The Accidental Project Manager

Dennis Bilowus

September 2006

When you were a kid thinking about what you would be when you grew up, you probably imagined yourself doing the main tasks of the job. If you pictured yourself as a carpenter, you were swinging a hammer. If you imagined being a lawyer, you thought of yourself arguing in a courtroom. Heck, if you imagined being an astronaut, you pictured yourself floating during a spacewalk.

Most likely, never at any point did you think, no matter what you chose to become, your time would just as often be spent making sure you even got a chance to apply the skills you acquired for your chosen field—that you would spend hours planning projects, gathering resources, engaging teams, monitoring and assuring progress and reporting on results. You never set out specifically to take on the role as a point person who must be simultaneously aware of progress on dozens of fronts while executing on the actual tasks of your business.

And just as likely, to this day, if someone were to ask you if you are a project manager, you’d look to your job title and respond, "No, I’m a wall and ceiling contractor,” or even, "What’s a project manager, anyway?”

But guess what? Whether you’re a contractor, a lawyer or even an astronaut, in actuality, you’re probably a project manager and you don’t even know it. You never meant to become one, but alas, you’re an "Accidental Project Manager.”

You don’t have to manage a Space Shuttle launch to be tagged with this title. In fact, you’re probably an Accidental Project Manager if

■ You don’t organize the team or the process, no one does.
■ You find yourself managing multiple "to-do” lists.
■ Every week has three or more deadlines to keep in mind.
■ You faithfully cross off tasks off of a clipboard as they are accomplished.
■ The sticky notes on your desk or dashboard are stacking up to your nose.
■ You’ve missed a deadline because of others not completing their tasks on time.
■ You’ve been given the excuse of "you didn’t tell us about that” when you know you did.
■ You find yourself getting confused as to which task relates to which project.

Now that you’ve been mildly disturbed by the self-diagnosis of what may sound like a horribly tedious disease termed "project management,” you can be comforted by the fact that there are thousands of people going through the same experience and a range of treatment options out there. Relief can be yours if you are willing to confront the challenge head on. Say it with me: "I am (your name here), and I am an Accidental Project Manager.”

In all seriousness, the fact that there is an entire field of professionals and several organizations (i.e., Project Management International, among others) dedicated expressly to project management, provides the everyday accidental project manager with a treasure trove of best practices as well as a strong host of tools aimed at simplifying the pathway to success for any initiative. Even if you only manage an occasional, short-term initiative, by taking your cues from the pros, you can anticipate obstacles and reap the benefits that come from formalizing your approach to project management. The bottom line: You can make it so that your projects get completed on time and under budget if you take the right approach, and in the end, this means more profit for your business.

What Accidental Project Managers Face
Most people’s first obstacle in achieving project success is finding a way to get everyone on the same page. For most homebuilders and contractors, multiple people play a small part in assuring a particular task is completed. And often, a bottleneck in completing one task may hold up dozens of others working on the same project.

For a software developer, quality assurance could discover a new bug, requiring the addition of another test cycle. In the world of construction, a rainstorm might cause a delay in pouring a foundation, which might trigger delays weeks later in interior finishing.

The need to be on the same page can also be obvious internally, when working among multiple subcontractors. Forget for a moment about assuring timely completion of tasks; without the right mechanisms in place, it can be a struggle to even collect and share status updates from each sub. For a project manager, even an accidental one, this can mean things grind to a halt quickly.

Those potential obstacles are functions of the mechanics and ability of the project leader to adapt to dynamic factors, but sometimes challenges are presented by the personalities working on a project.

Turf wars can ensue when project team members, as a result of their enthusiasm and passion for their specialty, cause friction by arguing among the different sub-teams about priorities. Sometimes people even compete for ownership of the overall initiative. Sometimes one team isn’t as convinced of the urgency and importance of a particular detail when compared to the other details on their plate.

Another factor can be information hoarders—those who don’t share intelligence quickly or effectively. Sometimes, subcontractors don’t go out of their way to share news on progress, as part of an effort to control the pace or perception of their work performance. Sometimes there’s a belief that one subcontractor will not understand details specific to another’s role in the project. Other times, priorities shifted by owners aren’t communicated swiftly to those managing details in a relevant area of the project. Regardless, creating an environment where progress information is shared—not protected—is vital to project success.

Still another obstacle is the resistance to adoption of new processes. Sometimes, the idea of a structured, strategic approach to project planning sounds like a lot of hard work. Team members can get nervous about accountability, don’t want to switch from old-school paper methods, or are of the mind that "we’ve always done it this way.” The accidental project manager must convince these individuals that the time it will take to create and develop new methods and processes will be dwarfed by that saved as a result of the efficiencies those new processes will bring.

Benefits of Formalizing Project Managment
Why formalize your approach to project management? Think "P” to the fifth power: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. For most projects, the number-one measure of performance is project speed—and project speed leads to greater profit.

