Some years ago, an established Project Management Professional (PMP) Project Manager and I were having a discussion. I knew he recently had a large project end and not so well from what I had heard. I eased into a few questions but finally got to the bottom line: Was the project a success? The project manager responded firmly: “No, the project was not a success. We did not reach our goals at all. It was a failure. However, from a project management stand-point, it was a clear success. My project plan was great. I had a good and detailed work-breakdown structure (WBS), my status reports were detailed and on time, and my project communications were prompt and complete.” I tried to clarify “but the project failed?” “Yes,” he said, “but as a project manager I succeeded.”
I was taken aback. That didn’t sound correct to me. I wondered: How do you determine whether you are a successful and good project manager?
My first reaction of course was “By height?” Tempting, since I am over 6’ but no, not the right measure either. My mind was now cluttered with several thoughts and conflicts. There was no easy answer to this question. As with other concepts that are difficult to understand or explain, I would have to rely on my old friend the “analogy” to explain things.
Let’s see: Project management is a tool or tool set. A set of plans to reach an end. Utilizing the plan, process, organization, and discipline tools to the extent you need to make the project succeed. Projects require a team to complete (at least projects that require a project manager).
What other activities require a team and a plan? The first ideas that come to mind are football, basketball, and baseball. I will highlight football below. Ok, how does the rest of the analogy hold up for football?
- Have team owners who have a vested interest in the performance of the team and usually have a say in major decisions and fund player payroll and new uniforms.
- Have project sponsors who make the major decisions necessary to move a project forward and control the funding of the base project needs and extensions.
- Have key players with specialized roles who are responsible for performing on the field such as: Running backs, linebackers, lineman, kickers, and star quarterbacks.
- Have project team members and subject matter experts who must be relied on to perform key project tasks and activities such as: business, technical, process, application, and data experts.
- Have fans who are season ticket holders and other parties (like advertisers) that are very interested in the performance of the team and players.
- Have project stakeholders (like application users and customers) who benefit from the deliverables and activities of the project.
Have coaches who:
- Create game plans and strategies to best prepare the players to utilize their strengths, deemphasize their weaknesses, counter the strengths and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents, and ultimately score more than their opponents.
- Develop plays to execute and implement the plans and strategies developed.
- Make decisions and adjust their plans during the game to what it takes to change momentum, react to adversity (hurt star player, rain, or referees who are calling the game closely), and to ultimately score more than their opponent.
Have project managers who:
- Develop strategies and plans in the form of project charters, project plans, and schedules to deal with risk, constraints and issues. These plans are customized to the capabilities of the project resources they have available. The pans do what is necessary but don’t over complicate. Any more than necessary is wasted effort and any less risks failure.
- Develop a WBS to execute the plans and strategies developed.
- Make decisions and change project plans and schedule during the project to bring in additional resources when necessary, manage scope and change, and react to adversity (your lead programmer leaves for another opportunity – e.g. free agency).
It looks like the analogy holds up well! So, back to the original question: How do you judge whether you are a successful and good project manager (or in our analogy – a successful and good football coach)?
How are football coaches judged? By their strategies and game plans? By their game decisions? By their half-time motivational speeches? By the numbers of yards gained? By how good the defense is? By height? No. Football coaches are judged on whether their teams win football games. It is the success of their team that counts.
Likewise, projects are a team sport and are measured by the success of their team. Consequently, you as a project manager (and coach) are graded by the success of your projects and not by just your efforts and success in the development and execution of the plans. Project success isn’t just important – it is the only thing that really matters.
The question you must ask yourself is: Are you satisfied with being a mediocre/adequate project manager with just a good plan or a do you want to be a great project manager who does whatever it takes with a hall of fame record of project success?
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