One of the strengths of a good project manager, we are often told, is the ‘helicopter view’. This is the ability to not only work the detail, but stand back to see the big picture, and focus our effort accordingly.

This is something that sets us apart not just from project administrators and specialists, but also from many average 'business as usual' managers. Today I found a new meaning to the phrase. I was considering, side-by-side as it were, the projects I am involved in within my (paying) job, and the project I am most involved in outside of that. What is the detail level, and what is the end vision?

In my ‘day job’, I do what I suspect a great many of my compatriots are doing most days; sorting out a lot of trifling details that are other people’s responsibilities, but that won’t come together unless there is someone running around as the sheepdog or perhaps as the glue that holds it all together. I have several such little projects, and most of my readers will be quite familiar with the type of details an IT project manager has to handle.

The grand purpose / end vision / business objective of this portfolio of little projects may be something along the following lines... somebody standing behind a counter somewhere will no longer have to phone for help when they get a particularly obscure query. As long as they can remember how, they can now tap a few keys, get the answer up on their screen, impress the customer with a near-instant reply, AND save their company some money.

As for my ‘other’ project ... well, I won’t bore you with the details, but the ‘helicopter view’ is that first of all it will affect students in a premier university, then spread to influence the government, judiciary, civil service and institutions of a Third World nation, and finally to reform attitudes, promote good laws, put an end to corruption and change the economic future of a whole region, perhaps half a continent.

Somehow I think I know which is the more inspiring, and which I might seriously consider working on after retirement. In fact I think I have discovered in the other project, not the helicopter view, but the ‘space shuttle view’ - the really big picture, things like the fragility of life on this planet. Maybe it would do every one of us some good to take a year or six months - unpaid if necessary - to get a space shuttle view of things; perhaps installing life changing simple technology like solar-powered water pump / purifier systems in Darfur, or helping sort out the challenging logistics to rebuild Haiti, or to reconstruct post-tsunami coastal Japan...

Or maybe, if we did, the IT industry would start losing too many project managers?

This article was written by the Project Eye, providing insight into the project management profession, with a particular emphasis on IT projects and their wider context.