Sometimes it can mean greater revenue. First of all, well-organized, clearly depicted work schedules get you the chance to manage a project to begin with—by helping you win it! At project scoping and bid stages, contractors who present a calendar or other visual tool that explicitly lays out the project schedule instill a greater sense of confidence in those considering who to hire.

You can also make more money because faster completion of one portion of a project can often mean a contract bonus for the contractors involved. And projects finished on time more often lead to repeat work and more referrals.

Even if there are no direct monetary incentives for project speed, if deadlines and objectives are created through a collaborative process from the outset and good communication on status remains in place, fewer project revisions are necessary. As a result, the project managers as well as workers and contractors are spending less time chasing down status, freeing up their time to work on the actual tasks at hand.

Another primary benefit of formalized project management is that it makes everyone more accountable. Subcontractors realize their position within the workflow of a project and get a sense for how their performance impacts other tasks, deadlines and, ultimately, individuals. And formalization usually leads to more frequent status updates, spurring a more take-charge approach by each stakeholder who realizes that he or she is more accountable due to project transparency. Many times team members also feel more comfortable knowing precisely what is expected of them, and the process of entering information into a more structured system both clarifies their responsibilities and reinforces the belief that their success will be visible.

Measurability is another key advantage of formalized project management. Not only can team members track their progress against stated goals, but they can also improve ongoing estimations of project life cycles. Some common metrics include the following:

1. The project is delivered on the original delivery date of the scheduled project.
2. The project cost is under the original budget.
3. There are fewer instances of overruns compared with planned allocations for any particular resource (in other words, the plumber doesn’t have to come out twice to do the same thing due to other bottlenecks).
4. The number of sub-projects running simultaneously.

A final benefit of adding structure to the way you manage projects is that it helps you develop a formalized and dynamically evolving template for your work. After creating this template, projects get off to a start more quickly, as project-specific obstacles can be anticipated more effectively. Capacities are better understood, helping your company avoid biting off more than it can chew at any particular time. Deliverables become more clearly defined with each iteration of the project plan, which is continuously refined based on each of the organization’s experiences.

Formalized projects can also set the tone for increased organizational collaboration in an ongoing way, beyond the scope of any one project. Teams gain a better understanding of each department’s tasks and responsibilities within not just that single project, but for the business’s overarching operations as well. Overall, this form of collaboration prevents teams from getting "tunnel vision” and delivers a sense of the big picture.

Five Must Have Practices
If you are going to have a perfect project, here are five key practices that must be employed:

1. Before beginning a project, get all the subcontractors to agree about responsibilities and workflows.
2. Create a visual map of production processes to increase efficiency and improve strategic decision-making.
3. Provide clear objectives and an overall benchmark for project success.
4. Create a single visualization of all project details, tasks and their interdependence that includes a mechanism for tracking status in as close to real-time as possible.
5. Hold regular, formalized status reviews.

Leveraging Technology
Today, the number one arrow that an accidental project manager can put in his or her quiver to achieve these best practices is good technology. Long gone are the days when the only option was pencil and paper, and quickly fading are the days where coordinating dozens of home-brewed spreadsheets were the best option. Today’s project- focused software enables organizations to create and adopt a new process that will increase overall productivity, improve response time when changes are required and provide immediate information on the impact of changes.

Keep in mind it’s not just the tools designed for the folks who launch the Space Shuttle that can bring this value—even popular tools like Microsoft® Project are overkill for the average accidental project manager. Instead of trying to train yourself and your entire staff on a complicated software tool with many confusing features a contractor is unlikely to use, look for software that cuts to the quick, and has a simple, no nonsense interface. If it’s easy to use, your chances skyrocket that people working on your projects will adopt it, and that your projects will reap the benefits described here.

As well as seeking an easy-to-learn project management suite, choose one that can work well with your existing tools. This may include spreadsheets like Excel®, calendar programs like Outlook® (Microsoft) or iCal® (Apple), presentation programs like PowerPoint® (Microsoft) and Keynote™ (Apple) or accounting packages like Intuit’s QuickBooks® and Microsoft® Dynamics™.

The best project management software even can interact with others’ applications aimed at the same goals. Choosing a suite that can open and modify Microsoft project files, for example, can go a long way in assuring that an accidental project manager can work seamlessly with other organizations that use more complex programs to manage projects hour by hour, day by day.

Finally, when possible, seek out software that can work across platforms. For example, often one contractor uses Macs while another uses PCs—a cross-platform software suite can help bridge this gap and enable Windows and Mac users to collaborate on projects and seamlessly share vital information.

Although most people don’t realize it, nearly everyone inhabits a project management role at some point or another in their daily professional or even personal lives. Regardless of setting, these accidental project managers deal with the same obstacles—from turf wars to information hoarding to resistance to change. By gleaning best practices from the "purposeful” project managers—those whose roles focus solely on managing projects, even the occasional project manager can bring new efficiencies to an organization that mean greater profit.

Through mechanisms that promote accountability, thoughtfully planned workflow and collaboration, you can bring order to the chaos of information being thrown your way, reducing your own stress levels and giving you more time for the part of the job you had envisioned when you first entered your field.