The New Project Manager

Being a project manager today is a lot different than it was just a few years ago

Being a project manager today is a lot different from playing that role a few years ago. Just ask Brenda Dunn, a project manager/business analyst at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Fairfax, Va. She recently headed up a project to build a critical relocation system for the privately owned realty firm.

For several hours each day over a period of more than six months, Dunn worked intensively with users from five different departments to hash out exactly how the system would work. "I'd sit with them and get approval on the workflow, the drop-down menus, the names of fields -- everything," she says. Part of Dunn's job was to corral all of the users' opinions and needs into a single, unified system and help them visualize what it would look like.

Once the requirements and screen prototypes were solidified, Dunn sent them to 12 offshore programmers in India whom she had previously met to tutor in the ways of the U.S. real estate business. Then she coordinated communication between the users and programmers, remaining mindful of the cultural and time-zone differences.

Cross-cultural teaming and heavy business immersion are just some of the new challenges that project managers like Dunn now face. Increasingly, project teams and key decision-makers are dispersed throughout the world, time frames for completion are compressed because of heightened competition, and the projects themselves are not well defined yet are tied ever more tightly to business success.

This means big changes for project managers. "The perspective, the knowledge base, the skill set and the methods traditionally employed by the project manager must change to accommodate the demands of project management in 2006," says Bryan Beverly, a software architect and team leader at BAE Systems Information Technology, a government IT contractor in McLean, Va.

Broaden Your View

A key change, Beverly says, is that the perspective of project managers has become as decentralized as the technology they manage. "You need to look beyond your immediate circle and appreciate the dynamics of a broader community of interest and practice," he says. That includes understanding the business goals and pressures that motivate both your project sponsor and your users.

"When you're dealing with a Stanford MBA who's bright and aggressive, if you're not on top of your game discussing project scope and budget changes, you're toast," says Virginia Robbins, chief operating officer at North Bay Bancorp, a community bank holding company in Napa, Calif. "Project managers today have to be absolutely confident that they understand both the technology and the business and can translate between the two," adds Robbins, a Computerworld columnist who spent years as an IT project manager.

To achieve that confidence, ask questions relentlessly until you understand precisely the terminology, the issues and the context within which the business users operate, she says.

Communicate in 3-D

Because the people you're working with and want to learn from are no longer always right down the hall -- or even on the same continent - project managers have to become great communicators. "The virtualization of IT makes it tougher to communicate," says Peter Baker, vice president of information systems and technology at Emcor Facilities Services Inc., a subsidiary of Emcor Group Inc. in Arlington, Va. As a result, he says, project managers "need to communicate up, down, to the left and right."

That means using tools and adopting practices that support collaboration. Those practices might include storing all documentation in one virtual place where everyone on the team, no matter what his geographic location, can access them. But it also means understanding the importance of old-fashioned, face- to-face meetings. "You can't rely on tools to make up for a geographic situation," warns Bill Hagerup, senior instructor at Ouellette & Associates, an IT professional development firm in Bedford, N.H. Overcoming cultural gaps means meeting in person with your team members and key stakeholders at least once and as early in the project as possible, he says.

Become Worldly-wise

With companies globalizing their business reach, it's important to stay on top of the customs and cultures of other nations. But you also should know about the worldwide economy, U.S. policies toward countries in which you do business, differences among the IT standards supported by different countries and whether your technology can interact with those standards, Beverly says. "If you're playing outside the U.S., you have to be aware of the U.S. position toward the partners you're doing business with," he says.

Being aware of global politics can also enhance relationships with overseas team members. "Technology people might think international politics never come into play, but there are a lot of things underlying people's loyalties and beliefs that must be understood and managed," says Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif. "It's the rare proj-ect manager who takes the time to do that. Most wouldn't even know the prime minister of the country of the person they're talking to."

Be a Political Operative

Politics within your organization count, too. And today, being politically savvy is even more crucial as companies' tolerance for IT failures diminishes. "Project managers are easy scapegoats for problems within the organization," Hagerup says. "You need to understand people and their motivations, figure out who to ally with and who to watch out for." Even keeping the project sponsor actively involved once the project is kicked off can be a game of relationship management. "It's a key relationship to develop, but it's easier said than done," he points out.

Political savvy requires good relationship skills, but it also means taking an honest look at how your company operates and using the system to your advantage, says Johanna Rothman, a project manager who is president of Rothman Consulting Group Inc. in Arlington, Mass.

For instance, if your business needs require you to complete a project in five months, but you know from experience that it can take two months just to get the OK to begin, you need to find ways to work around the edges to get a head start. You might begin by prototyping, for example. "It's a politically correct way of getting management in gear without saying, 'We take too long to start projects,'" Rothman says.

Assert Yourself

With heightened pressure to succeed, you need to be more outspoken about what you need to get the job done. For example, if you work on global projects, you can't expect your travel budget to magically increase so you can meet your project counterparts face to face. But you have to make it happen. Even if your company has placed a moratorium on travel, you can't take no for an answer, Hagerup says.

The same goes for dealing with business constituents. Five years ago, business owners were more apt to hand over the reins when it came to choosing technology for a system. But today, "you're dealing with business people with very strong opinions on how things should be run, so you need to actively own the project," Robbins says.

Be Flexible

At the same time, you have to remain flexible, Robbins says. Intense competition is pushing companies to try business and technology gambits they've never attempted before, making projects increasingly complex, nebulous and speed-driven.

That pressure results in a double threat, says Rothman. Not only do you get tight deadlines, but the projects that come your way may arrive without clear requirements. "The more speed you need, the less you know about what you have to do," she says.

At some of Rothman's client sites, the people who fund the projects provide "tight or impossible deadlines," she says. "And they provide ambiguous requirements, when they provide requirements."

This means project managers have to be more adaptable than ever before. For example, they may not be able to employ traditional methodologies, like a phase-gate life cycle, because those don't provide a completed product as early, Rothman says.

Also, there's no guarantee you won't have to change gears midway through. "If you're a traditional project manager who thinks you can line everything up and execute on it, that doesn't work anymore," Rothman says. "There are fewer and fewer project managers who say, 'Let's lock down the project requirements early,' because they know they can't."

So, if you're in that situation, instead of trying to define all the requirements upfront -- which could take you six months or more - Rothman suggests prototyping a few features in a month's time to try out the architecture you think would work and get feedback.

"I can't remember the last time I worked on a project where we had complete and unambiguous requirements to start," she says. "Yet so many project managers keep the requirements phase going forever, instead of showing people something about what the current requirements represent."

Most important, you need an arsenal of techniques that you can apply to all stages of development -- from iterative planning and developing and applying good metrics to fast prototyping and code reviews, she says.

Robbins agrees. "You can bring structure and uniformity, but you can't do it rigidly," she says.

Sharpen Your Social Skills

Project management's roots in the construction industry may account for its traditionally heavy emphasis on measurement and scheduling, but the focus among the new generation of project managers who have been certified by Project Management Institute Inc. is on soft skills, says Emcor's Baker.

That means that understanding employee motivation, organizational dynamics and team behavior patterns has become as important to project managers as mastering critical path analysis, PERT charts and work-breakdown structures, says Baker. "We're slowly morphing to the point that softer skills are as important as the hard skills," he says.

So, how do you develop all these new skills? Project management training is certainly useful, but ultimately, experience is the best teacher. "I don't think there's a certification program that can substitute for lessons learned in life," Hagerup says. "There's a need for highly seasoned project managers on these strategic projects in organizations."

Start now to make every project count as a step toward achieving that seasoned expertise.

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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