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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

CFC - Key To Better Project Management

9:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
Any organization is like one huge project, which in turn contains many other projects (or programs). These projects can be in different areas or divisions of that organization - technology, marketing, finance, strategy, supply chain, manufacturing, etc. – and can vary a lot in complexity and nature of the task required to be done – building a new product, launching a new marketing campaign, running HR processes, implementing technology systems, integrating a recently acquired company etc. Good project management skills are important for running small projects as well as large organizations in any function and industry. But what exactly are these skills? Unfortunately, a lot of people consider these skills to be the more visible, tangible and measurable ones; however, it is the softer and intangible ones that matter the most.

Tools Help, But Do Not Matter
A lot of people associate project management with tools, such as Basecamp, Six Sigma, stakeholder analysis, Microsoft Project, Microsoft Excel, Gantt charts, status reports, etc.  Their assumption is that if one is good at using these tools, that person should be good at project management as well. I have seen many job advertisements, even from some of the well-known multi-national companies, where knowledge of these tools is an essential requirement for suitable candidates. In fact, I remember seeing a job advert long time back where the company even mentioned the Excel formulae that candidates were required to know!

I believe these people are focusing on the wrong area. Many people fail to realize that these tools are just means to the end, and not the end itself. These tools can help you organize your work and visualize things better, but they cannot solve project problems. A good project manager is a good project manager, irrespective of the tools. If he doesn’t have those with him, he will make something up or make use of something he has access to. Remember, a good project manager can make excellent use of bad tools, but a bad project manager will not be able to leverage good tools.

Certifications Do Not Matter
Just like many of you, I have interviewed many people throughout my career, and a lot of those boasted of various certifications on their CV. Here is one thing I realized long time back – the best people do not have a single certification on their CV. They do not get bothered with those things, because if you are good, you know it and you do not need to pay a company to let you sit through an exam to prove that. Now let me clarify here – some people go for certifications to increase their knowledge, but mostly do them for improving their CV. Latter can generally be seen in the services industry.

If going through books and sitting through exams would have made people good managers, then the world wouldn’t have been through the economic crisis that we are witnessing currently.

The problem with certifications, such as PMP and Prince 2, is sort of same as the problem with tools, because in effect while preparing for certifications you learn about tools and processes, which is that these are just means to the end. I have met so many certified project managers who miss out on basics of project management, run projects in silos, are bad in communication and create problems for their team and other stakeholders. My problem with certifications is that even though mostly people go for certifications to get a job or a better salary, and not because they want to become good managers, these certifications have become a barometer of project management skills.

Skills That Matter Most
Tools, processes, technologies do not matter because project management is not about managing resources; it is about managing people (unfortunately, in service industry, people are also referred to as resources). And because humans do not act in a defined and predictable manner, no amount of tools and technologies in the world can guarantee good project management.

Startups may not face project management issues (at least for sometime), as there are just a few guys (hopefully good friends) sitting next to each other, working on the same project. Everyone knows what he or she has to do and what the other guys are doing. But after organizations reach a certain size, they start facing problems in managing projects because there are many more people involved, much more dependencies and a lot of projects running at any given time.

Considering that people are the key to effective project management, it all boils down to CFC, i.e. Communication, Follow through and Collaboration. These are the three key reasons because of which most projects fail, and the three key skills that good project managers have.

Good project managers make sure that stakeholders are timely informed about project developments and that communication channels remain open and fluid. Lack of communication is probably the single biggest problem I have seen in projects, and a global workforce or outsourced business model (which is very common nowadays) makes it even worse. With various internal and external stakeholders involved in a project, keeping everyone up-to-date becomes very important and tough. But then keeping everyone updated with every project development does not help either and may lead to another problem - over communication. Too much information can lead to people missing out on important information in the stream of updates. This thin line between over and under communication is what makes managing effective and efficient communication a challenging task. In my experience, over-communication is the lesser of two evils.

Following through is probably the simplest of the three skills, but is still surprisingly lacked by many managers. A lot of times, either due to the number of tasks spawned or due to lack of manager’s interest (probably because of low priority), tasks do get assigned to people but are not followed through. Frankly, there is no straight answer to this problem, because tasks vary in priority, which can change more than once during the course of the project. I think the only thing a manager can do here is to make sure that he or she follows up regularly with the assignee. Regular follow-ups by project managers show the assignees the importance of the assigned task, and send the message across that they cannot just leave tasks hanging. In addition to that, project managers can also spawn tasks at the right time, instead of just starting activity on them in order to get those items closed ahead of time.

Collaboration between different teams is important for managing projects well. In the context of project management, collaboration is like the next step after communication. It is about getting stakeholders on board with the idea, building consensus, making sure that everyone is working towards the common goal. And this is what makes it difficult, because larger projects include people from different organizations or teams with different goals, thought process, culture and incentives. I think collaboration is the toughest amongst the three [CFC], and is a skill that fewer managers have. Getting different people to agree on things, commit to deliverables and deadlines, and deliver quality results is always a challenge. This is where your people skills come in. The problem in the case of collaboration is that, as compared to communication and follow-through, project managers have less direct control over the situation.

The purpose of this article is not to explain how to get these skills but to identify them. Unfortunately, neither of these skills can be learnt by using tools or by getting certified. The best way to learn these skills is by regularly and consciously practicing them.

Work On Yourself, Not Your CV
The purpose of books, certifications and processes it to capture the experience of practitioners so that others can learn from them. Unfortunately, some of these processes have become rigid over time and project management has become synonymous with experience and knowledge of these tools and frameworks.

These tools and certifications can improve your CV but cannot help you become a better project manager. You have got to have CFC skills to become better managers. It is obviously [as always] easier said than done. Some people are born with these skills, while others have to train themselves. If you really want to be an effective project manager keep practicing your CFC skills. Though these skills are harder to get and take more time to master, it is these that make the difference between a project manager and a great project manager. 


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