion that can pay off. “We pull our project team leaders from a variety of disciplines, mostly engineering, but also from manufacturing, marketing, and in some cases, services,” says Mize Johnson, director of new product development processes at Pitney Bowes Inc., in Stamford, Conn. “And in fact, it’s a really good growth opportunity for people. Even if it’s not your lifelong career goal to be a project manager, it’s still one of those things that is generally considered to be a criteria for a lot of other positions.”

Increasingly, too, project management is also becoming a full-time career destination. The Project Management Institute (PMI), a 135,000-member organization based in Newtown Square, Pa., reports a recent explosion in the number of individuals seeking certification as Project Management Professionals (PMPs). Since 1997, when the Institute counted about 6,400 PMPs on its roles, the number of certified PMPs today has jumped more than thirteen fold to more than 87,000.

A growing number of the largest companies are setting up and maintaining formal project management departments or offices, staffed by professionals who primarily spend their time managing projects and developing internal project management standards. General Motors Corp., for example, employs a staff of 300 to 500 to oversee manufacturing projects, which range in size from $200 million up to $1 billion or more, says Larry Esterline, executive director of manufacturing program management for GM Vehicle Operations.

But countless other individuals in a variety of industries find that the ability to manage projects effectively is just one of many skill sets needed on their day-to-day jobs. These so-called “incidental project managers” are showing up more often today in project management training courses sponsored by employers, points out author Portny, whose company, Stanley E. Portny and Associates LLC, in Randolph, N.J., offers project management training.

“More business activities are being seen as projects than in the past,” says Portny. “I think that people are recognizing that a project is not only just a large, official, highly budgeted undertaking, but that almost every assignment that is handled in the workplace, when you look at it, satisfies the criteria for a project. And if you want to be more effective in how you deal with all of your work, the principles of project management can help,” Portny observes.

From a corporate perspective, improved project management skills by employees translate to bottom-line advantages. In a survey of 100 senior-level project management practitioners conducted by the Center for Business Practices, the research arm of Project Management Solutions Inc., Haverstown, Pa., more than 94 percent of respondents stated that implementing project management skills added value to their organizations. Average improvements on the order of 50 percent in project/process execution, 54 percent in financial performance, 36 percent in customer satisfaction and 30 percent in employee satisfaction were noted by the companies surveyed, according to J. Kent Crawford, PMP, and James S. Pennypacker, in a paper presented at a November 2001 PMI seminar.

Planning Pitfalls

PMI breaks project management into five basic processes—initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing—each with a well-defined set of sub-processes generally recognized as best practices. Plenty of information is available in the formal literature, including PMI’s “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge.” So for this story, Automation World set out not to exhaustively cover project management skills on a step-by-step basis, but rather to provide some high-level starting points and tips for the “incidental project managers” who may one day find themselves heading up a project team. We touched base with a number of industry sources, including full-time and part-time project managers, as well as industry consultants.

When these people are asked about the most common reasons that projects fail or run into problems, the answer heard most frequently relates to the upfront planning and requirements portion of a project.

“One major to-do is to always make sure that all of your requirements are documented. Make sure that everybody signs off on every little detail, because if you don’t, you end up with what is called scope creep, where people come in at the end of a project, and say, ‘Oh, this looks great, but I also want this and this and this,’ ” points out Chad Lane, director of marketing and operations for the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), a Dallas-based organization that provides peer networking for young corporate leaders.

Lane, based in San Francisco, manages a YPO engineering team, among other responsibilities, and often finds himself heading up Information Technology (IT) projects related to the organization’s Web site. “If you don’t make sure that every interested party is involved during the requirements phase, you can get caught in that black hole of never finishing a project,” Lane warns.

Dennis Smith, chief executive officer of CompanySmith Inc., an Uxbridge, Mass., project management consultant, agrees that the upfront stages of a project can be critical. “More projects fail on account of unclear or conflicting requirements than for any other reason,” Smith declares. Smith recommends that his clients begin with a high-level requirements document that touches everything within a project, and then decompose that document down into more and more detailed requirement sets—typically down to two or three additional levels.

“The things that can go wrong are that people don’t understand the requirements, they haven’t bothered to write them down, the requirements are ambiguous, or they’re terribly uneven,” Smith observes. In some cases, teams will document the requirements for one part of a project in excruciating detail, while neglecting other parts of the project.

Notoriously unglamorous

In a control system project, for example, critical aspects include the power supply and grounding, Smith notes. But because these items are “notoriously unglamorous,” they often get neglected during requirements planning. “People want to work on the glamorous things—the human interface, the software architecture and the highly visible design chunks. So those will get defined in detail,” Smith says. “But if you don’t have your power supply, your power distribution and your grounding right, you can run into untold problems later on.”

Pitney Bowes’ Johnson can also attest to the value of the correct level of planning. When Pitney Bowes did some detailed comparisons of projects completed at the company, it found that good project management practices can save from 25 percent to 35 percent in the amount of time required for a project. What accounted for the savings?

“A lot of it was just doing better planning,” says Johnson. “What we found was that a lot of teams were doing plans that were either too detailed, or too high level,” he explains. “So if there was one lesson from that, it’s that your level of planning is absolutely critical. It needs to be high enough so that people can see the forest instead of the trees, and yet, you need enough visibility to have something that’s actionable.”

During his training sessions, Portny advises that successful project management is often as much a shift in attitude as it is in practice. And at Greene, Tweed & Co., a Kulpsville, Pa.-based manufacturer of high performance seals and components, executive Dick Watson says he’s seen the light. Since the company recently participated in the first of three planned training modules provided by Portny, Watson says he’s already noticed a change in employee attitude and behaviors—including his own.

