What The Hell Is Project Management, Anyway?

“Project management” can sound like everything and nothing all at once. We spoke with a project management pro to clarify what it really means to get people moving in the same direction.

Project management seems like a classic chicken-and-egg career conundrum: How do you prove you’re adept at managing projects if you haven’t worked as a project manager? Beyond that, what does project management really entail, and how is it different from, you know, being a manager? And what tools do the pros actually use, since there seem to be a new one released every week?

To better understand some of the managerial speak around project management, I spoke with a 20-year veteran of the field, Frank Ryle. He’s worked as an international project manager for Arup International, managed construction and operation of the first Cadbury Schweppes factory in Russia, and now trains and teaches project management. Ryle analogizes project management to a nine-hole golf metaphor in his book, Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros, available now as an ebook and due out soon in paperback.

In a phone interview, Ryle was, well, frank, honest, and eager to clear the clouds of vagary away from a field he’s worked in for most of his adult life.

Fast Company: Where did project managers come from? Have they always been around, just under a different name? Were they just good bosses?

Frank Ryle: Project management was just a thing you did, a job you had, but nobody wrote about it just a little while ago. You weren’t a ‘Project Manager’ in the 80’s and 90’s, but when something went good or bad, everybody else stepped backwards, and you were the one left. Project managers were the only ones who could talk about the process, not just the product. And, usually, you were the person who had the charm to do it.

Where do project managers traditionally turn to for education and improvement?

We all mostly learned by doing it. But after a while, it was the PMI (Project Management Institute), and particularly the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge). That’s a big book, and written for insiders. What’s that saying–once you put it down, you can never pick it up again? Since the first version, in the late 1990’s, it’s grown to about 37 official steps. It’s the de-facto bible.

My book is a simplification of that. One way of putting it is, if David Allen is about Getting Things Done, this book, and project management generally, are about getting bigger things done.

Let’s say you want to get project management experience, but you can’t really get that kind of leadership chance at work. What’s a good way to start expanding your skills on your own, maybe in spare time?

Everybody has projects now. Lots of people have projects in their work, they just don’t know it. Software has automated a lot of things, but not goals, resources, and products. That’s something you can find in all kinds of work.

What kind of person makes a good project manager?

You should be comfortable with ambiguity. You have to be willing to reshape the rule, the process, whenever things change. It’s really important to be comfortable with people too, different cultures, so much of business being international now. You’ll be called to walk into a situation where you don’t know the people you’re working with, maybe not even where, or their genders, and say, ‘How do I work with these people?’ You’ll have to create a bit of a roadmap for yourself, and, hopefully, be likeable enough to get by.

There are lots of tools out there, but it seems hard to know if one works until you’ve run through a project. How can someone make a good choice?

Use a tool if it suits you. And it’s a natural impulse, really. I’ve seen people set up big company-wide Microsoft Project installations, only to use it just to create simple Gantt charts. Don’t rush out and buy a Swiss Army Knife. If you hire a carpenter and they come to your home, you can ask them if they use a Swiss Army Knife, and they’d laugh at you. They’d have a good hammer, a good saw, a screwdriver. Some of our gadgets and software try to do too much. But some tools are great, and they’re getting better. We have, I’d say, another five years before we see the light with our software.

What do you mean by that?

There are people who get lost in projects, but we never know. People will ask them, ‘How’s this project going?’, and the response is, ‘I’m fine, but what have you heard?’ We need tools that are like a GPS in a car–they take information from three or four satellites, or, in this case, multiple clues. Software that’s aware of everything–the weather outside, price estimates, maybe even politics, in international situations.

So technology isn’t something that’s made project management necessarily easier, overall?

I think technology has given us a wonderful communications tool. But it’s made us more efficient, not more effective. There’s a difference: Remote working has put us in a position of having to impress our bosses, giving constant feedback, which is not what every project manager wants. The point of getting somebody to do something is to get it done, not to have them impress you.

When you wanted to get a team working on something back when, you’d get them together in a room, they’d pass bits of paper around, and they’d get it done. Once software actually gets us to that condition again, then we’re effective.

What’s one of the best tips you’d give someone managing their own projects, maybe in their off-work hours?

In project management, too many people don’t create a WBS, a work breakdown structure. They have a schedule, and they have a budget, and neither are accurate. You create a document that’s just the work, with names, the amount of work, estimates on the time for the work.

You’ll hear (as a project manager) people say that, if they had known all the work that would be involved in every step–deliveries, committees, approvals–their estimates would have been better. The WBS will make you better.

BY Kevin Purdy

(Note: Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

[Image: via Frank Ryle’s Amazon page]

Follow @KevinPurdy, and @FastCompany, too.


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