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Project management in the real world

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A project management endeavour often feels like an expedition seeking to find a safe route through unknown territory. The body of knowledge will equip a professional to know what has to be done; but in scoping, organising, pacing and undertaking the work, they must engage with others in the choices to be made and in scrutinising options. In this expert role, a project management professional will depend absolutely on their ability to manage.

What is described in books about project management and reasoned on qualification courses, address what a project professional is required to know and understand. Here standards, methodology and procedures are presented and explained. But this knowledge is of limited use in managing the conduct, resources, uncertainties, controversies and the adaptation required to implement plans that can be robust to risk and emergent issues. How well these matters are managed will determine how effectively and efficiently a project organisation will reach its goals. 

A project management regime has to assure progress: ensuring its reliability, cost-control, rework, reduced lead-times, the quality of outcomes and sometimes in managing mid-course corrections. A practitioner’s capability to manage ‘How to do it’ calls on abilities that go beyond anyone’s knowledge of ‘What to do’.

The proof is in the pudding
It lies in a project’s execution that the quality of preparation, the wisdom of organisation and the judgment of the player’s choices are revealed. It is here that we can recognise a project’s strengths and weaknesses. In the real world, what matters is the capability to execute the work, whatever the circumstances. The behaviour and conduct that can accommodate the waves of change distinguish the most able professionals. And critical to a project achieving its objectives is their capacity to tame and to harness the legacy and habits of their organisation.

A project is conducted by the players through their unique project organisation; something that can never be prescribed.  We have to be reliant, not on procedure and prescriptions, but on the resolve of the sponsor and players, their social engagement, collaboration and commitment across the project organisation. The most successful project regimes amply demonstrate this.

Unfamiliar circumstances
Project’s players – all those who share responsibility for a project’s results, frequently find themselves in places and situations that could not have been anticipated. Progress then requires skillful, informed and often spirited dialogue. Competent and productive conversations are is needed by all the players.

Critical choices have to be made; relying on the players’ social engagement and an astute professional community. Managing a project can indeed be compared to the experience of an expedition. Social engagement and collaboration between the players is mission-critical and ultimately the only way to advance the work. Projects must often make their way through virgin territory where, in contrast with a business process, many of the routes have to be discovered before they can be followed.

Players are needed for a specialist professional contribution but also for their skillful collaboration with a community of players. They have to shape both project direction and the form of organisation that each situation demands. Both community-play, as well as team-play is important; as is the thinking, leadership and individual contributions of every player.

While the competences of project players are important; ‘Complete Project Management’, a synergy born from an amalgam of methods and behaviour, maps the high ground of project management. This relies on a culture that embraces patterns of venturesome behaviour with imagination, dialogue, rigour, determination, candour, adaptability, engagement and collaboration.

Patterns of human and organisational behaviour
Reports revealing the why and how of project management successes are out-numbered by those listing the causes of project failure. My book recognises that project successes and failures can always be attributed to human and organisational behaviour, more than to tools and methodology. Through its focus on human and social factors, it offers a series of measures that will improve project reliability and performance.

Martin Price is the author of ‘The Single-Minded Project – ensuring the pace of progress’, published by Gower.

APM members can claim exclusive discounts on ‘The Single-Minded Project – ensuring the pace of progress’ and a range of Gower titles, click here for more details.



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  1. David MacLeod
    David MacLeod 09 December 2014, 08:55 PM

    Martin (and Adrian),It's difficult to argue with anything you say in your article ... especially as the title of a presentation I made to several APM chapter meetings in recent years was entitled "But in the real world ... a discussion on best practice project planning and how it can work in a deadline driven business world." ...!The cause of complexity in any project in any industry is people so I support your view that the primary focus has to be on human factors.Regards, David 

  2. Martin Price
    Martin Price 09 December 2014, 10:54 AM

    AdrianThank you for this essential 'pointer'. Best practice and benchmarking are important points of reference but experience shows them to be  rarely useful when deployed prescriptively.  It is down to the skill of the professional project management practitioner to tailor their reponse to each situation and its unique context. An uncomfortable dilemma to some people must, to a project manager, be their bread and butter!The competence of project players and the capability of their project organisation have for many years been recognised as the place where error, failure, inspiration and innovation are to be found. I am advocating that we should be very much more ambitious to strengthen these two kinds of ability. The rewards for advancing good practice through these proficiencies and the conduct of oproject players are reduced waste and costs, innovating more assuredly and creating greater wealth - reliably . Shortcomings in these arenas are surely the elephants in our professional 'room'.  Greater attention to improving human and organisational behaviour in project regimes in many sectors today surely promises the best chance for breaking out of the continuing deplorable rate of project difficulty and faillure . Martin

  3. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 07 December 2014, 12:04 PM

    Nice one Martin. How often down the years when working with clients I have heard......"this best practice...its all very well in theory, but in the real world......"My response is simply this; its best practice because its, PRACTICE. In the real world, if you do it professionally you will probably succeed, if you don't, you are very likely to fail. And they do.QED