The iron rule of project management takes a minute to draw on a flip chart (see figure below) and about the same time to explain. It’s unforgiving and unbending, but that doesn’t stop people trying to bend it all the time.
The explanation runs as follows. There are three things that matter in any project: time, cost and quality. You may prioritise one or even two of these, but always at the expense of the third. You cannot prioritise all three at the same time. The word priority is different from ‘important’. Priority implies ranking and ‘consequences’ for the lower ranks.
Embrace this rule and quite a lot of stress simply falls away: yes, it was a s**t job, but there was no time and no money; or, I don’t care about your deadline, it’s not ready until it’s ready; or, hang the budget, I want this project to make a statement.
Fight this rule and it is quite likely you will end up sabotaging your own project. I’ve allowed myself to be pressured into trying to have all three objectives at once on a couple of occasions. One occasion I recall in particular. A colleague and I planned out a restructuring programme that we thought should take 6 months. The project leader suggested that to keep the pressure on ourselves we should announce to staff a process that would take 4 months. We didn’t adjust the quality of our implementation and ended up taking 6 months. However, the staff and their unions felt, with a high degree of justification, that the process had been a failure. Too many missed deadlines conveyed a sense that we didn’t know what we were doing and, worse, might be acting in bad faith. An already disgruntled staff were prevented from focusing on the future because all attention was turned in towards the failings of the implementation. It is one of my deepest career scars because it ended up reflecting badly on me. Had I held my ground, either by accepting the revised deadline and making necessary adjustments to the quality of implementation or refusing to accept the accelerated deadline, the implementation would have been satisfactory.
A couple of clarifying notes are needed. Firstly, it is entirely possible that the areas you choose to prioritise will change over the life of a project. The iron rule applies at any particular moment, it does not apply evenly over the life of the project. Also, the term ‘quality’ is less clear than either ‘cost’ or ‘time’, which are unambiguous. ‘Quality’ refers to the project’s objectives. To be more precise, it is the degree to which the project implementation adheres to the original brief, in spirit as well as in the letter. A poor quality job falls below the minimum of what was expected. The important thing to realise is that ‘delivery’ of a project is rarely completely binary, in that it either works or it doesn’t. For many projects there are plenty of shades between, barest minimum, satisfactory and excellent.
Getting things done
There are lots of techniques (see below) to help project managers but they are of second-order importance next to the character of the project manager. Specifically his or her ability to get things done. Such people blend the following skills:
Willingness to take ownership. The first among all skills, this ensures that you will worry about the project when no one else does. It means you take responsibility and are content to live with the consequences. Showing leadership in this way means you will get criticised if the project fails and have the lion’s share of the credit if it succeeds.
Bias for action. When faced with a problem, some people freeze; others charge off in a panic; still others call for a meeting, or for more information. Whatever your own style, it must solve the problem. Stop laughing, you’d be surprised how hard some people find this.
Doing whatever it takes. Ah, even if you have the first two skills, you might struggle with this, especially if you have already achieved a certain seniority or status. If a project calls for someone to lift a shovel and start digging, and there is no one immediately to hand, then you must start digging.
Influencing. Project management involves persuading people with a hundred other things to do today, to work on your project. It’s a form of torture because although you get the sole blame if the project fails, if it succeeds, all these people who you had to beg, bully and cajole step from behind your shadow to claim their share of the credit. It’s unfair, but there it is.
Project Management Techniques
Some project managers eschew process all together, relying entirely on their own personality. While I admire the person that can carry this off, and I am a firm believer it is people not processes that make projects work, I nevertheless find some basic techniques of organisation are necessary:
These are a staple of project management. The full-fat Gantt chart is quite a complicated model that estimates the time and resources necessary for each task, noting which tasks are contingent on completion of an earlier task and, in so doing, shows the ‘critical path’: the route along which a delay in any single task will delay the completion of the whole project. It also highlights where there are spikes in resource requirements that need to be ironed out either by overtime and/or recruitment, or just need to be re-planned.
If you are building a bridge, or any construction project, you need this full-fat model and there are specialists that do nothing but this type of work. These are the sort of people that find MS Project user-friendly! There is however a Gantt-chart ‘lite’ that I use which is nothing more than a list of tasks and the time associated with each. I used a spreadsheet for the example below.
To be honest, I find the initial preparation of a Gantt chart to be more useful than I do its subsequent use for any other purpose. It is the discipline of thinking through the minutiae of different tasks, there logical arrangement, length of time and inter-relationship that I find helpful.
There are two other aspects of a Gantt chart to draw attention to. The first is re-planning when your project hits a delay. Having estimated a task will take two months and you haven’t started it yet, then you should shift the timeline forward two months from when you now think you will be realistically begin. Often people try to squeeze the time tasks will take in an effort to stay on deadline. Sadly, this often results in nothing more than unnecessary stress. Better, if you can, to admit the delay, take the reputational hit, and do the task properly as you’d originally planned. Too often I see people pretending they are still on time, doing a sub-standard job, and getting delayed anyway. They end up taking a double hit to their reputation.
