We hire people to run projects. We call them project managers (PMs). We give them Project Management Offices (PMOs) to support them. Sometimes we get grander and hire Programme Directors, and we give them Programme Offices.
Together, these hardworking people produce project and/or programme plans. Beautifully drawn diagrams that show an even flow from task to task. From project inception all the way to go live and lessons learned. Tasks linked by lines that all move forward showing steady progress to the goal.
But we know projects aren’t like that. Any real project is more like a well-written crime novel. Something by Jo Nesbo.
You think you’re following along and realise he’s lured you into a dead end. You backtrack and think you’ve got it, only to find he’s hoodwinked you again. You loop the loop, trying to figure out where it’s heading.
The only that flows steadily onward in a project is time. Everything else goes forwards, backwards and, very often, sideways. Tasks that you thought were done turn out not to be. Tasks that you didn’t need yesterday become critical today. Next week’s tasks are already redundant, replaced by new ones that you’ve just made up.
Project boards manage on a monthly basis. They review risks that will never happen. The real risks are the ones being dealt with every day – on a scale of “shit we need to get this done else we’re going to slip” to “if we don’t get this done by the end of the week we are toast” and plenty of more emotional phrases in between.
The real skill of a project manager is how they react to those crises. How they handle ten at once. Or a hundred. How they cope with significant uncertainty – paddling furiously under the surface whilst remaining calm, like a swan, on the surface. And how they know when to ask for help because, if they don’t, they will sink.
It’s a rare skill. It’s one learned in the doing. Not on a course, or from a book (although “the mythical man month is totally worth reading). You learn it when you get things wrong and have to recover. You learn it by taking risks, some of which pay off. You may be Prince 2 certified or a scrum master or an agile practitioner … but can you actually make it happen when it counts?
Most of what you do the project board will never see. Their eyes are on the rear view mirror – “what progress did we make last month?” Your eyes are on tomorrow and what could go wrong and likely will go wrong. Your eyes are around the next corner looking for trouble.