What is a project and why are project managers important?

Project managers are crucial for project success. They plan, organize, and oversee execution for better communication, efficiency, and decision-making while lowering the risk of failure.

To establish a widely accepted standard for best project practices, it is important to note that all projects share two common characteristics. Firstly, they are temporary and have a set start and end date. Secondly, the product or service is unique and significantly different from similar products. Project management involves planning, organising, and controlling an organisation's services to achieve short-term objectives that contribute to the overall corporate vision and business strategy. The project manager must work cooperatively with executive management and other key stakeholders to ensure successful project completion.

To achieve consistent levels of project success, it is crucial for top management, project team members, and stakeholders to be committed to the project and the overall corporate goals. Best practices in project management have a cross-organisational focus with distinct but crucial roles for project sponsors/champions, the project manager, and project team members. In organisations that demonstrate a high level of project management maturity, the key roles and responsibilities include:

PROJECT SPONSOR

The project sponsor is responsible for supporting and overseeing the project. They must give their approval for the project proposal and sign off on the project brief and preliminary project plan. Additionally, they must ensure that important business resources are available as needed according to the project plan. The project sponsor also assists the project manager in addressing and resolving any risks or issues. They review the progress of the project regularly with the project manager and formally accept the project's deliverables upon completion. Finally, the project sponsor must approve any changes to the scope, schedule, or budget.

PROJECT MANAGER

Project manager/s hold a crucial role in leading your team towards success. Who is responsible for creating a project brief and plan while collaborating with the sponsor and team members. Their daily tasks involve motivating and directing your team, monitoring their performance, updating schedules, and preparing regular status reports. With expert management skills, they manage risks and issues, raise change requests, and conduct a Post Implementation Review. Their ultimate goal is to ensure that the project deliverable is successfully handed over to the managing organisation. You are a true leader who inspires your team to achieve greatness.

PROJECT TEAM MEMBER

Team collaborator with the project manager, provide technical guidance and support whenever needed. Proactive engagement with the project team ensures that all deliverables are met with excellence and punctuality. Ensure team mate fosters seamless communication and collaboration among all team members to implement innovative and efficient methodologies that optimise project workflows.

Project management is an essential component of achieving an organisation's vision and business strategy. By committing to short-term objectives and working cooperatively, project teams can successfully deliver unique products and services. The best practices in project management have a cross-organisational focus, with distinct roles and responsibilities for project sponsors, project managers, and project team members. By following these established roles and working together, organisations can achieve consistent levels of project success and recognition. Let us strive to commit to our projects and work cooperatively towards achieving our goals.

Mastering the three essential skills is the key to success for project managers.

Project management encompasses several knowledge areas that intersect with other management disciplines, including general management and technical or application management. To effectively manage multidisciplinary teams, project managers require a comprehensive approach. In a classic paper by Robert L. Katz featured in Harvard Business Review, a three-skill approach to management was outlined, including technical, human, and conceptual skills.

Technical skill involves having an in-depth understanding of a specific kind of activity, particularly one involving methods, processes, procedures, or techniques, and the ability to perform it proficiently. This skill requires specialised knowledge, analytical ability, and competency in using the tools and techniques of the particular discipline.

Human skill is the ability of a manager to work effectively within a group and build a cooperative effort within the team they lead. It is primarily concerned with working with people and requires an understanding of how individuals perceive each other and behave in response. A manager with advanced human skills is aware of their own attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about others and can understand and communicate with others effectively to create an atmosphere of approval and security.

Conceptual skill involves seeing the enterprise as a whole and understanding how the various functions of an organisation depend on each other. It also includes visualising the relationship of the individual business to the industry, community, and political, social, and economic forces of the nation as a whole. An effective manager must recognise these relationships and take actions that advance the overall welfare of the organisation.

These general management skills are also fundamental for project managers. Many project managers are promoted from technical fields with no training or education in managerial functions. As a result, they tend to overemphasise the need to be involved in their particular area of expertise. However, the project manager's primary function is to manage the project's management processes while allowing others to perform the technical work. The project manager must be knowledgeable in the technical basis of the project but should concentrate on managing the project effectively.

As a project involves acquiring resources from across the functional lines of an organisation, it is crucial that the project manager carefully manages the interface between all project stakeholders. The project manager must identify and recognise the stakeholders and their interests to manage the project effectively. Without the support of the key stakeholders, the project manager will struggle to make the project succeed.

* Katz, RL 1974, 'Skills of an effective administrator', in Business Classics: Fifteen Key Concepts for Managerial Success, Harvard Business Review, 1991, USA, pp. 23-35.

To manage interfaces efficiently, focus on personal, organisational, and system aspects.

To make the most of every interaction and achieve your goals with ease, it's important to remain dedicated and committed to excellence. When working on a project with others, there are various types of interfaces to consider, each with their own unique challenges.

The personal interface is when personal problems or conflicts arise between two people working on the same project. If they have the same line manager, the project manager has limited authority and may need to involve the line manager to resolve disputes. If the individuals are not in the same line or discipline, the project manager becomes the mediator and may need to involve line management if necessary. This can be even more difficult when multiple managers are involved, and the project manager must be able to handle all conflicts that arise.

The organisational interface is the most challenging because it involves conflicting goals and managerial styles. Conflict can arise due to varying unit goals and misunderstandings of technical language used within each organisational unit. These interfaces primarily deal with management actions, decisions, or approvals affecting the project, but can also involve units outside the immediate organisation or project.