The other useful technique of a Gantt chart is to ‘red line’ the chart showing in a nice visual way, progress to date. Red lining involves dropping a red line down from the current date and, where you are ahead on a task the red line juts forward, and where you are behind on a task, the red line juts backward. For tasks that are still in progress this involves you making an estimate of the degree of completion of each task.
The difference between a project ‘manager’ and a project ‘director’ is often related to the amount of stakeholder management involved in the role. In a commercial company, where the stakeholder might be just one stakeholder (chief exec) or group of stakeholders (Board), stakeholder management might involve nothing more than a monthly report. In public sector projects there are normally a large number of stakeholders, each having influence on the project, but each wanting something subtly different from the project. Sometimes the wishes of two stakeholders are in direct conflict with each other and cannot co-exist. In such projects, there can be so much stakeholder management involves it feels like the project manager is engaged in nothing more than a shuttle diplomacy.
What is stakeholder management? There are a number of interpretations. At the most fundamental, it is making sure stakeholders have confidence in the project or, to be more precise, the stakeholders have confidence in you, the project manager. Secondly, that stakeholders have confidence their interests are taken into account in the execution if the project. Thirdly, that stakeholders have an accurate picture of the current status of the project. Lastly, stakeholders trust they will be consulted should big decisions come up in future. This sort of confidence is hard to win and easy to lose. It is primarily gained by doing what you said you were going to do – not as easy as it sounds!
There is another level of stakeholder management. It is where the project manager builds a good working relationship with stakeholders so that the project manager has an accurate picture of a) the stakeholder’s wishes and b) those issues where the stakeholder wants to be involved in decision-making and those others where they are happy to delegate. In any project where there are multiple stakeholders, the project manager will not have time to separately consult each stakeholder. They therefore need to assess the limits of their own authority so they know where they can make decisions on stakeholders’ behalves, and where they need to arrange a meeting of all stakeholders. Get this right and the project will motor along. Get this wrong and the stakeholders’ confidence in the project manager will be damaged, with the effect that the project slows down as stakeholders insist on extra scrutiny of things they had previously let slide.
Yet another level of stakeholder management is the way in which progress is reported and decisions taken. The personal style of the project manager and the key stakeholders is important here. Some people like doing business in the bar in the evening, some people like having meetings where all important business is done in corridors prior to the meeting. Personally I favour having open, robust, discursive meetings where everyone can see and here everything. You have to suit the style to the individual project, but whatever you do, it is vital that stakeholders feel like they know what’s going on. When their boss asks them about progress, they need to be able to answer swiftly, precisely and credibly. It is the project manager’s job to make sure they can do this.
Most projects start life in very vague, aspirational terms. I once inherited a brief for a high-impact, multi-million, multi-year project where the brief was a page and half of bullet points. It is the job of the project manager to put flesh on ideas that are often only partially thought through.
The trick is to bring into the daylight all the uncomfortable issues that people don’t want to discuss. Often this means conflict and negotiation. Even when a project manager thinks they have agreed a brief, they will frequently find not every stakeholder has engaged quite a fully as they might. This will manifest itself in a stakeholder agreeing to something that they later challenge or dispute, usually accompanied by the comment ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you meant THAT’. This is all normal, human, and entirely to be expected. It is the main reason they call projects ‘projects’ and not just someone’s day job.
Look at the skills listed under the title ‘getting things done’ and ask yourself whether these are the same set of skills that define an accomplished communicator. With the exception of ‘influencing’, not so much, eh? Good project managers tend to be the sort of fools that think just doing a good job is enough to get recognition. No it isn’t.
To be sure, we’re probably all familiar with those projects that make a big splash and then proceed by describing thin progress as great progress. You can go over the top with your project communication. I remember one project where the project leader commissioned his own regular internal market research, complete with focus groups, to ascertain the level of awareness of the project within the company. But he didn’t stop there. He also commissioned a journalist to ‘follow’ the project, interviewing participants and printing periodic reports. This chap was in fact an extremely capable manager and his project was indeed important to the company, but it showed some chutzpah to go to these lengths. He had newsletters, a brand, team T-shirts, rented extra office space in the building so he could take everyone away from their normal desks. You couldn’t miss the project, that’s for sure.
Words of Warning
Don’t let project management techniques get in the way of running the project. I’ve come across projects where there was a small army of people doing what an assistant and I had done on our own. These people were busy turning the handle, preparing nice reports on a regular basis, having lots of ‘reviews’ and ‘pre-meetings’ but there was relatively few people actually getting things done!
I’ve heard it said that all progress is achieved through projects. They are difficult, making project management a difficult, but vital, skill to master.