A project is a promise. It’s about coordinating unknowable future events to deliver something of value.
Showing up on time for a meeting is a project (airlines! traffic! weather!) and so is building a skyscraper. That next podcast you’re going to publish is a project, and so is cooking dinner for guests.
There’s always uncertainty because we’re dancing with the future, with random events and often, with other people.
And there’s a need for management because left to its own devices, a project isn’t likely to get done on its own.
The unpredictable nature of future events means that there will often be unexpected speed bumps. No project manager has a perfect record, because the cost of being completely perfect in the face of unknown is too high. And yet, there’s a huge gap between great project management and simply providing earnest effort. If unexpected events happen to you more than the average expected rate, if you’re often better at finding excuses than a way to avoid needing an excuse, it’s a sign that your next project could benefit from a more intentional approach to shipping great work on time.
It’s not a surprise that we’re all pretty unsophisticated at project management. We’re pushed to begin with our very first assignments and creations in first grade, and we make projects, with increasingly higher stakes, all through school. And yet, no one ever teaches us that this is a skill that can be learned and delivered with strategy and technique.
The hallmarks of earnest amateurism are:
- lots of resources available for emergencies, shifting time away from planning and contingencies
- embrace of a narrative that this particular interruption is unique and couldn’t be planned for
- the thrill of getting close to failure and making it work at the last possible moment
The professional, on the other hand, invests heavily to be sure that none of these three exciting things happen. And when surprises happen, they expect them, accept them and simply shift to the other route.
The most exciting thing about professional project management is that it trades away excitement for systems thinking and intentional action. We make heroes out of people who show up with the last-minute save, but the real work is in not needing the last minute.
And it’s helpful to realize that it’s a skill, a choice, a set of tools to be learned, not something we’re born with. Very few successful organizations feel as though they’ve underinvested in project management. By the time a project is worth doing, it’s worth doing with intent.