I started managing projects in the early 1970s, as a young operational researcher working for Lyons Bakery. Projects tended to be relatively small dealing with such subjects as market research, production planning and stock control in supermarkets, writes David Reynolds.

I found out what the customer wanted; I wrote a proposal; when agreed I wrote and tested some computer programmes; I wrote a user manual and then presented the finished product to the smiling client meeting the agreed level of cost, quality and time. At least that’s how I remember it!

Needless to say, I have learnt quite a lot since then. With just a few stakeholders to deal with, it meant that most of the time I could engage closely with eventual customers and users to make sure that I would be understanding what they wanted and could then deliver it successfully. It seemed the obvious approach. What was lacking in formal inter-personal skills awareness was made up for by the day-to-day proximity.

Today it is still obvious that we should be greatly concerned with stakeholder engagement. The need is not any different than it was 45 years ago. However, the process to deliver relationship management has taken on a momentum of its own with the emergence of the recognition that we need to work hard on communication. It doesn’t just happen.

The learning and application of soft skills does make a difference, and has become an important weapon in the development of a good project manager. Often it is better to assume that stakeholders don’t understand me and then do what is necessary to convince myself that they do understand. My italics embodies a potentially huge minefield of skills and techniques available to help achieve this. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it less right. And it’s all part of the thrill of being a project manager!

So what else has changed?

The compartmentalisation of project elements due to their scale, recognises that project managers cannot do everything well themselves. Evolving from this recognition have emerged a number of incredibly helpful specialist skills which are now routinely complementary to project management.

When I began, I wrote all the project plans, managed risks, managed change personally, as well as monitored and actioned the team and suppliers. We all know that much of this activity is now routinely embodied in a project management office (PMO).

When I take on a new project now, one of my first activities is to establish the skills and working practices of the PMO team and then hopefully breathe a sigh of relief. In parallel with this, I have welcomed the evolution of various methodologies to enshrine common rigorous practice to the successful delivery of projects.

A number have emerged and I want to mention PRINCE2 and Managing Successful Projects (MSP) because this is the methodology adopted for UK government programmes and projects. This has certainly introduced the commonality not available when I began.

On a cautionary note, as a project manager it is important to recognise what is essential to delivery. The manual can be daunting so the PRINCE2 Project Initiation Document (PID) defining the controlling mechanisms, should only include what is necessary.

Project administration should not take longer than the project! Added to this is recognition that pressure in the workplace means that over the years I have noticed that many team members can be increasingly part time and are multi-tasking on this and other projects.

So the project manager is negotiating with team members and their line managers for the time and prioritisation necessary to deliver their project team tasks. I think the complexity of contracts has increased.

Having noticed many projects that have terminated early without delivering, organisations have become increasingly sensitive to loophole clauses that might allow suppliers not to deliver. With my project manager hat on I always remember the old adage ‘the contract is there for when it goes wrong - not for when it goes right’. So, as a project manager I have considered it a key part of my job to have a thorough understanding of contracts, and where possible been involved in drafting them in order to bring as much clarity as possible to any fuzzy areas of delivery.

Having been a client and supplier project manager, sitting on both sides of the fence at various times, I have been able to identify some of the ‘hospital’ clauses. So my advice is - always participate fully during contract negotiation if this is practical and possible.

Project budgets are, of course, an extremely sensitive aspect of project management and the monitoring of ongoing and forecasted costs has definitely become more sophisticated over the years. This has been supported by the more widespread recognition that phased implementation of benefits is less risky than a big bang.

So, some benefit is realised before the pot is empty as against the project being abandoned with no benefits achieved and accompanied by headline-attracting failure. The more recent emergence of an agile approach to development embodies this style and has meant that budget still available to spend can be focused on what the business agrees will be the most beneficial elements of the list of potential business changes.

Post evaluation and benefits realisation

Two disappointing aspects of project management have been in the areas of post project evaluation and benefits realisation. Too often a project is deemed to be complete when the new processes go live, at which time there are communal pats on the back and the project manager is whisked off to another highly important and critical project.

The business turns its attention to other priorities in the organisation without taking the opportunity to evaluate what went right and what went wrong and how they could improve in the future. It is so easy for knowledge and experience to be lost.

The cost of training in the UK alone is immense and could be significantly reduced if lessons could be truly learned, documented and then made available in the future. Benefits realisation has always been a very tricky area, not least because quite often benefits overlap a number of business change projects.

A novel and innovative approach may probably be needed by many organisations. It may be difficult, but it is a healthy sign that a business really wants to understand itself and to become aware of what changes have really worked, rather than just covering up promising ideas that were not as successful as hoped. This requires a confident management team.

So what hasn’t changed?

I believe the essential ingredients for a happy and successful project manager have not changed. On first analysis it would appear that a project manager takes on responsibility for delivering something they don’t fully understand, to people they don’t know, with resources they haven’t seen, to a timescale that someone has guessed. And to most people’s surprise they still want to take it on! So to counter all this uncertainty, a number of key personal characteristics are needed and are as relevant now as they were then.

For example:

  • quickly coming up to speed;
  • assertiveness;
  • understanding risks;
  • lateral thinking;
  • coping with stress;
  • believing what you see over what you hear;
  • listening skills.

On top of this when all is not going well - don’t take it personally. You are in the middle trying to make the best of what may be going wrong and they are relying on you to do your utmost to dig them out of any holes. However, the absolute key necessity to remaining sane amidst the turmoil, which I have been surprised to see omitted from presentations, is to have and share a sense of humour. And to make time to have some fun on the project.