Project Management – the Final Frontier

by | Dec 5, 2019 | Manifesto for Action | 0 comments

In my last post, I described the second project management “meta-problem”: that of dysfunctional fragmentation and confliction.

In this post I describe the third “meta-problem” facing project management: the sheer size and scope of the knowledge, skills and behaviours required for the role of a project manager.

You trekkies will recognise the episode introduction monologue, which starts “Space, the final frontier …” and finishes “… to boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before”. That feeling of boundlessness and discovery resonates with the potential demands made on project managers.

Difficulties dealing with this enormous scope impairs our ability to define tools and pathways that provide real support to the lived experience of practitioners. Denying this scope, by constraining the PM’s role to limited sets of processes and tools is even more impairing.

Let’s look at just three perspectives on the “final frontier” of project management:

  1. The project as a bridge to an unknown future
  2. Scale of competency requirements
  3. Paradoxical and unpredictable behavioural patterns

Bridge to an unknown future

One conceptualisation of a project that I find useful is of a “bridge to some future state” in which a new capability is created. As a project manager, your core role is as the custodian of that outcome on behalf of the stakeholders.

Projects involve uncertainty and risk. There are no natural structures or boundaries to define what a project is or what demands will be placed on a project manager.

The uncertain future takes us where it may: there’s no point in wishing things went the way you wanted them to go – you must go where the project goes to have any hope of effecting influence on the outcome.

Not only is the potential future state not clearly known, but the project is executing under constraints that further exacerbate the demands on the project manager.

As the custodian of the future outcome, attempting to predict or constrain the demands and exigencies will only limit your ability to successfully deliver your project.

Wide and deep competency requirements

Future uncertainty means a very wide and deep range of competencies are required. Let’s put some quantitative comparisons in place. In previous posts I’ve said that current viewpoints of project management are narrow. But this is a relative term: relatively “narrow” can still be quantitatively large.

Consider some stats from two brand-name BOK’s / frameworks of the predictive project management model and analysing the set of competency elements including “Tools and Techniques”, “Artefacts”, “Knowledge Areas” and “Competency Indicators”.

Even this limited list contains in excess of 700 elements, starting with:

  • Abstraction techniques
  • Acceptance criteria
  • Accepted deliverables

and ending with:

  • Workshop facilitation
  • Worst case scenarios
  • Writing skills

A rough analysis of the agile practice domain adds a further 200 or so elements.

So we are up to about 1000 competency elements.

And that is before you look at the technical expertise that a project manager may require in the problem and/or solution domain, e.g. software development in the banking industry.

Even now every time I look at this list, I realise something is missing.

And yet, although these capabilities are mentioned in the frameworks, there is little explanation and instructional content or references. How is an aspiring PM ever going to identify that these are needed or required, let alone find learning opportunities for them all?

Paradoxical and unpredictable behavioural patterns

Another “final frontier” moment for project management is the extremely wide range of behaviours that need to be accomplished and the apparently paradoxical or conflicting demands that these behaviours place on project managers. One of the best descriptions of this paradoxical behaviour is by Tom Peters way back in 1991. For those of you not familiar with the name, Tom Peters was a strong advocate of the concept of a successful corporation as a “collection of projects” and wrote extensively on the idea of “Everything is a Project”.

In a blog post, Peters identified the new nature of Project Manager being substantially more than operating a process called Project Management. He begins by setting the context beautifully.

“But as ‘project’ and ‘network’ become the norm, ‘who’s in charge?’ becomes problematic. Everyone needs to learn to work in teams, ‘with’ multiple, independent experts, often from multiple, independent companies; each will be dependent upon all the others voluntarily giving their best. The new lead actor/’boss’—the project manager—must learn to command and coach; that is, to deal with paradox.”

He then outlines eight dilemmas that a project manager must master:

                1. Total ego/no ego

                2. Autocrat/delegator

                3. Leader/manager

                4. Tolerate ambiguity/pursue perfection

                5. Oral/written

                6. Acknowledge complexity/champion simplicity

                7. Think big/think small

                8. Impatient/patient

The dilemmas that Peters outlines indicate the huge range of skill & behaviour necessary to deliver a project outcome. And, as daunting as these are, they don’t cover all the personal characteristics or non-methodological knowledge necessary for successful project delivery.

Anyone who has managed a project of almost any type, and especially in an enterprise environment, will have experienced these dilemmas. As Peters says, “Nothing is more complex than a sophisticated, multi-organization project” and the complexity grows non-linearly with organisation size at least.

The problem we face is how to define the full range of requirements for knowledge, technique and skill in a way that enables aspiring masters of the project management profession to navigate a pathway to that end.

How do we define project manager competency if we can’t put our arms around the full scope that is?

Maybe the answer is that we don’t. Maybe that is just too limiting for a role as complex as that of a project manager.

Stay tuned

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