Most projects aim for a positive outcome of some sort, and can offer things like employment, economic benefit and empowerment. They are also an opportunity to meet and work alongside people who may come from very different backgrounds and life experiences – which encourages us to step out of our comfort zone and challenge our own perceptions and biases. That can only be a good thing. I would never have considered going into project management or construction – I only took the job so as not to be rude when I was asked to do it and now I’m a Chartered Project Professional; project management was the best decision I ever made.
I took A-levels in Latin, Greek, Maths and Physics and a degree in Classics at the University of Birmingham. Not the most obvious route, but that’s what’s so unique about the project profession – projects are everywhere. I worked part-time in admin for the NHS and took a management role in my local NHS Trust (Solihull Primary Care Trust) when I left university.
Six months later, I did a secondment to manage a project to get the Trust reaccredited as an Investor in People (IIP). My dad was working in projects at the time, so it seemed like something interesting to get involved with. After successfully obtaining IIP reaccreditation, I was asked to manage a building project through the procurement and design stages, and never really looked back.
The first building project I was involved in was a sample scheme for Birmingham and Solihull Local Improvement Finance Trust (LIFT) so it wasn’t just about delivering a building; it was also engaging with three bidders and evaluating all sorts of things from HR to legal aspects, to health and safety, to selecting a private sector partner. I had pretty much no direct experience at the time – six months of project management and nothing in construction, but my managers and peers put their faith in me, which gave me a lot of confidence to get stuck in and hold my own.
Don’t be put off by anyone saying you don’t have the experience to be a project professional – you are already delivering projects even if they’re not badged as such. Have you organised a day out, party or holiday? That’s a project. Worked on a new song – or covered an existing one – with your friends in a band? Made dinner? You get the idea – they all require basic project management skills – being organised, planning, obtaining input from others, making decisions etc.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re starting out in project management:
- Listen to people and try to be patient. Everyone wants instant gratification and a lot of the time, systems and processes just won’t allow that. It’s important to find out what the key driver is for people you work with and be innovative in making things happen - don’t put unnecessary obstacles in the way.
- Stay optimistic. Picking up a project part-way through is always challenging as you need to find your feet quickly and figure out what’s happened before. You can’t easily unpick it, even if you disagree with something, so focus on what you can do. These projects can be daunting, but they are particularly rewarding – if the client hasn’t had a great experience to date, it’s amazing how the small, seemingly simple things we do restore their faith.
- Being open and honest is key. It’s never nice delivering difficult messages but people appreciate knowing what’s happening and are much more willing to work as a team to find the best way forward.
- Being organised is also important – a lot of the work will be delivered by others, but you need to keep a handle on what outputs are required and when. Also balance your own priorities – for example, I can often have 10 to 15 projects on the go, and I need to know what’s happening in all of them so I can focus my involvement where it’s needed most.
- Be proud of what you do. I absolutely love the fact that with a construction project you get a physical, tangible outcome and it’s always a good experience visiting a building that I’ve helped to deliver. One of my recent highlights is probably delivering temporary accommodation for a school to open in September, despite there being no real plan in place when I took the project on in June. It wasn’t the easiest, and it went to the wire – the night before opening – but there was an enormous sense of satisfaction in the end.
The project profession offers lot of variety so look into the different areas and see what interests you but keep an open mind. There will always be projects – ultimately even something as basic as preparing your dinner is a project.