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The Accidental Project Manager – Oops! You are really in the #!*%@

I’ve been moved to write this piece because over the past few months in my organization, I’ve undertaken the Herculean task of developing project management maturity in my organization – which obviously includes developing a lot of new project managers. My team consists of 3 people – “Me, Myself, and I”[tm].

I love accidental project managers. I was one once but now just a managerial-accident-waiting-to-happen. Don’t ask me, I didn’t want it to turn out this way, but such is life, eh? It took me a freaking nearly 10 years to know that about myself. Life is funny that way…by the time you figure it out, it’s done and dusted. Don’t cry, but sing and rejoice instead because you’ve embarked on a unique life journey (some would say not unlike the passengers of the Titanic…but we try not to be negative in this space).

So, congratulations! You’ve done a great thing! Impressed some bosses, given people the idea that you’re someone who can get things done, have lots of drive and initiative, and for that not only do you not get a company sponsored bonus trip but instead, they’ve made you a project manager. Fantastic, you are now part of a unique community of individuals who through a quirk of fate have drawn the equivalent of a professional short straw. If you’re so lucky, you’ll turn yourself into the business “sanitation engineer”
The world\'s smartest oracle - aka the \"sanitation engineer\" which isn’t all that bad if you embrace it. Simply because everyone needs a “sanitation engineer” and it’s nice to be needed.

Drawing on my own school of hard knocks and from others who were kind enough to pass down their pearls of wisdom, a few guiding principles to help get started.
1. There is a different way of working – everything you do must ensure that the project objective happens. That will make you do your “day job” differently. Because you realize that the project objective doesn’t magically happen and there’s not a lot you can do because projects aren’t done by one-man/woman armies. The inexperienced PMs think that they’re superman, embued with supernatural authority to command people in a single command. But what these inexperienced PMs quickly learn is that even Superman died and while he was resurrected, they might not be.

So you quickly find yourself at the mercy of people – people who can get you fired (once you understand this, you will have found “PM religion”) – who may not be entirely on the same page as you. Because you’re smart and done some homework, you know that perhaps getting along with people and developing what we call “soft skills” (a misnomer if I saw one because if you don’t master them, I guarantee you that the landing will be anything but soft) is a “Good Thing”[tm]. What are “soft skills”? Many things but a good short list:
– influencing
– communication
– team management
– delegating
– appraising
– presenting
– motivating
– coaching
Followed up by a healthy dose of observing the universal Golden Rule.

2. MBWA (Management By Walking Around)my mentor taught me the value of this and I fortunately listened and learned. My days as a helpdesk engineer helped prepare me for this though and well, no way for me to really know that at the time (dumb blind luck). Supposedly, David Packard of HP fame first introduced this management technique and well, that’s pretty good pedigree IMHO. One of my favorite postings on MBWA is from someone who clearly knows about it and does it regularly as part of his management style – Kailash Awati’s “Going Walkabout” blog post is spot on.

3. You need to be a student – what that means is that professional project managers need to know what they don’t know and then work at getting down to the right level of detail. The question of how technical does a PM need to be is debated ad infinitem but my short answer is that you need to be technical enough to detect bullshit when you hear it. It takes years to hone your BS radar and if you can, it’s a skill worth developing.

Which leads the next learning and perhaps the most important one…

4. “Trust But Verify”[tm] – I say this all the time. I’m continuously amazed at how people simply will take face value, what someone else has told them. I ask the poor messenger, how do you know so-and-so did what they said they did in their project status report? I don’t blame him because the poor messenger isn’t the one with his/her head on the chopping block when the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan. But is exasperating nonetheless. For those from a quality background, you know this through Deming’s teachings:

PDCA Quality Wheel

PDCA Quality Wheel

This will save your butt. Because hopefully, you’ll come to realize the importance of MBWA and you can actually verify yourself how things are going. Because if you don’t, when someone asks you why a multimillion dollar project is going south, you will be wishing that you were in a galaxy far far away. That’s a “Bad Thing”[tm].

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