The system interface deals with non-people interfaces within the system itself or developed by the project, such as products, facilities, construction, and resources. Technical problems can arise as the project progresses, and schedule problems may occur if information is incorrect or delayed between tasks. Project managers must address these critical interfaces, but should not ignore personal and organisational concerns in favour of technical ones.

Do project managers excel in their field, but struggle with management skills?

Moving from being a specialist to a manager requires recognising the need for new skills and working to develop them. At some point in their career, most professionals must make this transition in order to progress further. While some succeed and move on to executive positions, others struggle in their new roles despite being competent specialists.

Although a few individuals may naturally possess the ability to manage, most people who successfully make the transition do so by acknowledging that they need to learn new skills. Becoming a project manager requires the ability to manage staff, build constructive relationships with fellow managers, clients, and strategic partners, and work towards achieving the organisation's strategic goals.

Effective staff management requires motivation and leadership skills. Project managers must be able to motivate their teams through rewards and punishment. Poor managers who use punishment excessively create more problems than they solve. Good managers use rewards to motivate team members by recognising individual needs, redesigning jobs, or setting challenging goals.

The absence of leadership skills has differing impacts in different situations. Poor project managers see leadership as nothing more than giving orders, which results in a disempowered team and a loss of productivity. When managing specialists from their own discipline, they delegate excessively, abnegating their own responsibility. Building constructive relationships with fellow managers, contractors, and clients from different disciplines can be difficult for project managers.

Specialists often work in isolation and develop their own jargon, devaluing other project management functions such as risk management or communications management. Project managers, on the other hand, must communicate with their peers, contractors, and clients and contribute as equal team members.

Poor managers adopt a bunker mentality, isolating themselves in their office and neglecting critical discussions. Strategic decision-making is a requirement for project managers, who must be able to step back and see the big picture. This can be difficult for those who have focused on their own discipline for their entire career.

The good news is that all of these skills can be learned and practiced until they become automatic. Technical experts or professionals who wish to become project managers need to acquire skills in strategic and people management and in managing relationships. They should seek out every opportunity to demonstrate that they can apply these skills, even if it means filling in for a project manager on leave.

Moving from a technical expert to a project manager is not simply a promotion - it is a career change.

HOW MUCH TECHNICAL TRAINING DOES A PROJECT MANAGER NEED?

The story by John P Sahlin in the May 1998 issue of PM Network served as a source of inspiration.

John had been working in project management for over ten years but still needed more confidence in his technical expertise. He had significant management training but needed a technical degree. He wondered if he was qualified to be a project manager in today's world.

John had read A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, which describes the relationship between general management techniques, project management techniques, and technical skills. However, it needs to discuss the depth of technical knowledge a project manager must have to be successful.

With the vast array of industries using project management, there is likely that there will be no consensus on the depth of technical knowledge required. Despite this, a few general rules apply across all application areas.

John had learned that he should never tell his team how to perform a task. By setting and prioritising the project goals, he tells the members of his team what needs to be achieved. It's essential to leave it to the technical experts to decide how to accomplish the tasks. A group can brainstorm more effectively than an individual, and leaving the how to the technical team is likely to result in an option John may not have considered by himself.

Leaving the technical direction decisions to the experts does not hamper John's ability to manage. In fact, by decentralising the technical issues, he improves his ability to manage. He recognises that he can't know it all and focuses on identifying the sources of knowledge. "I don't know" is an acceptable answer, and by refusing to admit the limits of his knowledge, he risks losing the respect of his team.

John knows that he doesn't need intense technical training, but it's more important that he hones his leadership and management skills that are common to all application areas. He needs to be able to speak intelligently about the technology involved in his projects and must have enough technical knowledge to weed through the numbers and derive the true meaning of the reports.

As a project manager, John spends his career communicating with his team, customers, and upper management. His interpersonal communication skills are vastly more important to him than his specific technical knowledge. He knows that he can lead projects in one application area and take the lead in projects in other areas by focusing on his ability to lead the project team to success.

Moving into the next century, organisations need to redefine the term project management. The project manager must become more than a technical lead, enabling organisations to leverage the wealth of experience and leadership skills that can improve their quality, efficiency, and "bottom line". In order to adopt the practices of project management, organisations need to place more value on the leadership (non-technical) aspects of project management.

John realised that he may not have a technical degree, but he had significant management training and trail-by-fire training in project management. He was a project manager, and he was proud of it.

THE ROLES OF THE PROJECT MANAGER

The project manager holds a critical role as an integrator, ensuring the project aligns with the organisation's overall plan. Communication is key, and the project manager must effectively communicate progress to stakeholders, overcoming any obstacles.

In addition to these duties, the project manager must also lead the team, utilising their expert power and making important decisions throughout the project's lifecycle. Creating a positive working environment is crucial to avoid negative conflicts and disruptions.

These responsibilities may differ depending on the project, but the project manager's role is vital for a successful outcome.

KEY DRIVERS OF A DISTINCT CAREER PATH

The growth of project management as a distinct career path has been driven by several factors. These include the need to maintain a strong defence capability during the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s, as well as establishing the USA as a leader in space research and capability. Other factors include the need for increased speed to market for consumer goods, the growing complexity of project requirements, and the impact of people power on project delivery. Additionally, flatter management structures within organisations and faster global communications have led to the establishment of virtual project teams with members dispersed across the globe. These developments have made traditional functional management structures with specialist managers overseeing specialist teams inadequate for delivering complex projects.

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