What is Project Management?

It seems that every few months, something hits the news that has to do with project management. Maybe it’s a demand that every business should have a PMO. Or maybe, another major project that has hit major overruns because of poor project management. Or someone has released a study of why projects fail.

But what is project management?

How does it differ from any other type of management? What makes it special? How will it affect me as an entrepreneur and business leader? Why do people care?

In this article, I’m going to explain what project management is and why it is different from regular management. I’m going to use strategic project management to illustrate the differences. The same argument exists for operational projects but there are less grey areas.

At its simplest, project management is the collection of tools, and system design and people skills necessary to lead, support, guide and control temporary endeavors. However, while that definition is both accurate and complete, you really need to take it to the next level in order to understand how it is different from normal management.

First off, let’s correct a 200-year-old mistake. Traditionally, business thinkers have explained the structure of management by referring to the old military structure of strategic, tactical and administration. Strategic groups put the business in the right place, tactics dealt with the customer and competition, and administration was focused on doing the stuff that wasn’t really important. Unfortunately, that description of the Napoleonic army was wrong in 1812 and it was still wrong in 2012. Since this is a business article and not a lesson in history, I’m not going to go into the details of why.

However, there is a better view of the organization. It is based on the time view of the parts. Again, there are three groups within an organization.

There is a strategic group. Their function is to think in terms of the future of the organization. Effectively, they navigate and steer the organization. They look for large changes and major improvements. We seldom call this management. Normally, it is referred to as planning.

At the other end of the spectrum is the operations group. They depend on doing the same things, in the same way, repeatedly. Their focus, if you will, is on today and the past. At most, they will initiate incremental improvement. When we talk of management, we are usually thinking of this group.

Bridging the gap is the project group. Their focus is on shifting the operations group so that it follows the direction set by the strategic group. Their focus is neither on the future nor the past but rather on change. Their activities are temporary. They appear and disappear as goals shift.

These temporary activities are called projects. And their management requires a different set of skills than operational management.

First off, an operational manager needs to focus on his department’s activities. That means that he must be knowledgeable in the same subjects as his people. Industry and subject knowledge are most important. Tasks and systems are not as important since they seldom change. On the other hand, project management is a generic management profession. The focus is not on the subject of the project but rather on people, tasks and systems.

Second, an operational manager focuses on continuation. Typically, he or she will start with an existing team. They will focus on enhancing that team and gaining the most from that team. And with luck, will never have to participate in closing down that team. On the other hand, project management is focused on building a team, quickly forging that team, and then closing down the team. Because the team is temporary, maintaining it is more a matter of keeping it pointed in the right direction than in traditional management. Instead, the focus is on the beginning and end of a team.

A good illustration of this difference is the relationship of each with conflict.

An operational manager will frequently try to avoid or minimize conflict. Conflict is bad. It disrupts the team and causes wounds that may never heal. If conflict is inevitable, he or she will invoke management techniques that work to minimize the extent and depth of that conflict.

On the other hand, project management considers conflict inevitable and beneficial. Although project management seeks to limit the extremes, techniques exist to encourage conflict and the avoidance of group think. Additionally, the basic team model — forming, norming, performing and disbanding — incorporates conflict in its initial stages as an inevitable part of team building.

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