From the outside, project management seems easy. After all, it’s just knowing what needs to be done, ensuring every piece of a complex puzzle moves at the right time, and that everyone is happy.
Oh sure, the technical aspects of project management appear to be well defined — tasks, budgets, dependencies, risks, and methods. But, a successful project manager has knowledge the technology, business objectives, and, yes, project management techniques, too. A successful project manager also must have some crucial soft skills.
The project manager navigates a landscape littered with unknowns, threading the needle through the constraints of scope, schedule, and budget, and working with sometimes conflicting needs of the customer, upper management, and team. What could be hard about that?
1. IT and software development projects are hard
Right off the bat, let’s admit that IT and software development projects are particularly hard. It’s not even the tech. You’re not necessarily building the thing, after all, so technical knowledge aside, here are a few reasons why that’s the case.
The project is usually doing something new. Let’s think about this like building a house. If you have a blueprint, then you’re halfway there (kinda). But, IT project managers often start at the idea stage. What if your architect wants to rethink the entire idea of a house — materials, layout, features, and location. That’s often what projects turn into.
If you want software that’s been created before, you can generally buy it off the shelf. But, often times you’re not building something with a clear analog, which means you need to communicate even more thoroughly with the stakeholders.
The problem and solution space are often not well understood. When a solution space is well understood, it gets captured in a framework. If that’s the case, you can use off-the-shelf development methods, hardware, or cloud-based service. It gets hard when the focus shifts to creating more complex, less well-understood things using common tools.
The customer doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want. In most domains, upfront specification documents are incomplete and far from final. The customer’s understanding of what they want will evolve and deepen over the course of the project, particularly when they see the early versions you produce.
The business environment changes as you work. The realities of global competition and rapid technological change are particularly visible in IT and software development. This contributes to the volatility of the project’s goals and operating constraints. Everything can be made obsolete in an instant — and it’s hard to pivot late in the process.
2. Organizing is hard
The project manager must ensure that every piece of a complex puzzle moves at the right time, bringing together and orchestrating the people and resources needed to achieve the project’s goals.
A project manager is much like the conductor of an orchestra, attempting to keep many people coordinated, while not playing over each other. Like an orchestra, there may be some prima donnas on the team and some panicky or reckless newbies.
But the music to be performed is not spelled out ahead of time — the team knows some of the characteristics of the hoped-for final result, but not all, and that list will evolve over the life of the project. That’s not to say project management is more jazz than orchestra. You might have to riff every so often but still remain in key.
Because projects are often complex, a successful project manager foresees approaching obstacles and repeatedly removes impediments to productivity.
Some team members can see project managers as obstacles to getting work done, or sources of useless overhead and interfering micromanagement. In contrast, effective project managers are nearly invisible, only noticed when their absence results in grinding gears.
3. Seeing the big picture is hard
To orchestrate effectively, the project manager must know what needs to be done, and how it’s going to get done. Early on, knowing the big picture involves planning: Pinning down project goals, what the project will achieve for the business; and figuring out the steps required to get there within the constraints. Thereafter, knowing the big-picture status is key to course-correcting: Tracking progress toward the goals, diagnosing problems, and implementing solutions to get back on track.
The project manager is generally not the product architect, who knows the details of what the pieces of the product must do, and how those pieces must interface with each other. But the project manager knows what the product must accomplish, and how to get it done.
The project manager must be alert to how the big picture of the project’s status and its environment are changing. This makes it possible to adapt creatively and continue to drive the project toward success.
4. The human factor is hard
People, not charts and tasks and spreadsheets, are the key to project success. As a leader, the project manager must communicate the project’s goals, keep the team motivated and in the groove, and resolve conflict.
Can a project manager ensure that everyone is happy? The project manager sits at the fulcrum, interfacing with the team, the customer, and upper management. To each one, the project manager often must represent the interests of the others. And the project manager must sometimes disagree with each of them, because the project manager is uniquely charged with the success of the project, and must be the adult in the room.
Project management is important
So, yeah, project management is hard. Things change. People leave. Stakeholders disagree. You might be operating in a blue sky environment, straightforward technological realm, or both. But the success of projects of all sorts is critical to businesses and our modern world, so successful project managers are unsung heroes and we need more of them.