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From Herding Cats to Leading the Way:
An Introduction to Project Management

Why cats, and why herd them at all? Project management in general, and in IT in particular, is often compared to herding cats. And this is true to some extent: at the entry level, this process may look like useless attempts to control things that are intrinsically uncontrollable. Sounds like something even a cat person wouldn’t be happy with, doesn’t it?

managing projects is like herding cats

However, project management is not about pointless activities. It’s about organizing people, taming chaos, and following plans to achieve goals. Becoming a successful project manager requires several years of theoretical and practical learning – but it isn’t something impossible. So, where to start?

What is project management?

As Greg Cimmarrusti says, “being a Project Manager is like being an artist, you have the different colored process streams combining into a work of art”. However, it’s not only about creativity flow and non-trivial solutions. It’s also about taking into account every single little bit, taking risks, and learning throughout the entire lifetime.

But poetry aside, project management is a discipline with its theory, methods, rules, and best practices. It covers using various principles, techniques and methods to run projects according to their agreed plan, meet approved budget, and achieve intended goals. It requires specific skills, knowledge, and tools to run processes efficiently and meet project requirements.

Project management knowledge and skills cover following ten aspects:

  • Integration;
  • Scope;
  • Time;
  • Cost;
  • Quality;
  • Procurement;
  • Human resources;
  • Communications;
  • Risk management;
  • Stakeholder management.

As formal as it can seem, project management is more about finding individual approaches to every step, operation, or goal. Projects are unique, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach just cannot be viable.

Who needs project management?

Currently, project management approaches and methods are used in the fields where they were not applied earlier, for example, education and healthcare. Why?

The main reason is realizing that project management techniques are significantly more efficient than any other methods and approaches. They offer systematic and structured way to get work done and goals achieved. Here are the main functions of project management:

  1. Organizing work environment. Being chaotic by its nature, the environment can easily become dysfunctional. Project management methodologies offer specific ways to tame the chaos and make teams work efficiently.
  2. Integrating project work into business processes and systems. It’s not just ensures a more effective way to get necessary resources (human or financial) for the project, but also helps get more value for business.
  3. Enforcing teamwork and communication. This is essential for successful project delivery, as it contributes organization and self-regulation of the team.
  4. Scheduling and planning for the future. Resource allocation, schedules, roadmaps and other planning activities ensure project delivery within agreed time and prevent cost overruns.
  5. Managing change. It rarely happens that environments don’t change and projects don’t require any adjustments. Identifying changes and adjusting project course accordingly is the task that project management accomplishes.
  6. Handling risks. No matter how good project roadmap is – there’s always a chance of risks. Detecting potential risks, preventing them and minimizing their consequences is also an important part of project management methods and approaches.
  7. Assuring quality. Managing quality means ensuring value that you and your team deliver. Project management methodologies that are focused on customers’ satisfaction prescribe allocate significant amounts of time and resources for quality management.
  8. Learning from failure. “If an IT project works the first time, it was in your nightly dreams. Time to wake up and get to work”, – said Cornelius Fitchner, a PM expert and PMP trainer. Failures happen, and the best thing about it are the valuable lessons that you and your team can learn from them. Many project management methodologies include “lessons learned” analysis in the steps of the process.

The basics of project management

According to Meredith & Mantel, “Like organic entities, projects have life cycles. From a slow beginning they progress to a buildup of size, then peak, begin a decline, and finally must be terminated. (Also, like other organic entities, they often resist termination.)”. In this section, we’ll go through the basic steps of keeping a project alive and well.

The life cycle of a project includes several steps:

  • Initiating;
  • Planning;
  • Executing;
  • Monitoring and controlling;
  • Closing.

Each of these steps implies performing specific activities and involving employees with specific roles, and is targeted to project delivery in compliance with the predefined requirements. Among the requirements to meet, the following four are crucial for successful project delivery:

  • Time: duration of work on the project;
  • Cost: budget allocated and agreed for accomplishing project works;
  • Scope: results that should be delivered after accomplishing the project;
  • Quality: requirements for the project outcome.

Balancing these components is one of the key parts of project management, as increasing or decreasing one of them will affect others, putting project viability in question. For example, reducing time allocated to the project can cause decreased scope or quality, or increasing costs.

How to understand what goal is right? It depends on company’s vision and stakeholders’ position. Besides, when defining technical details, planning roadmaps and running projects on the basis of user stories and scenarios is the solution that experts suggest.

The next question is, what is the right way to the goal?

Project management methodologies

According to PMI, a methodology is a system of practices, techniques, procedures and rules used by those who work in a discipline.

