To begin with, project managers themselves evolved from the whips-in-hand task masters of the Pharaoh and Emperor into multi-skilled architects, engineers and artisans of the Renaissance who were often expert at all three kinds of work — think Leonardo and Michelangelo, who were well-rounded engineers as well as outstanding artists.
Then project management itself was transformed, first by the great civil construction projects of the 18th and 19th centuries like the Panama and Suez Canals, but then most dramatically by the Second World War. That’s when necessity — in the form of mega military projects like the Battle of Britain, Bletchley Park, the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the Manhattan project — reinvented project management from managing things to the process of making those things, or activities, come to life. And once proven on the battlefield, project management soon became a buzz term of post-WWII boardrooms as more and more commercial benefits of effective organisation became apparent.
The result was this: a comprehensive, structured and disciplined approach based on scientific research and principles (not intuitive processes) needed to organise huge quantities of resources and personnel to achieve critical objectives, and within specific timeframes. Enter the modern project manager, or PM.
Sounds complicated? It is — and it isn’t
It may sound complicated because it’s hard to explain exactly what a PM does, and any definition can sound vague, be easily misinterpreted and, sometimes by very large organisations, simply not understood at all.
So what does a PM do, and do you have what it takes to be a PM? Let’s look first at the requisite skills.
- Can you juggle? If you cannot, meaning you prefer to work on big tasks, one at a time in a focused, linear manner and not on lots of little tasks, stop reading now. Project management is not the job for you.
- Are you good at the video arcade game Tetris, or Rubik’s Cube? I ask because managing large, complex projects is like one gigantic logic puzzle. You have limited time and never enough resources. PMs must prioritise, fitting activities together along a critical path if they’re to achieve their goal on time and without blowing their budget. Added to this is another level of complexity: a PM may often have many projects in the air at the same time, not just one.
- Are you a jack of all trades? While it’s great to be an expert, general knowledge is essential for a PM to guide, coerce, coordinate and communicate with others who will invariably have widely differing skills and specialties.
- Can you see the forest, the trees AND the wood? PMs need to be able to see the big picture, stay focused on the finish line and, at the same time, not lose sight of the devil in the detail.
- Do you have a second language? Good communication is more than speaking clearly, it’s a four-way street. Effective PMs speak well, write clearly, listen thoughtfully and read Omit any one of these core abilities and you run the risk of an entire project unravelling.
- Are you a good team captain? To manage a project is to have almost total responsibility, being a natural leader, team player and firm decision-maker. In project management all the vagaries of team leadership are in the mix from playing well with others and dealing with players who drag the chain to taking one for the team if things go belly up. For better or worse, you’re in charge. That said, the P in project management could easily stand for “people” and it’s important to remember H.E. Luccock’s quip, “No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra.”
- Are you an Excel freak? You don’t have to be obsessive about organisation but a Zen-like affinity for using spreadsheets and Microsoft Project, as well as a love of organisational tools like Google Calendar, Evernote, Taskforce, Nirvana and Backpack, certainly helps.
No matter what type of project and whatever the industry, the above qualities are invaluable to a PM, so if you answered “yes” to these seven questions chances are a rewarding career in project management is right for you.
From here on it’s not particularly complicated. At the basic level, you could read one of the best books ever written for the layperson on project management, Agile Project Management: How to Succeed in the Face of Changing Project Requirements by Gary Chin, and of course there are many more sources of information freely available.
If you’re more serious about developing PM skills, TP3’s two-day Introduction to Project Management course is an obvious choice. There you’ll learn strategies for creating a positive project team environment, what tools to use and how to use them to track and monitor a project, how to develop risk management and communications plans, and, well, lots more. Plus TP3 offers valuable training by way of related courses such as Leading Change, Influencing Skills and all-important training on Microsoft Project.
And if your plans are really, REALLY serious you’d wise to visit the Australian Institute of Project Management, or AIPM, for full-on certification and access to a federation of over 50 national project management associations around the world. While you’re there, check out the Project Management Body of Knowledge, the de facto bible for project management professionals.
One final point about what project management is NOT: it’s not that only some people have an innate ability to become a PM and others do not. At the end of the day what a PM needs is the ability to make things happen, and one person can apply their particular skills and talents to move projects forward while another cannot — even if they have superior skills.
The difference is knowing how to be a catalyst and having the courage to be that catalyst. If that’s you, the world needs you. Good luck!