Friday, April 23, 2010

Got Problems? A Project Manager Is Both Cause and Cure.

"Manager" is one of those titles into which people are promoted out of positions like "administrator" or "assistant" .. at which point most employees in today's title-ridden corporate culture can't wait to stop being a "manager" in order to become a "director" or a "vice president." Face it: declaring yourself a "project manager" earns lackluster response compared to the worshipful gazes cast on database -- or even social media -- folks. That's too bad because -- IF you really can "manage projects," IF you can conceive and successfully execute them, start to finish -- you're increasingly rare and deeply valuable.

The Recession Killed Middle Management Years Ago
Sometime in the early 80s , middle managers became obsolete. In that recession, Chiefs and Indians stayed, while mid-range Buffalo Hunters left in droves. Writing on bNet, Wharton Management Professor Peter Cappelli noted, "Downsizings during the 1980s took a disproportionate toll on managers. For corporations, the fallout is weakened allegiances and a threat to productivity ... Such efforts frequently 'thin' the management ranks while transferring managerial responsibilities elsewhere in the organization."

At the time he wrote this in 1992, Cappelli said, "Job security for managers has continued to erode: The unemployment rate for managers soared 55 percent last year, while overall unemployment climbed just 13 percent."

Time didn't reverse the free fall. David Lynch writing for USA Today in January this year confirmed the scars that linger after a savage recession. The visible disfigurement from the 80s recession is the dearth of middle managers who know how to take a project from A to Z. In my experience, that wasteland has left many organizations floundering in piecemeal goo.

Good Project Managers Are Both Born and Made
A Google search on "project manager skills" turns up considerable discussion of what makes a good project manager. Apparently, some project management skills are inherent within personality, while others get honed "on the job." Few seem to sprout from "education." For example, Asan Sofian's report, Project Success in Relation with Organizational Roles and Capabilities and Project Managers' Skills and Capabilities, cites the three key process skills as:
• the ability to communicate
• knowing how to handle costs
• practicing effective time management.

Key interpersonal skills of a good project manager include:
• leadership
• effective communication
• the ability to motivate.

Vital personal traits are:
• professional integrity
• personal integrity
• decisiveness.

In short, project manager essentials boil down to a heavy dose of integrity and a firm grip on communication. If the famous Peter Principle -- "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence" -- is true, then the best managers tend to get stuck in the middle. Unfortunately, 30 years ago, thousands of middle managers were escorted out of the building and never replaced. So where does that leave organizations in the first decade of the 21st century? Adrift.

What can we do about it?

1. Acknowledge that project management is Mandatory Skill Number One for project success.

2. Rely less on "credentials" and more on a track record of proven project management aptitude. The next time you launch a project, see if somebody in your organization has Asan's essential skills and give that person a shot .... or, as Jim Collins would say, "The most effective leaders of companies in transition are the quiet, unassuming people whose inner wiring is such that the worst circumstances bring out their best. They're unflappable, they're ready to die if they have to. But you can trust that, when bad things are happening, they will become clearheaded and focused."

3. Recruit for the character and personality strengths that make a good project manager [see above] ..

4. Hire the better writer. Note: The April 12 edition of Newsweek featured an article titled "Chaos Theory" by the whiz kids who founded 37Signal. Their #2 Rule for succeeding in business without really trying is -- and I quote -- "HIRE THE BETTER WRITER: Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking."

5. Demand the ability to multi-task. Business executive F. John Reh says, "A successful Project Manager must simultaneously manage the four basic elements of a project: resources, time, money, and most importantly, scope. All these elements are interrelated. Each must be managed effectively. All must be managed together if the project, and the project manager, is to be a success."

6. Compensate the project manager who produces. Applaud and value a gifted project manager's contribution.

7. If the project manager you currently have is a clear thinker, a clear communicator, a respected leader, a marvel of organization, planning, and scheduling, and a proven leader, give that star a raise. If not, replace him or her. Or, as Jim Collins would say, "It is better to first get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats, and then figure out where to drive."

-- scrubbed by Marketing Brillo

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