The Perfect Project Manager

Dec 7 22:00 2001 Richard Lowe Print This Article

I've been working in the computer industry now for over 23 years. ... time, I've had the ... ... to work under ... project ... I don't mean the word ...

I've been working in the computer industry now for over 23 years. During
that time,Guest Posting I've had the unfortunate circumstance to work under many
incompetent project managers. I don't mean the word incompetent as an
insult - it's just that in the Information Technology industry, we tend to
promote programmers, engineers and analysts to management and supervisory
positions and, well, just expect them to do well.

I've never really understood how anyone can expect a person who is trained
as a programmer to suddenly be able to manage a project. It takes years and
years of specialized training to become just a good project manager, much
less an excellent one. In fact, I would say, having managed my own share of
projects, that this is one of the downright hardest things anyone can do.

Think of the skills needed to understand a project - this means the project
manager must have enough programming, analytical, design and engineering
knowledge to be able to scope out what is needed to get it done. Now, of
course, comes an even harder part - the project manager must estimate when
it will be done (and God help him if he's wrong). He must then manage all of
the other people and resources involved, keeping them on the correct track
toward reaching the target. If anything crops up, the project manager must
troubleshoot and correct it, quickly, before things get out of hand.

So what are the things that make for a good project manager?

Takes Responsibility - A good project manager completely understands that he
is responsible for the project. You will not hear things like "that's Joe's
problem" from him.

Responsibility means to be accountable for something. The best project
managers have no problem with saying "I made a mistake". The poor ones are
always looking for who made the mistake. The worst project managers find
anyone they can who can take the blame.

Is in Control - One of the absolute worst things that you can hear from a
project manager was "you were supposed to ...". Whenever I hear this from a
so-called project manager I want to scream, "but you are the project
manager - it's your job to be in control".

That's probably the key point of the project manager and his key duty. He or
she must be in control of the project. Everything must be known at all
times. Delays are understood and handled before they have a major impact.
Weak areas of the plan are firmed up with additional personnel or resources.

Has a large variety of skills - Good project managers have an understanding
of all of the components of their project. If programming is involved, then
they can program. If it's an engineering project, then the best project
managers understand engineering. This does not mean they are excellent at
those tasks - it means they understand the skills, know the language of the
technicians and have a working knowledge of the fundamentals.

This is absolutely necessary because without that knowledge, a poor project
manager will make stupid errors and ask people to do things which are not
possible or practical. This is, in fact, a fundamental reason why many
projects fail - the project manager does not understand the project which he
is managing. This causes his people to lose respect for him, and sooner or
later the project spins out of control.

Understands people - The very best project managers do not have any problems
working with people. Projects are estimated, analyzed, programmed, created,
documented, and worked on by people at all levels. Therefore, if a project
manager does not work well with people, he is fighting a losing battle.

This works on all directions on the organization board. A project manager
must be able to supervise his own people, work with consultants, handle his
boss, work with his boss's peers and boss, communicate with vendors and
possibly clients, and be able to communicate well enough with anyone to get
the job done.

Manages time - This is especially important if a project manager is, like
most of us in information technology, managing more than one project at a
time. The project manager will be hit from all sides by conflicting goals
and objectives. People will demand time from the manager, and he must be
good at using this time wisely. Perhaps the most important things are: use
meetings wisely and appropriately, minimize the use of email (a real time
waster), stay clear of politics and plan well to avoid a crisis (the worst
time waster of all).

Understands when quick action is necessary - Sometimes quick action is
necessary, and sometimes it is not. A good project manager understands when
an event is a crisis and when it is just someone attempting to make a
crisis. Sometimes these are very difficult to differentiate - but it can and
must be done.

Acts quickly when necessary - When quick action is necessary, a good project
manager does not hesitate (at least not for long) and does what is
necessary.

Understands when he must be ruthless and when he must use a soft touch -
There are times when a project manager must act quickly and decisively, and
there are others when he must be a nice person. For example, I managed a
project a few years ago which took a sudden turn for the worse. I
investigated and found out a consultant was not doing his job. I confronted
the consultant, got back severe attitude and fired him on the spot. The
project was soon back on track. On the other hand, in one instance I found a
consultant was having severe personal problems and that was the cause of
some slippage in the schedule. I immediately gave her a couple of days off
and the problems vanished upon her return.

Produces solutions, not problems - The job of a project manager is to manage
a project such that it is completed. It is not his job to create problems. A
good project manager understands this, and acts accordingly. Thus, he is
always putting solutions on his bosses desk, not more problems.

Controls deviations - For some reason, many managers love to introduce
change in projects after they get under way. This must be controlled or your
people will feel like they are shooting at a moving target which is
invisible. It's hard to hit a target if you don't know what that target is,
and just as difficult to hit something if it changes constantly. Sometimes a
project manager must be flexible - but those instances must be controlled
and the reasons for change understood.

The real measure of a good project manager is simple - his projects get
completed as specified, his people feel productive (they believe they are
contributing to something worthwhile), and the finished product (the result
of the project) is of high quality.

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Richard Lowe
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