Managing Project Managers- PART 1

31 Jan 2024 9:31 AM | Ali Kucukozyigit (Administrator)

by Kennedy, Donald, Ph.D., P.Eng., IntPE, CPEM, FASEM

Managing Project Managers-  Part 1

There are a lot of materials and even entire societies devoted to best practices around project management. However, there is less information for all the engineering managers who are responsible for managing these project managers. This article is aimed at helping the people who do not manage projects but manage the people who manage projects. This is the first installment of a summary of a presentation I gave somewhere that I recently found in a box while cleaning.

In most organizations I have worked at (and there are a lot of these) there would be regular meetings where more senior managers would require their project managers to attend and provide ongoing status reports on their work. These meetings require the project managers to take their focus off the execution of the work in progress and devote resources to building stories to explain what has happened and why any deviations are not the result of some character flaw of the project manager. At one such meeting when I was being grilled, I rattled off many excuses and mentioned a river that had flooded in the area. The
executives had great interest in this excuse, in particular because it had been on the news. I then said that they should not consider that event as important since its effect was minimal, but the answer I received was that it was a perfect reason to explain why my project was behind schedule. The purpose of the exercise was to build stories, whether they would help this or future projects was not a priority.

If we think about creating value by our efforts, I cannot see how the above meetings can be the way to achieve optimal organizational performance. In the presentation I recently found, there was a list of actions that people who manage project managers can take to be better stewards of the resources under their control. I realize there are too many points to cover in a single post so I will provide these in serial form.

Action 1: Learn how to best manage technical people.

If you are not strong in managing people there is no way you will suddenly be good at managing the subset consisting of project managers. I will go out on a bit of a limb by saying the most common opinion by experts is that engineers do not get enough training early in their careers in subjects that create good managers. Papers presented at ASEM conferences in the 1990s suggest that one of the best first steps to being a good manager is to develop a desire to help people. Too many people in all fields go into management for the benefits that come with the higher pay, power, perks and prestige. As with many lists, if you fail to take the first step seriously, there is little point in going any further.

Action 2: Give the project manager the maximum amount of trust and
authority within your organization.

At one company, the director would make their project managers apply for approvals for their projects in small steps. For example, an initial approval would be given to develop the design, perhaps $2 million. Then when the design was completed, there would be approvals required to procure long lead materials, say $4 million. Once the orders were placed, approvals were given for signing construction contacts, say $6 million. I hope you can see the inefficiency of dishing out approvals a bit at a time. Cancelling a project
mid-execution almost always has a worse return on the dollar spent (zero) than spending the additional money required to complete it.

Action 3: Trust the project managers

If you do not trust your project managers the bad practice shown in Action 2 will be taken. If you cannot trust your project managers to complete a project, you better examine your selection process for who you assign these tasks. In one paper I presented at an ASEM
conference, I showed from a sample of project managers that the final
results of their completed projects over a few years suggested the outcomes were based mostly on luck, and not some talent each project manager had or lacked. This is very much supported by Deming’s statement that most performance evaluations are measuring the outcome of chance occurrences and are therefore a waste of effort. Since the
world is complex, I also published an article showing how over 30 years, you might be able to see that one project manager was more skilled than another, but this comparison was very difficult to assess and these days it will be rare to find several project managers
working at the same organization for any length of time. It is very common for materials devoted to project success to state that the project manager should have the authority to do the work. They know better than anyone what is needed and asking permission from people further removed is unlikely to add any value.

More to follow on this...

 Dr. Donald Kennedy, Ph.D., P.Eng., IntPE, CPEM, FASEM is a long time contributor to the Practice Periodical and ASEM blog.


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