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The Classical Painter Project Manager

Sometimes it starts with an intentional fixed gaze. Other times, it starts with awkward eye contact. And sometimes, it might have even happened by someone raising their hand and saying, “I’m your man” (or woman). Yes, these are some of the ways that the non-project managers become project managers. Like a doctor becoming musician or a painter becoming sculptor, seamlessly moving between different skills and materials. Sometimes the transition works and sometimes not so well.

We've all seen it before: Someone says they have managed a project before and will head up your new business initiative. Maybe that person is in a leadership position so no one would question their skills anyway. Then an email announcement goes out, some meetings are scheduled, people hired and expectations set that very first week.

We all started out somewhere in our chosen field no doubt, but what sets the bar higher for proficient PMs over the non-PMs who accidentally made eye contact with a stakeholder in a meeting is one word: Experience. Also the interest and ability to pay attention to details and being able to understand the big picture at the same time is a critical component of being a successful Project Manager. Just as an artist doesn’t paint one fantastic picture and then moves on to making horse shoes, the successful project manager gains experience by working on project after project - experiencing both success and failure, and learning his or her craft while honing their skills.

Professionals gain experience and knowledge by doing work in their field or going to school or both. If you go to school to be an accountant or lawyer, that doesn’t mean you will be a successful project manager. If you spend time in academia focusing on getting a PhD, you may not have had as many opportunities to gain experience from success and failures to successfully manage a project. The expectation is you will be a successful accountant or lawyer but that doesn’t necessarily translate to doing the job of a project manager. Sure, you pay attention to details and get things done, but it’s a different set of details that matter: Apples and oranges, so to speak. Also, there is a whole ecosystem within the PM space to successfully execute a project. Not just managing some meetings and distributing notes, but managing project financials, risks, communication, scope change management and resource tasks.

This is not to say that an accountant or lawyer or a PhD in Economics can’t be a successful project manager, but it does mean there are some skills that may not have been honed in the PM space while skills in other aspects of that person’s life were being fine-tuned.

I had a conversation with a partner at a law firm about implementing a solution. They wanted to do it on their own for various reasons (mostly to save money), without utilizing a formal project manager. Words like “business case” and “total cost of ownership” were almost considered profanity. Around a year later, I was catching up with my contact and was told the senior partner who was the “PM” was about to pull out her hair and working crazy hours trying to pull things together. The one developer they hired many moons back didn’t deliver much and was most likely on his way out by choice or force. A lot of money was spent, timelines missed, scope creep etc etc. I could only sit back and ponder how much money, lost opportunities, frustrations and inefficiency actually occurred in this scenario because the firm intended to save money doing it on their own. It was boggling as I put a pen to the back of a napkin calculating an off the cuff how much time and money was wasted by not having a Project Manager, all in the name of “saving money”.

In another scenario, I had a project where I was given the task of figuring out how to a wrap PM rigor around a strategy project that was already in flight and had previous execution issues for various reasons. The original financial benefits and resource planning were based on a single spreadsheet, with tables all over the place and minimal linking of formulas. The only way to see the spreadsheet in its entirety was to zoom out so far that you couldn’t even make out the text anymore, just little blurbs of black in little boxes. Interesting enough a person with a PhD put this massive spreadsheet together. Needless to say, he was a bit perturbed when we would have to seek out clarity on assumptions he made in the spreadsheet and even once complained that our spreadsheet was too complex (I believe I already mentioned it was his spreadsheet.) Would you go to a heart specialist for a bladder problem? Probably not.

Sure, the job of Project Manager is pretty easy to understand from one perspective, but the reality is that the successful Project Manager job is like a classical painter. To be successful, you need to understand the big picture of the initiative and know what colors and brush strokes you need to get that initiative to look just right when all is said and done: On time; On budget; Expectations met; Risk Managed and ready to hang in a museum for all to admire once it is done.

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