Project management, between reality and practice; and which comes first


Would you prefer to gain knowledge before practicing or practice before gaining knowledge? What if you don’t have the choice?

Nowadays, many managers in different work environments appear to find themselves responsible for increasing number of tasks and before they realize, their initial job description often appears to be no longer valid and very far from the reality!

From personal experience, I consider project management as one of the most interesting elements that happen to creep into the job description of many managers and leaders in different organizations, where sometimes, it eventually shapes a big part of their roles. It is fascinating to see many managers excelling in project management in their organizations and successfully manage various projects delivering superb results, whilst they have received minimal structured project management training or education, if any!

In the dynamic business environment of today, project management is one of the key qualities that organizations look for when recruiting for managerial positions. Recruiters will normally also look for potential to build such capabilities as many managers develop the same by practicing and ultimately become responsible for managing various project. Has the bar been raised by the workforce or is project management becoming a ‘must have’ for managers?

It appears that project management has now become an integral part of managerial roles, however, it is indeed interesting to see how knowledge and theories related to this science are placed compared to application in real life – based on which comes first and the degree of overlap between the two elements. When managers find themselves practicing project management roles by virtue of their job, they utilize the tools of the trades at work without structured studying / training pertaining to the same. Therefore, it is very likely for them to take particular interest in the concepts when they are formally introduced as practical experience will come to aid when taking closer look and probably better place them in terms of picking the most useful tools to put in practice.

Knowledge is important and having access to the various tools of project management is crucial for successful project management, nevertheless, learning by practicing is unmatchable! Having to face the reality and learning from peers and superiors at work help managers to develop project management skills in very exciting way. Such managers are also likely to better appreciate the concepts and tools when they learn more about them as they have seen them in practice and more knowledge will better equip them to further cultivate their careers and deliver better results.

Learning before practicing sounds more academic than practical, and the way I see it, unless knowledge of project management is coupled with concurrent practical application, only modest results can be reaped. Don’t you agree?

Theory is fine but…

MGT 598 has been the only course that demanded an active interaction with the real world. We learned about various components of
project management – some more technical and scientific (e.g. resource smoothing, project cost allocation, Gantt charts, etc.) and some highlighted as more of an art (e.g. providing leadership, motivating team members, etc).

Based on my prior experience with project management and the learning imparted in the classroom there are a few points that I believe deserve special mention:

  1. A project plan is exactly what it is – a plan. It is a specific course of action for a given combination of expected 0externalities. There are numerous factors influencing the final outcome and to remain relevant, the plan needs to be dynamic. It needs to be tweaked throughout the project to remain consistent with what the team is doing and where they are headed. It is a time-consuming exercise and more-often-than-not what starts out as a sincere effort in management slowly morphs into a series of rule-of-thumb activities. It requires perseverance and patience to ensure all documents are updated. How often does the last iteration of the project plan or risk management document reflect the real status of the project?
  2. I view resource allocation to be a bit more complicated. To start with, we need to have access to the resources before they can be allocated. In real life, everyone is not suitably skilled for all activities. For example, in a construction project, the person operating the roller does not have knowledge of masonry. Similarly, the design team is different from the construction team. We are faced with a similar situation in software development also. The team analyzing user requirements is different from the group of programmers and the project will surely be at risk if you play mix-and-match. So, the resource pool is far from a homogeneous mix where everyone can potentially contribute at every stage. Here is the additional twist – will all resources be available to the project when required.

3. It is mathematically possible to reduce the duration of a task in half by engaging double the required resources, my  experience is slightly different. In the realm of software development, additional people working on an activity usually results in a greater need for coordination, communication and integration. To that extent, instead of reducing elapsed time, it has an effect of increasing activity time. Perhaps it is a similar case with other professions.

4. When preparing project plans a few managers have a tendency to try and be aggressive on timelines and time estimates. There is

also another camp that starts with an ambitious plan and then builds in slack to create a more realistic picture. My focus is on the former group because I think they generate more harm than good for the team. Constantly missing deadlines is demoralizing for the team and soon excessive backlog results in a very uncomfortable situation with senior management. What has been your experience
in such circumstances?