Project management techniques have been an inspiration for various other areas of business. The marriage of structured thinking and careful planning seems natural and promising for production, logistics, and R&D. What about sales?
In the late 1990’s, after several years working in marketing and HR, I returned to the sales department. One of my responsibilities was to teach experienced salespeople and frontline managers how to manage projects. At that time, Procter & Gamble its own internal project management process that was based on cascade models. One day, I found myself standing in front of a group of old colleagues, equipped with a set of pre-prepared slides from corporate and a little advice from an experienced logistics manager. I will never forget their blank faces at the beginning of the session, that is, before they nearly fell asleep from sheer boredom. Their body language seemed to express something like: “Hey, you’re our guy - so why are you doing this to us?” Since then, I’ve learned a little bit about teaching project management, and I’d like to share it with you - of course, keeping in mind the guiding principle from that old Jackson 5 song, ABC, easy as 1-2-3.
While on the surface, project management - PM for short- might seem like a mad scientist’s invention from Back to the Future, it’s actually a structured method for communicating with teams working on complex tasks.
Since the 1990’s, global awareness of the importance of project management and understanding of the challenges faced by teams and their managers has grown. Whether this is a response to a real need or just a trend, more and more problems are solved via dedicated projects. In some more traditional companies that use functional management, such projects have become so pervasive that it has led to the over-stretching of resources, causing doubts as to how employees can do their jobs when they are simultaneously involved in six different projects.
Project management is traditionally associated with technology industries (construction, aeronautics, new technologies, banking), with technical skills at the top of a project manager’s list of competences. At the same time, the world of engineering also appreciates the soft skills of an effective project manager. After all, projects are carried out by people, and the art of mobilising a team to work effectively is crucial for any project manager (who usually has no formal authority over their team). It’s a sensitive situation which has led to the perception of project management as both a science and an art.
However, project management is still sometimes perceived as a hermetic field for a few nervous, heady specialists, requiring analytical thinking - a profession that the average employee associates with producing a huge amount of incomprehensible documentation. Meanwhile, whether they like it or not, everyone manages projects - to a greater or lesser degree of efficiency. A project may be anything from organising a tour of your city for some friends from out of town, changing your remuneration system, launching a new brand of shampoo, or launching a mission to Mars.
If you work at a company that sells engineering products, chances are that you’re no stranger to project-oriented thinking. That may be because engineering students learn detailed planning and have to take theoretical classes in project management. It’s similar if your team sells solutions that require complex implementation. But what if your team isn’t made up of people with strictly technical educations? What if you’re working with a PE teacher, a journalist, and a philosopher?
Humans have been implementing projects for millennia, but it was the Cold War and the Space Race that accelerated the field. Challenges like producing an atomic bomb or mastering the technology of sending manned ships into space helped lay the foundations for what we know today as Project Management.
The essence of project management
According to the GM Solutions definition, a project is a temporary team activity undertaken to obtain a unique result - a product, service, or achievement. It has a defined beginning and end. It brings benefits. If you’re completing a project yourself, it’s not a project in the sense of a team working on a complex task that requires communication and coordination of the activities of several people.
According to PMI, a project is :
- Temporary, meaning that it will end at some point, as opposed to cyclical, operational activities. A project ends when its objectives are achieved, when it turns out that the objectives cannot be achieved, or when the reason for starting it ceases to exist. A project is temporary, but its result - the pyramids, a vaccine, Android firmware, or some useful piece of software - may last much longer than the project itself.
- Gradually refined - created in several steps with increasing levels of detail. For example, the project scope is generally defined at the beginning and then refined as the team acquires an increasingly accurate and complete understanding of the goals and/or creates partial products.
Traditional projects are ‘cascade projects’ - like a waterfall, things move in only one direction. That means that the transition from the original idea through to planning and implementation takes place only once. After collecting detailed expectations for the final product and planning the work, the team moves on to implementation and completion, which are not repeated. Linear, cascade, and waterfall methodologies turned out to be of little use for a number of newer challenges, which led to the appearance of alternative, ‘agile’ project management methodologies in the late 20th century.