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The Essence of Project Management

Contributor: James Lewis
Posted: 01/12/2009
James Lewis
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One common definition of mananagement is that a manager gets work done by other people. This is certainly not very helpful when you consider that guards over prisoners doing road work also get work done by other people, but we would hardly call them managers. In 1973, Peter Drucker, considered by many to be the "father" of management, wrote a book titled Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. In his book, Drucker proposed that a better definition of management is when managers make an unsolicited contribution to their organization. However, this definition is not much better than the first definition, so Drucker devoted an entire 576 pages to explaining the tasks a manager performs, the responsibilities and the practices of managing.

In the same way, the Project Management Institute has attempted to define project management, and the essence of their definition is that management constitues engaging in five processes. These processes are called Project Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring and Controlling and Closeout.

No Simple Definition for Project Management

The simple fact is that you cannot define management or leadership in a simple, concise statement. It is far too complex. However, the fact is that it does involve getting other people to perform tasks that must be done in order to meet project or organizational objectives. And Drucker makes a point that I believe is often overlooked: A project manager must get every employee whom he supervises to go beyond minimum acceptable performance. The reason is that the minimum level is survival level. No organization can afford to operate at that level. If they do, there will come a time when competition will pass them and they will die. As Dr. Deming once said, "There are two kinds of organizations: those that are improving and those that are dying."

The Essence of Project Management

The essence of project management is that a project manager should facilitate the planning, scheduling, execution and controlling of all work that must be done to meet project objectives. She must get the people who do the work to do this, rather than doing it herself—thus the word facilitate. In other words, it is all about getting people to do what must be done, and for that reason, project management (or general management for that matter) is really about dealing with people. It is not about technology. Technology is what people work with or apply to achieve desired results. It is also not about the schedule or the plan in and of themselves. These are tools that people use to manage the work. I point this out because a common belief is that if a person has a copy of Microsoft Project® or some equivalent software program for scheduling, then that individual is a project manager. If a person does not know how to actually manage, giving him or her a copy of such software only enables them to precisely document his or her failures.

People Skills are the Only "Hard Skills" You Have in Project Management

In the 28 years that I have been teaching project management, I have found that companies usually never teach their managers how to deal with people, other than the occasional course in leadership.

Yet, consider this fact: Your capital equipment alone will not make a penny for you. It is only the people who run the machines, operate the computers and sell your product or services that make you money. So it is essential that you know how to get the best possible performance from them. The skills to do this—the so-called soft skills, then, are the only hard skills you have.

In fact, I have found that the single biggest internal problem that confronts organizations around the world is that project managers do not know how to effectively deal with people. Yes, we have recessions and competition that cause failures. These are external factors. Internally, however, we have motivation problems, conflict, lack of innovation, communication difficulties and a host of other issues that cause overall performance problems for the organization. And by and large, project managers are often at a loss for how to deal with these. Why? They have never been taught how. They can read balance sheets. Schedule work. Develop budgets. But they know more about getting performance from machines than people.

So if you are trying to improve your project management skills, learn effective methods for dealing with people. In the end, they will serve you better than your scheduling software.


Thank you, for your interest in The Essence of Project Management.
James Lewis
Contributor: James Lewis