By August 22, 2012 5 Comments Read More →

For the Love of Project Management

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“We will either find a way, or make one.” –– Hannibal

One of the most important skills I teach the people I mentor is project management.  I believe that project management skills are the key to making things happen in work and life.

If there’s one body of knowledge to study to get an edge in work and life, and to help you in all aspects of your life, it’s project management.  I’ve seen effective project management skills create productive artists, effective leaders, high performing teams, amazing individual contributors and “one-man bands.”

You can try to make things happen with hope and luck (though my one mentor always says, “Hope is not a strategy.”)  Or you can use proven practices for making things happen.  Project management is the art of making things happen.

I didn’t learn project management in school.  I learned it in the real world, taking on big, hairy challenges, and I’ve been on time, on budget with high impact for more than ten years (a few colleagues call me “the director of block busters.”)  I got to learn from some of the best project managers the world has ever known, and I deeply appreciate the lessons they have taught me.

Divide and Conquer Work with Project Management Skills

My introduction to project management was “trial-by-fire.”  I was good at making things happen each day or for the week, but I never really had to plan projects for a month or more.  When you learn to plan for projects bigger than yourself, and coordinate people and teams, your world changes. You get to see how all your little decisions add up around time, budget, resources, etc.  You learn the impact of choices, synergy, and windows of timing.  You learn to truly prioritize with skill.  You really feel the pain of bad calls, and poor judgment.  You learn to look ahead.  You learn to truly embrace and value the unique contributions of everyone in the system.  You learn to appreciate how the right processes can streamline things for you and others, and how the wrong processes can get in the way, and cripple even the best of people and teams.

Most importantly, you learn how to really look at work.  You learn how to divide and conquer it. You learn how to size it up.  You learn how to use concentrated effort to blast through barriers and jump the hurdles that stand in your way.  You learn to appreciate experience.  You learn how to venture into unchartered territory in a more effective way.

Work Breakdown Structure are the Backbone of Great Project Management

One of the tools in project management is a Work Breakdown Structure (or “WBS”).  Literally, it’s a list of the work to be done.  When done well, it is a simple bird’s-eye view or map of the outcomes (the “end-in-mind”), and the chunks of work that need to be completed to reach the outcome.  Great Work Breakdown Structures are the cornerstones of great project managers.  Work Breakdown Structures are also the secret sauce of streamlining processes and moving up the stack.  Why?  Because you don’t have to start from scratch.  For example, imagine going to Antarctica your first time without a map or a plan.  Imagine how much of an advantage it is to have the map and plan from the most experienced people who have been there, and done that.  Like any model, the map is not the territory, but it gives you a baseline.  The baseline helps you make smarter decisions when you are in the thick of things.  “Winging it” only gets you by in low-risk scenarios or where you’ve got experience that serves you well.

Project Management is the Scaffolding to Make Things Happen

Project management is the scaffolding to empower, enable, and unleash true greatness.  It’s all around you, whether you notice it or not.  If you saw Lord of the Rings, that was extreme project management.  I saw a documentary where, behind the scenes, Peter Jackson created all three films in parallel.  It was unbelievable.  Kitchens at restaurants are another extreme example of project management in action, with lots of little projects happening all the time within bigger projects.  A great chef is often a great orchestrator of the system and people to pull it off.

7 Books to Jumpstart Your Project Management Skills

I’ll be writing more on project management skills on Sources of Insight to give you the edge in work and life.  I’ll share some of my best lessons learned from the school of hard knocks and give you some of the best ways to make things happen in your life, and to take your career to the next level.

Meanwhile, here are some of the books I’ve use to grow and shape project management skills for myself and others:

  1. Getting Results the Agile Way: A Personal Results System for Work and Life, by J.D. Meier
  2. Hollywood Secrets of Project Management Success, by James R. Pers
  3. How to Run Successful Projects III: The Silver Bullet (3rd Edition), by Fergus O’Connell
  4. Just Enough Project Management: The Indispensable Four-step Process for Managing Any Project, Better, Faster, Cheaper, by Curtis R. Cook
  5. Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management (Theory in Practice), by Scott Berkun
  6. Secrets to Mastering the WBS in Real-World Projects: The Most Practical Approach to Work Breakdown Structures, by Liliana Butcht
  7. Strategic Project Management Made Simple: Practical Tools for Leaders and Teams, by Terry Schmidt

Nothing replaces having a great mentor, but even with great mentors, these books should help you build your project management skills and instantly start taking your game to the next level.

Whether you are unleashing you or your teams, get the power of project management skills on your side.  It’s among the best of ways to bring out your best in work and life.

Are you ready to make things happen?

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5 Comments on "For the Love of Project Management"

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  1. Alik Levin says:

    Hollywood project management was both moving and revealing when I was reading it. But most important it was prescriptive and actionable. I am using it a a sanity check or testing the reality.
    I look forward to more insights/post from you on how to improve PM.
    Thank you

  2. JD says:

    @ Alik — I’m thinking that this is the year I need to raise the bar in terms of sharing deeper project management skills.

  3. J.D.,
    I’m looking forward to this. I’m at the start of a project right now that is really stretching me. So, I’ll be following these posts as a kind of “virtual mentorship.” I was wondering, what very nuts & bolts advice would you begin for someone like me who is still on the starting blocks? I look out to the next 4 months and it just feels big and out of control. The temptation is to fix and control, but I know there must be a better way.
    Thanks for being generous with your experience.
    AJ

  4. JD says:

    @ Aaron — Three very important things I do early on in the project:

    1. Vision / Scope deck. I put slides that capture the vision, the scope, the goals, the deliverables, the timeline, the budget, the key measures, and the execution plan. This helps give people a sense of the journey, and confidence we can get there. I also think of a working tag line, a brief elevator pitch to easily remember how the world will be different when I’m done. This can take an hour to several days.

    2. Mind Map the project. I get with the team to co-create an overall map of the project. It’s really a top level Work Breakdown Structure. By creating with the team, everybody gets a sense of who’s doing what. This typically takes 20 minutes to an hour. It’s really a fast dump of the types of activities people will be doing, so people get a good sense of the work and help remind each other of the overall work for the project.

    3. Analysis and design workshop. I get everybody together for a week of focus up front, where everybody is immersed. We identify the stakeholders, the top pains and needs, the desired outcomes, and most importantly, the top risks. We quickly test ourselves against our top risks through quick prototypes or deep diagloues or whiteboard sessions. A great output, is a deeper work breakdown structure by the people that will do the work. I shoot for 4 consecutive days. It’s like a bootcamp.

    Between those three things, you end up with a lot of clarity, you know your big risks, you go through team bonding faster (forming, storming, norming, performing), and you know the work that needs to be done.

    One additional tip is to think of yourself as the director and your job is to set up each actor to bring out their best on the stage you are creating.

    And grab How to Run Successful Projects III, by Fergus O’Connell. It’s full of great project management advice, key success factors, example work breakdown structures, and proven practices for project management skills like reporting status, stakeholder management, getting on track, etc.

  5. @ J.D. –
    Invaluable advice and incredibly timely with where we are with our project (really, projects).
    Thanks again,
    Aaron

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