Whether you want to become a project manager or not, you’ll be running a project at some point in your life and in one of your capacities. It might be in the role you hold at your firm, or in the role you occupy in a technical or professional organization, or even a role you fill in a community group. The point is, many of activities we undertake are projects. That is, they are what Project Management International (PMI) defines as a, temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. A project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.
Before I dive into one possible answer to this question (the option I’ll suggest is one worth following!), I’m not advocating earning a credential, certificate or degree in project management. I don’t believe a practicing engineering professional must earn one of these to be proficient in applying project management concepts to efficiently bring about intended benefits to the customers and clients they serve. What I do believe, is that one cannot leave development of a methodology of project management to on-the-job training or simple observation.
Learning about project management by osmosis might make you proficient, however, I doubt it. Relying on casual observation to learn, internalize, and then apply knowledge in a fashion that enhances ones proficiency in any topic is a path that’s fraught with long lead-time. Simply put, you’re going to get a better return on investment of time if you actively study project management methodology and know the basic concepts.
So how is knowing project management concepts going to make you a better engineer?
- It’s going to give provide you with knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques that you can apply to your project activities to meet the project requirements. These always revolve around bringing some benefit to someone or some organization in the most effective and efficient means possible.
- It will give you a greater appreciation, if you lack it, about the importance of the project triangle: cost, scope, time. Plus the other component that sometimes gets left out: quality.
- It will provide you with an understanding of a methodology you can apply to delivery of the projects in which you work, so you can produce outcomes in an organized fashion.
- It might just make you a better manager, leader, and ultimately more successful in your career.
If your organization has a project management methodology in place, then learn it and follow it. Many firms and organizations have process and procedures for managing projects. These may or may not sync with the theory behind, let’s say PMI’s project management body of knowledge. This could be good or bad, depending on the level of maturity around project management in your organization. Often times, as time goes by, processes and procedures adjust to the realities of project implementation for that organization, which means that the fundamentals might be a bit different than what you might study. That’s not good or bad, it just is. Use your self-study of PMI project management or other methodologies to bolster your toolbox with ideas that fill gaps in your organization’s process. Maybe even use that knowledge to recommend updates and changes to your organization’s project management process.
Project Management Applied in the Real World
As a leader in an engineering organization, I didn’t want variability in the way projects were managed for scope, cost, adherence to time. It wasn’t that I didn’t foster creativity, it’s that having multiple methodologies for managing a project wasn’t good for the client and it wasn’t good for internal control of important items such as cost and time. The organization had a project management structure in place, however, I noticed that each project still had variance in the way it was managed based on the proficiency and motivation of individual project managers.
You want to be to the motivated and proficient engineer who both understands and applies project management to their work, not the person who learns the minimums and gets by. Regardless if your engineering career aspirations are to run your own firm or be the best engineer in your department, neither of these can be obtained by operating at the minimums. You achieve a bit more knowledge about project management, then you apply that knowledge in your day to day work, and that gets noticed. It gets noticed by peers, by more senior managers and by clients.
One question I’ve been asked numerous time regarding project management is this: Do you really follow each of the process groups and create plans for each of the knowledge areas as they’re presented in PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK?
This is referring to the five process groups at the heart of PMI’s project management methodology: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring & controlling and closing. These are the five stages every project passes through, and if you take a moment to apply this to a project you’ve worked on you can quickly see that these groups do apply. Within these five process groups, PMI’s framework also contains ten knowledge areas covering: integration, scope, cost, time, quality, procurement, human resources, communications, risk management and stakeholder management. Again, if you think about a project on which you’ve worked, you’ll be able to draw connections between it and each of these ten aspects.
This is where study of project management fundamentals is important: your organization’s processes might not cover all of the ten knowledge areas. Good or bad? Depends. What if there isn’t any emphasis put on quality or communications or management of stakeholders? What’s the downside of this? What might be the upside of starting to think about these?
Do I follow each of the ten knowledge areas exactly, generating plans or writing down my thoughts in a matrix or some document? No, I don’t. In fact, I don’t have experience of ever doing this with the projects I’ve managed. The fact is, I didn’t study project management concepts until seventeen years into my career! By that time I was in senior management positions, not directly managing engineering projects. This said, I could see — and have more recently used — various elements of the ten knowledge areas actively and directly applied. For example, on a recent project I knew that communicating the project’s benefits and importance to the organization’s overall strategy were important, as was including stakeholders in the planning and executing phases. So I created plans addressing the communications needs of the various internal and external stakeholders, as well as a stakeholder management plan addressing each role, expectations, and potential political influence they might have.
What’s important to me is that I understand the importance of the stages of a project — that is, the project’s lifecycle — and the types of issues I need to be aware of such as cost, scope, human resources, risk management, etc. If you’ve never heard of this or have never thought about a project in these terms, you’re leaving a lot to risk. Simply understanding the stages and the different elements have helped me deliver better projects, because I’m able to think through the project in a linear fashion — start to finish — and at least mentally assess the different issues I need to address. Some projects have risks I do need to generate a plan for. Some have stakeholder issues I need to formally and actively engage. Other projects might have schedule or communications issues that need to be more actively managed. Because I understand the concepts of project management, at least I know to assess and act.
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach