By Mauro Piloni
If you read my previous post, you may have already passed through the checkpoints I recommended, and you have the answers you need to accept your project management opportunity.
Now you are a project leader - congratulations!
You agreed to take the role because you confirmed that you are the most skilled person to lead this project (from now on your project). The business conditions, and how your project fits inside them, are clear. You’ve obtained all the financial resources to move forward without worrying about shortfalls before arriving at the end.
All Clear, All Set. Your Journey Starts!
Your first step as a project manager will be akin to organizing yourself for a long journey. You take your car, buy gasoline, pack your luggage, input the route into a navigation device, and then start the trip. It’s amazing what happens immediately after. Though well prepared, you soon realize you no longer have control of the journey anymore. The journey is taking control over you. There are accidents on the way, so you change your direction. Rather than managing a linear and structured plan, your decisions are now a result of what is happening around you.
In the majority of cases, project managers have the ambition to own the projects they lead. In reality, it is exactly the other way around. This is what happens when you start leading a project. You do not own the journey anymore. However, you can control your response to unexpected issues.
The sooner you realize the project does not belong to you, but that you belong to the project, the better off
you will be.
Project Management: More Than Making Plans
One of the first actions to take when leading a project is building up a macro plan. If you are extremely skilled in project management you create multiple macro plans, assuming that some activities can go wrong or may have a different outcome than expected. You spend an unbelievable amount of time doing this. You speak with people, gain their confidence, double check their input, and use the results of previous projects as reference points. Great job, right? Unfortunately, everything you have just done is probably not relevant to you.
Leading a project encompasses a variety of elements in addition to well-prepared macro plans. Many don’t realize that project management is not just the ability to make plans. It’s the capability to bundle contents into “tollgates,” and then respond to adversity and external factors while passing through those entrances on time (and in the proper fashion).
How does that sound?
Let’s step back for a second. We’ve established that you belong to the project. What does that mean? It means that if you are leading a mission-critical project you probably don’t have a life anymore. Your life’s pace is now set by the project. No Saturdays, no Sundays, no summer vacation, nothing like that. Just tollgates with goals to be achieved within a certain time frame. These tollgates set the pace of your life - both professionally and privately.
How do you mitigate this burden? How do you survive? Not by creating fantastic project plans, but by completely changing your approach.
Game, Set, Match: How to Win As a Project Manager
To explain this concept further, let me use the analogy of a tennis tournament. When you start a tennis tournament, you have just a couple of numbers in mind:
- To win a game, you have to score 4 points.
- To win a set, you have to win 6 games (so you need 24 points total).
- To win a match, you must to win 2 sets (you have to score 48 points).
- First, clearly identify your final objective -- winning the match is like bringing your project into reality.
- Once you set up your final objective, you uncouple the tasks into sequential, stand-alone activities -- the “sets” and the “games” within the “match.”
- When you start the first activity, forget the rest and just focus on that!
- Win one game at a time to gain each set, and finally the match.
The game you are not playing doesn’t count, just the one you are in does. So, the activity you are doing at this very moment is the only one that matters. When you achieve its objectives, you get ahead. If you miss it you are losing, and the entire project is in jeopardy.
Keep Your Focus on Each Sequence, Then Deliver
Leading a project doesn’t require the attitude of those who run marathons: resistance and persistence. Rather, a project manager uses the approach of those who play in qualification tournaments that have sequential events - you win and you move ahead. Every game is the game of the project’s life. Every tollgate is the tollgate of the project’s life. You cannot miss it, and because of that, you must focus on each step as if it were the entire project.
This approach allows you to keep control over the project, and stop the long journey from taking control over your life. It’s crucial to separate the project into a sequence of deliverables, and then hyper focus just on today/now, not on tomorrow. Don't allow the distractions of “what ifs” to come in, as that can pull you away from operational delivery.
Project leadership is a role for people who love pressure, stress, a chaotic life and dirty hands. The magic word is “deliver.” But, don’t make the mistake of thinking you are in this role only to deliver a project. Instead, realize that your job is to carry parts of the project through each tollgate. Moving into one after the other will allow you to complete the entire project without losing your way.