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Project management from above

Liz Cassidy
October 6, 2011

Project managers are by definition multifaceted and multitalented. Balancing the disciplines of record keeping and scheduling with the interpersonal skills of communicating with stressed suppliers and clients, project managers surely earn their salaries.

On the way to developing this toolkit of multidimensional talents, some project managers can identify aspects of their own skill sets that are weak and in need of development. One of these may be the ability to balance effectively, that is, being able to consider the big picture while still immersed in the detail of the project: this is known as the helicopter versus the microscope view.

Dr Ester Sternberg, a medical researcher and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, writes that she was so incredibly focused on her own work with rats that she was blindly unaware of complementary work another researcher was undertaking on chickens in Austria. After all, if you were a rat person why would you be interested in chickens half way around the world and vice versa?

She says: “Such seemingly large holes in scientists’ collective knowledge have much to do with the blinders we are often forced to wear as a result of focusing so exclusively on one field. It happens in all fields.”

The issue of focusing so much on detail that we miss the blindingly obvious belongs in all disciplines, for project managers as much as for medical researchers. Sometimes when we pay too much attention to detail, we lose sight of the big picture.

Helicopter project management

Dr Stephen Covey says, “begin with the end in mind”. Any successful project has its endpoint, its definition of success. Woe betide the project manager who doesn’t know the project endpoint, or doesn’t regularly check that he or she is still aiming for it.

Beyond the endpoint is the purpose of the project. This takes the helicopter even higher. I had the pleasure of working with a project team charged with construction of a walkway to protect commuters moving from point A to point B. The endpoint was the on-time, on-budget construction of the walkway. However, the purpose of the project was protection and safety of people. In the design detail this point got lost, with the closed-in design having potential for stampede crushing, until a senior project manager took a helicopter view and called for a minor redesign bringing long-term safety to the forefront.

Being constantly vigilant, on purpose, and focusing on the endpoint may lead to robust project discussions; it will also lead to deliverables meeting the needs of all stakeholders and to long-term increased respect for the project manager.

The project manager with his or her helicopter view is equally mindful of all stakeholders and their associated needs. While the client may be the most prominent stakeholder, the client may not be the one who derails a project.

For example, recycling treated sewage water has been a political hot potato in South East Queensland. The project’s client and most prominent stakeholder is the state government; the primary stakeholders are the people who will be drinking the recycled water. The project will only stay on track if the expectations and needs of all stakeholders—in terms of communication and ongoing reassurance—are met in an appropriate manner.

Liz Cassidy
Liz Cassidy is the founder of Third Sigma International. An executive coach, speaker and trainer, she helps clients get great business, professional and life results. Via BeKnowDo, she operates business forum groups to help SMEs fast track their business growth.
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One thought on “Project management from above

  1. Liz,

    Well written and presented concept! If more PMs were not only able to lift their sights and look at the bigger picture, and in particular what the purpose is all about along with the impacts on the wider stakeholder communities, then my gut tells me that we’d have far higher levels of real project success.

    Frankly, I’m unimpressed with PMs who proudly proclaim how many “on time/on budget” projects they’ve managed. Much rather I’d hear how many effective outcomes they have facilitated!

    Keep up the good work, and the good writing!

    Peter Reefman.

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