“My thinking has sharpened about how I approach every project. And it’s not just the large projects. It’s the small projects too,” says Watson. “For example, when one of our executives asked me to do something recently, I sat down and wrote a one-page statement of work, in terms of what the task was, what the objectives were, and what the tactics and strategy were to get the work done in the timeframe.”

Prior to undergoing initial project management training, “I wouldn’t have done it that with that much discipline,” Watson concedes. But by going through the thought process up front, and by clarifying the success factors between the project sponsor and the person performing the work, “it increases the probability that both people at the end will say that what you did was successful.”

Watson’s title at Greene, Tweed is Bold Future Instigator, Facilitator and Coach, reflecting his role in overseeing an initiative launched at the company in late 2001 known as “Our Bold Future.” Spawned by “dissatisfaction on our chairman’s part with organizational performance,” says Watson, the Bold Future initiative amounts to a corporate transformation program that incorporates multiple components, including an effort to improve project management skills throughout the company. Greene, Tweed hopes the training will provide an antidote to projects at the company that too often run late and over budget, while failing to achieve expected deliverables, Watson notes.

Successful project management involves strong people skills, of course. “When you look at the skills needed for a project manager, leadership is one that I always home in on,” says Jim Parshall, automation engineering team leader at Eli Lilly and Co., in Indianapolis. “It’s the ability to provide clear direction to the team and to motivate the team, especially when people or the teams are in a time-stressed or resource-constrained environment.”

GM’s Esterline agrees, and adds that a certain dedication level is another necessary ingredient. Openness and honesty are key in earning the respect of team members, he says, along with good listening skills. “And you’ve got to have a will to want to do it,” he adds, “and have a strong fire in the belly to be the catalyst to drive the organization beyond what it thinks it can do.”

Indeed, according to Portny, project management in its simplest sense comes down to attitude and behavior. “It’s an attitude that says, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to succeed on this project.’ If you don’t have that attitude on either a large or small project, it doesn’t matter what kinds of systems you use, because you won’t have successful projects, and you won’t have effective project management.” In terms of behavior, “it doesn’t mean that you have 14 forms completed. It does, however, mean that you take the time to clarify information with people when you talk,” Portny says. That means communicating clearly.

Consultant Smith also stresses that clear, open and honest communication is key. “That’s probably the cornerstone of teamwork,” he says. When a project leader looks up one day and is surprised to see that a project has slipped by six months, it’s a sign of inadequate communication. “Projects don’t slip by six months or three months or one month at a time. They slip an hour at a time,” Smith points out. “And it’s good communication and teamwork that let you prevent those hour-at-a-time problems, by working around them and neutralizing issues when they come up.”

Effective communication can become more difficult when project team members are geographically dispersed, particularly when different time zones, languages and cultures are involved. Many large companies have been involved in offshore and global projects for years, but with the recent trend toward outsourcing, many small to mid-sized companies are getting their first experience with global projects. This makes the need for clear, upfront project requirements even more imperative.

Today’s Web-based project management software tools can help. While a large number of project management software products exist, most sources agree that the dominant market share is held by Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., with its Microsoft Office Project 2003 product suite. “I’d guess that about 75 percent to 80 percent of the people with whom I deal have Microsoft Project available for their staffs on their networks,” says Portny.

At Microsoft, William Lyon, technical product manager for Microsoft Office Project, confirms that the market has moved beyond use of Project by individual users on the desktop to the wider use of Microsoft’s Office Project Server solution for project collaboration. Geographically dispersed teams can access project information using the browser-based Project Web Access component. “Now team members can see their assignments and update their timesheets and status,” Lyon says. “This also means that project information is more up to date.”

While most agree that project management software can make life easier for team leaders in terms of scheduling and managing projects, it is not an end-all. “The software is definitely a tool that can help, but if you can’t figure out how to run your project, then having the tool is not going to solve your problem,” as Pitney Bowes’ Johnson puts it.

Many industry sources also stress the importance of management support and buy-in to the success of a project. Again, communication is key.

“A lot of it is making certain that management understands the technology that you’re using, why you’re deploying it, and if the project happens to be slipping on schedule or on cost, what the causes are for that,” observes Lilly’s Parshall. Lilly has a program called “Tech Eye for the Business Guy,” he says, by which engineering team members meet periodically with management, sometimes one-on-one, to help fill in gaps in management technology understanding.

The project manager’s job often also involves “taking the heat,” Parshall points out, both from management, when a project is running late or over budget, and from team members, when unpopular decisions must be made. When the heat comes from management, Parshall recommends finding a way to redirect the energy. “Management will probably be more frustrated at a situation than at an individual or the team,” he notes. So providing data that explains exactly where a project stands and why, and a plan for getting out of the situation can help, Parshall says.

Some decisions—ranging from mandating weekend work, to cutting back the scope of a project due to a funding or time shortage—may be right for a project, but unpopular with team members, Parshall adds. “Teams sometimes get very frustrated and they may blame you as the leader. And that’s not necessarily bad,” he says. “You don’t want them blaming each other, because that would do nothing but slow down the project.”

In the end, points out Smith, it is good to remember that every project is a tradeoff among investment vs. end date vs. feature set. “Things happen during projects, and it’s very rare that you can get entirely through a project without trading off one or another of those,” Smith reminds.

Remember, too, that attitude is key. As GM’s Esterline puts it: “An outstanding project leader is one who is enthusiastic. You’ve got to believe,” he says, “because if you don’t believe, trust me, your team won’t believe either.”

See sidebar to this article: Becoming a Certified Project Management Professional