In the field of project management, we are very used to talking about the good project manager. But what is a good project manager?
There are reams and reams of books about how to be —or become—that person who knows how to do the scheduling, the budgeting, all the technical aspects of the profession. But there is so much more to it than that. The real good project manager brings many more things together, builds on top of these skills and brings a little magic to their job.
What I call the art in project management cannot, of course, be the starting point for project management. The starting point is skills, tools and methods that offer a solid foundation for running successful projects to which we can add a little magic through our special touch.
It’s a bit like making coffee: Coffee is coffee, and the ingredients are always the same but there are so many ways to prepare it, and the results can be so different. We put the same things in, but it is the tools and techniques at our disposal and both knowing how to use them (and also wanting to use them), that enables us to make a fine cappuccino rather than just a cup of coffee with milk in it.
In the same way, it is the attention you pay to a project that really makes the difference. It is the extra passion and attention you bring to a project—on top of your technical skills and the methodology’s tools—that makes the difference, turning just another project into a triumph.
Artful project management
Good project managers choose to put a little bit of art into their management. The art lies both in the (creative) process and in its outcomes, so the art of project management manifests itself through both management processes and their results.
At the core of this choice lies the willingness to go beyond the standard motions of project management and to care about achieving better project results.
Artful project management is about achieving a productive balance between the management of short- and longer-term activities and goals in a way that enhances performance, behaviours and results, allowing the unleashing of creativity, the forging of positive alliances, and the achievement of a productive harmony within the project.
Understanding what the most important aspects of project management are at any given moment in the life of a project—the project’s Critical Success Factors (CSFs)—becomes an important precondition for project managers being able to prioritise their management efforts.
Making it look easy
So what is good project management? It is project management that serves the purpose of a project and brings benefit to an organisation. Good project management is project management that ultimately achieves the desired outcomes of a project in an optimal way and for the benefit of the stakeholders.
There is a lot of hard work and effort involved in good project management. Very often, we see good project managers applying a very light touch and think things flow naturally for them, or assume they’re just lucky or that it’s an easy project. In fact, there is a lot of hard work involved in making it look easy. Good project management is the result of many small decisions and actions which may seem insignificant individually, but which together create the precise environment required for the project to work.
So in most cases, it is much more than just luck – it is the art of striking a balance between focusing on the end result and the steps that get you there. It is about the journey as well as the objective. In essence, it is about doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons.
To take a step back from project management, life is more about the journey than the result. Project management and projects are part of life, and the work/life split is an artificial line; I think the most passionate professionals are those who see their job as a part of their life, and therefore apply the same rules and conduct to it.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs, good project managers know, or seem to know, how the project dots connect in the future and have a full picture in their heads before other people can even tell what’s being drawn. This big-picture vision allows the good project manager to know what they are supposed to do next; it’s often more intuitive than something we can explain or teach. In other cases, you can explain it because it is obvious to you, without that meaning it’s obvious to everyone around you.
This encapsulates the art of achieving a productive balance between managing short-term and long-term goals in activities. Theoretically, the long-term, higher-level strategy is more important, but there are times when the small things seem to be more important at that moment, so you need to maintain the right balance between these two sets of objectives.
The good project manager prioritises strategically and continuously. They have to know what is more important at any given moment – what is technically relevant to what you are doing right now – and then make sure it gets done. Overlaid on top of this here-and-now prioritisation, the good project manager also keeps lower- and higher-level goals aligned so they come together to produce the expected results.
People at the centre
People are the driving force of the project – not processes, not plans, not artefacts or any other technical aspects: people. Inevitably, we are going to depend on people to follow the project processes and plan. Generally speaking, people don’t like following the strictly detailed process; they prefer a certain amount of freedom to bring their own creativity, their own imagination, to their work, so the good project manager achieves a balance here. Processes cannot resolve every problem, but people can solve many problems without a process. Flexibility and autonomy are important factors in job satisfaction, and by providing these the good project manager creates the space for the project’s people to learn and develop and to contribute most effectively to a project’s goals.
To be fully engaged and productive, the people involved in a project also need to have a purpose – that is, they need a clear understanding of the “why” of the project. And that why needs to make sense to them – it needs to be expressed in a way that provides a vision for the team and meaning to their project work.
It’s up to the project leadership to create an environment in which people can thrive. A good project manager knows the value of having an engaged project team and therefore pays attention to how they create a vision, link people’s work to a higher purpose, and reward individuals who resonate with it and multiply it. People are most satisfied with their jobs, and therefore most motivated when they experience achievement. The good project manager provides the conditions for this to happen.
Good project managers take care of people. They provide them with the right methodology and the right tools as well as the support and space needed to bring their creativity and passion to the project. They even need to give them room to make mistakes and to learn from them.
There is an art to making project management look easy, but it relies on effort and hard work and is built on a strong technical and methodologically-sound approach. Playing the long game, balancing priorities strategically and providing effective leadership to the people who make your project happen are some of the things that can bring a little magic to management.
Key point: Good project management is the result of our decisions and actions. It is doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons and striking a balance between the end-result and the journey there.
Key point: Good project managers can anticipate the future outcome based on their experience of achieving a productive balance between short- and long-term goals.
Key point: People are the centre of everything. To bring the best out of them, you need to give them the right methodology/tools/support, but also the freedom to be creative.