  • Agile: while being not systematic enough to be defined as methodology, Agile is a set of principles, applicable mostly for software development. It focuses on collaboration, self-management of teams, and iterative delivery of solutions.
  • Scrum is a “flavor” of the Agile approach and it suggests ways to improve project delivery. It implies defining a set of roles and responsibilities within the team. Scrum is targeted to small and cross-functional teams and includes procedures that ensure self-organization and process optimization: daily meetings, sprints, and retrospectives.
  • Lean is a methodology targeted at increasing process efficiency – basically, it’s about finding ways to deliver more value by cutting out everything that is dysfunctional and not essential.
  • Kanban (which originally means “billboard” in Japanese) is a methodology designed to optimize work process, divide it into specific steps, increase its efficiency, make it more flexible, and add self-regulation to it.
  • Scrumban, as its name suggests, combines Scrum and Kanban approaches. It mixes Kanban flexibility and Scrum structure to achieve a clear and efficient work process.
  • XP (Extreme Programming) methodology stresses customer satisfaction. It is focused on teamwork and collaboration and prescribes mandatory technical practices to achieve the best result in shortest terms.
  • Waterfall is the methodology that implies planning a project before any works start and then executing work through defined project phases.
  • PRINCE2 (Projects In Controlled Environments) is a process-oriented methodology that suggests a thorough and controlled approach to project management, with dividing projects into multiple steps, each one with its methods and approaches. Basically, this leaves nothing to chance and makes project progress predictable.
  • PMI’s PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) is a set of universal standards that outline project management phases, best practices, processes, and techniques.

However, according to experts, choosing the right methodology is not the crucial thing. Focusing on the right problem is. As William W. Williams stressed, “No matter how good the team or how efficient the methodology, if we’re not solving the right problem, the project fails”.

focusing on the right problem in project management

But let us return to our cats.

Skills that a project manager needs to have

Just like in any other profession, only knowing a theoretical part is obviously not enough. A practical skillset and the understanding of the process is what brings success. So, what do you need to deal with your “cats”?

Subject expertise

Remember that joke: a project manager is a person who believes that nine pregnant women can deliver a baby in 1 month? Thankfully, it is no longer relevant: the belief that a manager only needs to know how to manage is now outdated.

Even if you think you’ve got other management skills nailed, expertise on the subject is still the central point of being an efficient project manager. It not only helps find better ways to configure the work process, but also allows to communicate with customers and stakeholders as an expert.

Planning

Needless to say, without proper planning skills, it’s barely possible to work as a project manager. And, as basic and obvious as this skill is, it’s still essential to pay attention to it – because it’s the core part of a project manager’s job.

In project management, planning applies not only to time, but also to resources and budgets. It’s not just knowing what’s next, but also organizing work in the right order, setting reasonable deadlines, and staying on track.

Time management

When running a project, time is one of the most needed resources, so it should be spent wisely. Prioritizing work and optimizing schedules is the project manager’s responsibility. Being able to set priorities wisely is the key to successful project delivery.

It’s important here to know where your time goes. Having exact data at hand allows to eliminate time-wasting activities, reduce distractions and multitasking to a minimum, and revise work distribution on the team if necessary.

Leadership

It’s been said a lot about the importance of leadership skills in project management, but what does it mean in practice, and what is the difference between managing and leading?

Being a leader is not about just “inspiring” and “creating good vibes”. It’s about translating the company’s vision to the team, setting long- and short-term goals, motivating people, preventing and solving conflicts, and improving team’s performance.

Communication

Soft skills, and communication in the first place, are what is needed to deal with hardly controllable environments, personalities and setups at the workplace – this means, to be a successful project manager.

Communicating means understanding and being understood, and it’s the key to meeting requirements and expectations. For a project manager, communication with team members, stakeholders, customers, and business owners is an essential part of the job.

Beyond any doubt, hearing and being heard is important. However, project managers have an even more important task: creating a culture that fosters active and transparent communication. You can’t afford to ignore this part of communication, as this will negatively affect teamwork and collaboration.

How to become a project manager?

“Project management is like juggling three balls – time, cost and quality”, – said Geoff Reiss, a project management theorist. Just like a circus art, it requires agility, swift reaction, and self-control. And years of learning.

That doesn’t mean that getting into project management from a completely different field or profession is unrealistic. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and many inspirational stories show that.

To become a project manager, you’ll need to do the following:

  • Learn theoretical knowledge:
    • methodologies;
    • approaches;
    • recommended procedures;
    • best practices.
  • Develop practical skills:
    • time management;
    • planning;
    • risk management;
    • change management;
    • team management and leadership.
  • Acquire necessary personality traits:
    • ability to communicate with others comfortably and efficiently;
    • ability to work under pressure;
    • ability to perform multiple roles.

Often, employers require formal papers from applicants for project management jobs. So getting a PM certification is an important prerequisite for starting your career in this field. Many courses and institutes are offering certification – both paid and free options are available.

