Project Already in Progress

We’ve spent significant time discussing project proposals, project selection, project management tradeoffs (scope, cost, and time), and, to a limited degree, team selection.  Ideally, a project manager would have input into these aspects before leading a project.   However, that isn’t always the case.  I’ve been fortunate in my career to participate in and lead several significant projects, but I want to talk about one of my career’s biggest challenges.  I joined a company and assumed the role of project manager for a project that had been in progress for several months.  My new company was also in an industry that was outside of my expertise.

The specific challenges I faced were budget constraints, time constraints, and project resources that I inherited.  Because I was in a new industry, I was also speaking a different language when it came to products, processes, and jargon.  These were unfortunate circumstances, but they were no excuse for project failure.  I needed to make sure the project was successful, and I quickly learned two key lessons:   rely on the expertise of your team members and focus on your project management skills and relevant experience.

The first thing I realized was that I had let myself get bogged down in the details in the past.  It would‘ve been beneficial to have a great understanding of the business and products, but, in the past, I could lose focus of driving the overall project.  In my new situation, it was almost impossible for me to micromanage because I simply didn’t have the specific knowledge to do so.  This kept me focused on the overall project in terms of facilitating discussions, assigning tasks, and meeting deadlines.  The project team members were very bright and had a significant amount of experience in the industry, and the consultants on the project were capable of providing guidance in terms of best practices.  Letting go a little bit to let the experts focus on the best solutions was a big step for me, and it helped reach optimal solutions and helped the project progress according to the timeline.

Because I didn’t have industry knowledge, I needed to focus on my project management skills and applicable experience.  As I said above, I began to focus on the big picture and on ensuring that my team members knew what was expected of them in terms of deliverables and timelines.  I also focused on my experience of working with and implementing supply chain systems and processes.  I made up for my lack of experience in the specific industry with my significant experience in demand planning and operations.  Even though I could not provide a lot of insight regarding the specific products, I knew what it would take to build a collaborative relationship between the sales and supply chain planning teams to improve our inventory turns and fill rates and to complete a successful project.

I am curious if anyone else has had a similar experience and whether you share my views or have had different takeaways.

4 thoughts on “Project Already in Progress

  1. I think your segment on micromanaging is especially important for certain people, including myself, to consider when deciding whether you are best fit for a management position. When I think about heading any sort of group or project I find it intimidating because I have issues looking at a project or task on a general scale. I tend to be extremely detail oriented and typically organize any project as so. I think it is an important skill to be able to pick members of a team and truly allow them to manage their assigned components. Being able to delegate is something I believe I would need to concentrate on if I were to ever direct a project so I would know I was keeping the company’s larger scope strategies on track, not just individual details.

  2. Often, an industry/firm outsider can provide a fresh new perspective. So I wonder if you would say your lack of experience at the industry/firm provided significant advantages, as well as challenges.

    In my work experience, usually individuals bringing strong “management/leadership” skills and lacking technical prowess, usually fail. I think the talent of the individual and the culture of the company are very important. It says a lot about your abilities that you were successful in such a challenging situation.

  3. Excellent post, and that sounds like a very daunting situation that you passed with flying colors. You spoke very technically about the way you did it, but what about the more-social aspect of it? You managed the project, but in our readings, we’ve come across some material speaking about how to smooth the bumps with obstacles, usually referring to people. Were there any people like that on the team that butted heads with others? If so, were you in charge of them? And how did you deal with that situation?

    I’d also agree with Chris’ comment. We just “cut” the exec director, who brought just that “strong management/leadership” into our company, but also brought a strong (stubborn, my way or highway) attitude and lacked technical expertise for comps and/or robotics, which are our bread and butter.

    And to answer your question- I did much the same, although not quite in the high-backed captain’s seat. In my current position/project, I initially lacked industry knowledge, so focused on my own strengths as you did- Translation and basically absorbing as much as I could. The sales-pitch portion was already completed before I came aboard. I initially did peripheral work as a facilitator before learning enough and proving myself throughout the process to be entrusted with more technical work, support and troubleshooting.

  4. I wanted to follow up on the comment by Chris about managers lacking “technical prowess” failing more often than not. In MGT 500 and MGT 555 (HR), the professors taught that most of the time when managers fail it is not due to a lack of technical skill, but it is due to their lack of managment and people skills. Since learning that, I have observed that to be true in my company. Many of the managers don’t have the technical skills to do the jobs their employees are doing, but because they have good management skills they are still able to be effective managers. Having the technical skills helps, but that is something that can be taught over time, and something that the project manager will mostg likely not be doing themselvers. For instance, a project manager on a project rolling out new POS systems in a chain of retail stores doesn’t need to know how to install the cabling, they can leave that expertise the the electricians on the project.

    I am by no meaning devaluing the struggle that it must have been for Brent being new to the industry and coming in during the middle of the project. I think that ultimately it shows that he has excellent skills as a project manager, and could probably be successful in almost all project management situations.

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