I am reading an excellent book on project management called “Making Things Happen” by Scott Berkun, who used to run major projects at Microsoft, and then worked in their engineering excellence group. I quickly zeroed in on Chapter 13, titled “Making Things Happen” which explores what I believe project management is really about – doing whatever it takes to help the team get the job done.
How does a project manager “make things happen”?
First, one of the critical questions that should be asked when hiring a project manager, after you have checked out the candidate’s technical background, is: “If things were not going well on an important project, would I feel confident sending this person into that room, into that debate, and believe that he’d find a way to make it better, whatever the problem was?”. The team has to be convinced that the candidate can make a difference in tough situations.
The project manager’s job is to find out the priorities and manage to them. Make this list of priorities clear to everyone involved – the team must be focused on doing only what is important to success. “What wastes time on projects is confusion about which things should come before which other things.”
Set clear goals, make sure everyone understands them, followup and reinforce priorities. Everyone needs to understand what the “priority 1” list is: the list of things that must be done to succeed. Keep this list as small as possible.
Prevent miscommunications and missteps. Help people take secondary, minor things off of their plates. Resolve conflicts by driving back to the project’s priorities, the critical success factors.
Remove obstacles. Risk management is part of this of course: setup the project to minimize obstacles upfront, watch for things that could go wrong and manage them. Handle people problems. Fix the environment – make sure people can get their work done.
Be relentless. Don’t give up, don’t stop looking for alternatives. Berkun talks about the example of Apollo 13, where the team kept driving to fix unfixable problems and save the mission.
Question people (even powerful ones) and challenge assumptions. Believe that there is a solution to a problem – even if it means changing the definition of the problem. If you can’t find an answer that means that you haven’t looked hard enough.
Own the problem. Escalate, use your network, create options and alternatives. Be dead serious and fight to the end - there is always a way out.
All of this might sound over-done, over-dramatic, but I believe that this is what sets successful project managers apart – the sense of ownership, the ability, the discipline, the drive to execute.