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Project Management for the Rest of Us

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For many individuals thrust or drafted into the role of initiative or project leader without a formal background in project management, expect a steep learning curve and bumpy ride.

In spite of the popularity of project management training and the growth in the number of certified professionals, most projects in organizations are led by functional or technical experts tapped to pull a team together and make the magic happen. The magic, in this case, is successfully completing the initiative on time, under budget and at the right level of quality.

Experienced project managers everywhere are smiling externally while secretly writing your project obituary in their minds. Yes, the road ahead is rocky. In this article, I frame the challenges and offer some getting started ideas and resources.

Understanding 5 Big Challenges

While some might suggest that I am cynical starting out by describing barriers and headaches, I prefer to think of myself as pragmatic. Forewarned is forearmed. And we’ll offer solutions to each of these obstacles in subsequent posts.

1. The words, “I want you to lead this project” are the beginning of a quest for success that may at times feel like Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece of mythology.

You are right to be excited about the opportunity—it is a vote of confidence in you and your abilities and a fantastic opportunity to show your firm’s managers what you are capable of doing with a big initiative. And then, you should be scared. Or at least a little nervous about the realities of making this work.

The early steps you take in establishing a strong foundation for your project, including crystallizing the scope of the work; assessing the needs/issues/obstacles of the people touched by the project (stakeholders) and getting started properly with your project team and sponsor are critical. You get one chance to start this out properly. My advice is to secure a great resource to give you some context for your work and consume it quickly. My recommendation is the non-text I use in teaching my MBA courses in project management: “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management,” by Eric Verzuh, 5th edition. It grows larger with each edition; however, Verzuh’s great content is distilled for mere mortals operating without project management experience and certification.

2. Your success is dependent upon a group of people who are already overworked and overstressed. You know that excitement you have for this new project? No one else feels the same way. Your new team members may very well groan out loud when they learn they’ve been assigned to your project team. For some, it may well be the second or third project team they’ve recently been “invited” to join.

You will be competing for minds, hearts and time with all of the other priorities your new team members are struggling to navigate. Success is 99.9 percent about your ability to form a productive team out of a group of frazzled, reluctant contributors. We will spend a great deal of time on the topic of developing and leading a team. I wrote: “Leadership Caffeine for the Project Manager—and anyone else responsible for leading teams, groups, or committees,” just for this purpose.

3. Your biggest ally is your executive sponsor—if you have one. And in cases where your organization offers this valuable resources, know that your executive sponsor likely has little real understanding of what this role is supposed to do. And let’s not discount the fact that you don’t have any experience in working with and managing executive sponsors.

If you don’t have an executive sponsor, you need to get one. If you have one, you need to quickly define roles, accountabilities, communication protocol and identify the initial steps the sponsor can take to improve your odds of surviving the first month. Run, don’t walk to my podcast (with transcript): How to Survive and Thrive with Your Executive Sponsor.

4. Your hastily assembled project team will want to jump into the work within the first 20-minutes of your first team meeting. After all, everyone is busy, and this is just another item on their list.

Measure twice, cut once. Part of the foundation for project success is in the upfront project planning and team development process. You and the team have some work to do before you jump into the detailed work. It’s time to work on scope, stakeholders and work definition, who’s going to do what and how the work will be coordinated.

5. Your skills as a diplomat will be severely tested. The people project managers reference as stakeholders—anyone impacted by your initiative—can be some of your biggest supporters and fiercest adversaries. Others will be passive obstacles. You will need to move beyond your noble view to your initiative and actively engage friend and foe alike. Skip this step, and you will die the project death of 1,000 slights.

Yes, this is the dirty sounding issue of power and politics in the world of projects. You have little choice but to enter and play. The trick is learning to play while not compromising your principles.

These are just a few of the challenges you will encounter, but get these right at the start of your initiative and your odds of success rise dramatically. And don’t let all of the talk of potential doom around every corner dampen your enthusiasm for this work. Even your project manager friends understand this work—while incredibly challenging—is genuinely exhilarating.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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