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You Can’t Manage a Project While Working in it

No person starts their professional career in the role of project manager. Project managers usually have spent years as a member of project teams, contributing directly to the end product. As they gained experience and mastered their skills in multiple areas, they one day got the chance to manage a project. If they didn’t crash and burn too badly they got another chance and so on.

Managing a project involves a totally different time and space perspective than just being a team member on a project team. Team members are concerned with days and weeks in the future, a project manager’s time horizon is months and years out. Team members focus on ground level details while project managers have to take in the 30,000 ft. big picture view. Plus, formal project management activities involve much more coordinating and leading than producing.

But today, very few project managers have the luxury of spending all their time actually managing their projects. Most project managers are also responsible for work within their projects (requirements definition, design, development, etc.). Resource constraints and the proliferation of smaller projects are driving this change. This situation is a very difficult one because it forces the project manager to shift back and forth between working in his project and working on his project. Not only are these two worlds very different, the immediacy of work in the project is consuming and often pushes out time for managing the project. And, the less time a project manager has to manage his project, the less chance he has of staying on course. If a project manager doesn’t have time to manage a project in a certain week, it won’t affect him then but will affect him the following week, month, or quarter. It will sneak up on the project manager like a python snake and strangle him.

Reid found this out when he was on a project that was chugging along just fine. As it moved into the design phase he got more and more involved in the day-to-day creation of it because his designers were struggling with the complexity of the requirements and it was work he enjoyed. As a result, he did not spend enough time managing the project. After several weeks, he got a call from the IT sourcing company that was to provide his project database resources. They told him they were getting thin on them and needed a firm number ASAP.  Reid went back to his resource projections and adjusted them based on the design. He needed two more people than he first estimated but found out he could not get any extras after calling back the resourcing company.

Reid had experience in database development so he thought he could keep the project on track with some extra hours of work on the weekends. After several more weeks Reid was completely overwhelmed and had totally neglected his project management duties. He was walking by his director’s office one afternoon and she stopped Reid to inform him that she wanted a status report by the end of the week since she had not received any updates in weeks. Reid spent the next two days collecting status from team members and revising estimates. It turned out that a few of his team members who were supposed to be giving him half of their time each week on his project had only been giving him a few hours. As a result, his project was now going to be almost two months late. Needless to say his director was very disappointed when she received the status.

To prevent yourself from getting into this situation you have to strike the right balance between working in your project and working on it.

The first thing you need to do is set rigid boundaries on your time allocations. Every project is different when it comes to the amount of time required to manage the project effectively. So set aside the first days of the week as the time you work on your project and manage it. When you feel as though you have attended to all the major areas of the project then you can work in it. Do not waver here. The immediacy will creep in if you do. Also, you will be less effective the more you have to shift back and forth between working in and on your project.

Next, make sure you review and address the needs in these four major areas of your project:

  • Communication: All avenues of communication from the team members up to you and from you to your project stakeholders. Are outside entities getting the information they need and are they keeping you aware of their situation?
  • Team: The emotional state of your team including stress levels, morale, and personal issues. Are there any performance issues with any of your individual team members? Do they have all tools needed to make their job easier?
  • Schedule: Embracing the reality of where you are and influencing future work to meet baseline expectations. Do you need to realign expectations to establish new expectations?
  • Relationships: All levels of stakeholders and resource providers within and outside of your organization. Do you need to invest time into any critical relationships?

It’s not ideal but it is what it is: project managers have to live in two different worlds. To keep yourself sane and successful, make sure you keep the two worlds as far apart as possible and live in each of them appropriately.