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Project manager to the rescue

Stephen Burnell
July 14, 2011

How many of you have found yourself facing the challenge of being too busy to complete anything, or know a project manager who has? It feels like you have a million tasks to do and your list of priorities changes by the minute. Your stakeholders are on your back, the pressure is mounting and that light at the end of the tunnel is fading fast.

Author A.A. Milne once published a children’s poem that, for me, sums up brilliantly one of the clearest indicators of ineffective project management: being too ‘busy’ with no clear plan or strategy. Lots of activity, little value added.

The Old Sailor recounts the story of an old sea dog marooned on a desert island. The tale begins:

“There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew,
Who had so many things which he wanted to do.
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.”

It goes on to explain the sailor’s predicament as he realises the need for a sun hat, a hook and a line to catch fish, water to quench his thirst, a hut to guard against the elements, an escape raft, and a goat or chicken to keep him company.

But as he starts to make the fish hook, he feels that the sun is too hot, so he decides to first make the hat. As he is making the hat his thirst becomes unbearable so opts to first find the spring for water. On the way to the spring he spots a goat—which he really ought to catch immediately—but then decides that he needs to build either the hut for protection or the boat for escape. However, to do that he needs to make a sail, which involves making a needle, and so on until…

“…in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved,
He did nothing but basking until he was saved.”

Too busy

It will be no surprise to hear that many people in this situation simply freeze. Their wheels start spinning. They revert to ticking boxes, completing non-essential tasks to show that they are ‘busy’, avoiding critical conversations and escalating issues too late and to the wrong people.

Just like in The Old Sailor, they typically end up sitting, waiting and wishing on their shipwrecked project until someone or something comes to rescue them from their misery. They get moved on to manage a less complex piece of work, and their career struggles to progress in the right direction.

The company has to repair the damage done, make up for time spent idle, and deal with the budget, resource and opportunity cost implications. So how can you ensure that you not only survive but actually prosper in these kinds of project scenarios?

The power of your behaviour

So far in the series we have discussed, in broad terms, the significance of project managers’ behaviour when it comes to effective project delivery.

We have outlined how it is possible to measure the specific and tangible impact that stakeholder engagement, strategic focus and results drive capability can have on desired project outcomes and the company’s bottom line.

This week we focus our attention on you, the project manager. We look to understand how differing levels of behavioural capability can significantly impact on your effectiveness and success in a project delivery role, in particular, focusing on the following:

  • Project organisation: The ability to effectively prioritise, plan and manage project resources, processes and tasks.
  • Problem solving: Demonstration of logical and structured problem solving skills, while remaining open to new ideas and approaches.

Failing to plan is planning to fail

Being organised is critical for superior project management, however being organised doesn’t necessarily mean having your folders neatly laid out and colour-coded, or maintaining detailed spreadsheets for the sake of it. On the contrary, there are some extremely effective project managers who adopt a more holistic and strategic approach, while their desks swim in seas of paper!

Unfortunately though, to the detriment of many companies and individuals, project organisation competency is often measured using these kinds of operational criteria, because they are easily identifiable, even though they are not always good indicators of effectiveness.

Stephen Burnell
Stephen Burnell is the managing director of Touchstone Projects, a project management capability consulting company that integrates behavioural science with established project methodology to create a suite of tools to lift project delivery capability. He has international experience in talent management, and has consulted to some of Australia's leading organisations on their approach to the assessment, selection and development of their people.
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