Another opportunity to build up theoretical knowledge and improve practical skills is networking. Sharing knowledge and experience, learning from the best, and increasing your exposure as a PM professional boosts your career opportunities and speeds up professional development.

Remember that you don’t necessarily need to have a natural talent to succeed in project management. Will to learn and hard work are key factors. “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure”, – as Colin Powell said.

Career opportunities of a project manager

As we already mentioned previously, project management methods are nowadays used in the fields where they were never applicable earlier. As project manager’s role in business growth can hardly be overestimated, career opportunities in project management are enticing. Following roles are possible:

  • Assistant project manager: an entry-level role with easier tasks that allows working with experienced specialists and learn the basics of practical project management.
  • Associate project manager: another entry-level position that implies relatively basic responsibilities and allows learning from experienced managers.
  • Project coordinator: a position that also involves assisting managers on higher positions but includes more responsibilities, such as planning and organization tasks.
  • Senior project manager: the high-level position in project management that requires years of relevant experience and a number of successfully accomplished projects.
  • Product manager: this position requires focusing on specific product and the steps of its production process, such as design, manufacturing, promotion, pricing, etc.
  • Business project manager: this is a corporate position that includes such responsibilities as working on internal company’s activities, contacting with clients, and overseeing enterprise-level projects.

Project managers have unique career opportunities in different fields, both historical and developing. Among them, the following offer the best perspectives:

  • IT. As competitive and dynamic as this field can be, it offers maximum job security and flexibility for managing and technical staff. What’s also great about the IT field, it allows personal growth parallel to the company’s development and technology progress.
  • Oil and gas. Energy is one of the most sustainable fields that comes with high salaries and stability. What’s more, it offers a chance to not just perform your work, but also to contribute positive changes for future generations in terms of energy renewal and sustainable development.
  • Construction. There are few fields where the diversity of projects is as great as in construction. This area is perfect for those who can combine creativity and scrupulous work, and prefer not to always work at the desk.
  • Consulting. Communication and other soft skills are important in any field, but in consulting they are the core part of the job. This field is ideal to take on for those who are able to find individual solutions and are great at interacting with people of various personality types.

Where to learn more about project management?

For both entry-level and experienced project management specialists, continuous development of skills and knowledge is the foundation of their future success. It can take on the form of self-education or just sharing knowledge and experience – there are many resources where you can read and ask more about project management. Below, we’ve listed some of them.

1. Project Management Institute

The webpage of one of the most influential institutes in the field is a source of valuable knowledge about project management basics, methodologies, approaches, and career opportunities. Here you can find the PMBOK guide, standards, useful articles, information on courses and certifications, and much more.

2. Project-management.com

“The ultimate reference for project managers”, as the authors define the resource themselves. The website offers articles, advice, books, software reviews, information on jobs and careers, etc. Here you can find various up-to-date information, expertise and training materials.

3. Project Management by actiTIME

actiTIME blog has a lot to offer to both experienced project managers and entry-level specialists: software collections, time management techniques, practical advice, opinions, recent trends, interesting facts, and other relevant information to stay on track.

4. A Girl’s Guide to Project Management

A nice and friendly blog that provides insights into various aspects of project management. The author is an expert and trainer with years of experience, and she definitely has a lot to share with readers. You’ll find here tips, theoretical knowledge, inspirational stories, templates, and reviews.

5. Project Management Subreddit

Actually, Reddit doesn’t require any additional recommendations: here you can ask your questions, share your knowledge and expertise, and read opinions on different relevant questions and typical problems of the field.

6. Quora

Speaking of sharing knowledge and expertise, Quora is definitely worth mentioning here. You can use it to ask for advice, read more opinions on the subject, and communicate with other specialists working in your field.

7. Get-It-Done Guy

Stever Robbins, a.k.a. the Get-It-Done Guy, shares his tips and expertise on career, success, reaching goals, and using your potential to the maximum. The blog is helpful for anyone who aims to succeed at their job and achieve maximum efficiency in managing teams.

8. The Digital Project Manager

The resource offers literally everything for project managers: a community with a Slack team, advice, theoretical materials, templates, books, career advice and job opportunities, and information on upcoming meetups and events.

9. TED Talks

You can hardly find a field or an activity where TED talks are not useful, and project management is not an exception. Watch TED talks on project management as an inspiration, or to get valuable insights into various aspects of running projects, managing teams, and developing your skills.

Summary

Project management is challenging but rewarding work. It requires a lot of time and effort and is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re thinking of getting into project management, there’s nothing impossible. Plan your way to this field: learning, certification, acquiring initial experience, networking with PM specialists.

And, as we’ve already given several inspirational quotes in this article, here’s one more of them, by Joy Gumz, PM expert and trainer: “Operations keeps the lights on, strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel, but project management is the train engine that moves the organization forward.”

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