Martin Webster MBCS CITP is managing solution architect at Leicestershire County Council and his job is to solve problems and find solutions that enable beneficial business-led change. Project management is a core competence in directing and managing change.

Let’s begin with a concise definition of project management taken directly from Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 5th Edition. ‘Project management is the planning, delegating, monitoring and control of all aspects of the project, and the motivation of those involved, to achieve the project objectives within the expected performance targets for time, cost, quality, scope, benefits and risks.’

As far as project management definitions go this is rather good. But what does it tell us about project management? What does it tell us about being a project manager? In truth, many definitions often leave us out in the cold. Yet this simple definition does encapsulate what we should be doing.

It helps identify three important things a successful project manager does. The three (and yes, this is a threepoint sermon) things successful project managers do habitually are:

  1. make informed decisions,
  2. gain management support;
  3. deal with the unexpected.

I shall now take a closer look at these three distinguishing project management qualities.

Making informed decisions

Project management is often misunderstood and poorly practised because organisations don’t know how to control change. Simply put, they don’t know what they are doing. Senior management believes it is driving change through from the top down when in reality it is basing too many decisions on assumptions.

And here’s the crux of the problem. Everyone believes someone at the top knows what they’re doing. This stops everyone from learning and innovating. Let me tell you a story.

Channel shift

We have been working to introduce a new content management system. It started out as a technology project. However, I was convinced that this was the wrong approach. I thought we had an opportunity to save a great deal through channel shift and improved handling of customer enquiries.

But a change this big meant a change in the way we viewed the customer and how we engaged with them. I soon realised this would not be possible unless top management saw the opportunity and bought into the idea. This was a big ask because they all thought the project was about technology.

To get to the heart of the problem I asked an analyst to do a small study on website usage. I wanted to know how many pages we had and how often they were visited. I also wanted some insight into the way our customers behaved online.

When the analyst completed the research, she reported that we had over 5,000 web pages, yet more than 80 per cent of them were rarely used or not used at all. When I examined what she had found I learned that customers hardly ever visited the home page and never spent time browsing our pages. Indeed most traffic was via a search engine. I couldn’t believe how bad things were; one of our most popular pages was a not found error.

The key players in channel shift are not top management. They are the project manager and the analyst. The project manager had the conviction to follow his hunch and the analyst the tenacity to uncover evidence. Project management isn’t simply about following process. It is about challenging the status quo and making sure project objectives and benefits are crystal clear.

The project manager must use evidence, hard honest facts, to inform decisions and show people how the project will make change happen. So, a project manager’s job is making informed decisions to get change started.

Gaining management support

The next point is about gaining management support. So let us return to the case study.

I have a voice

The analyst collected all of the information and prepared not one but five reports: one for each business unit and one for each project board member. At the next project board meeting we presented our findings. We decided to hand out unique reports to each board member. What they read was a service-by-service description of their departments’ web presence. Or rather, how ineffective their department was at engaging customers.

For many minutes the boardroom was quiet. Everyone was intent on reading. They had nothing to say. Later we were invited to present our findings at management teams across the organisation. Soon afterwards executive management heard about it and we were presenting to the CEO. Through the report we were able to reinforce at every level of the organisation a sense of this is how bad the website is.

In ‘I have a voice we learn that those who think they have little power can make a difference. The overwhelming evidence presented to the project board could not be refuted. They were on side. The project manager had moved them from commanders to sponsors. Making informed decisions using hard facts helped the project manager win over the project board.

The board immediately connected themselves to something important and lent it their credibility. In this way project managers must learn to gain proactive support from senior leaders. This is what sponsorship is about. It is holding up an idea or cause as important. And, when the project manager has true sponsorship they are empowered and more likely to succeed in their role.

So, a project manager’s job is about making informed decisions and gaining management support.

Dealing with the unexpected

But this isn’t enough. We all know that projects are unpredictable and inherently risky endeavours. Therefore, the third and last point is this: project managers must know how to deal with the unexpected.

Knowledge is power

Getting senior management on board was just the beginning. Lots of questions followed and there was an expectation for us to have all the answers. We didn’t have them. The project team quickly realised it had to learn about customer access, efficiency and channel shift. We needed to be one step ahead of everyone else’s thinking.

We also knew our limitations and when external help was desired. Our approach to the project meant we could anticipate problems and deal with them head-on before they derailed what we were trying to do. For instance, when parts of the business were too ambitious in their plans we were able to convince the project board that restraint was necessary.

We fully understood the end-to-end transaction costs and the importance of user experience. In contrast, some of the ideas coming from the business made neither economic nor practical sense. Most business change projects have difficulties. This is not surprising since we rarely know exactly what we are doing or how it is to be done.

In other words, project management is learning as you go. Or to put it another way, dealing with the unexpected. Why this is such a surprise often confounds me. I think we are all in agreement that the project manager’s job is to deal with uncertainty. However, I believe it is more than this. It is about making a future more probable.

What we learn from the case study is that driving projects from the top does not work because people assume someone knows the answers. Projects are called projects because we don’t know exactly what we are going to do. We have to learn as we go. The project manager has to learn fast. Only then can the unexpected be handled with any degree of confidence.

So now you know what the project manager has to do: to make informed decisions, gain management support, and know how to deal with the unexpected.

‘There is no such thing as a problem without a gift in its hands for you.’

Robert Bach - Who said project management was easy?