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Project management - you get what you pay for

Published on 15/10/03 at 03:24pm

Pharma projects have project managers. Technology projects have project managers. But there is a world of difference between them. That often explains why clients, looking at project proposals and seeing a line item for 'project management' may ask why it's there and what they are getting for their money.

Surely, they reason, project management is a given, in both the sense of being part of the expected order of things, and of being free? So what exactly are they paying for? A canny client might be tempted to negotiate the project management fee down - ideally to nothing - and a vendor desperate to get the job might let him. But is this a real saving or a false economy?

To answer that, we need to consider the question - what do project managers do? The answer, unlike so many obscure job titles, is they do exactly what it says on the tin: they manage the project.

A pharma project manager might, say, be a manager in charge of a clinical trial. His background is likely to be in the therapy area concerned. A clinical trial manager will probably have had some clinical training in the therapy area concerned, and have worked his way up through the ranks. In other words, a pharma project manager is like a football captain, where the best or most experienced player is usually promoted, without any particular training in leadership or management. If he wants that training, he will get it, but it is rarely a prerequisite.

A project manager in a technology team will also have earned her spurs in a particular discipline, but will have moved on to specialise as a project manager for several years. A successful project manager is a blend of personal characteristics, such as those stated below.

A proficient integrator

This is probably the key skill. A few years ago, Internet projects, for example, could probably be handled in a couple of days by the chairman's nephew. Now that the Internet is a mainstream communication tool, even a simple project will involve programmers, HTML specialists, authors, designers, maybe even experts in making Flash movies. You get the point? The project manager is the glue that holds all this talent together.

A competent communicator

To handle the integration, the project manager needs (in an ideal world) clarity, honesty and integrity to ensure that both the client and the project team know what is going on. Too many wannabe project managers agree with every client request, no matter how unreasonable, and try to bully a team of competent professionals into delivering sub-standard work.

A skilful negotiator

No project ever proceeds as planned, even before it begins. A project is usually a compromise between what the client wants to pay and what the supplier wants to deliver. The project manager, as key contact in the proposal phase, has to navigate through these choppy waters. During the project, when things dont go smoothly, the project manager has to keep both sides  his own management and the client  happy.

A team worker

By now, it will be clear that the project manager is less like a team captain and more like a player-manager, and the most effective player-managers are those who see themselves as a part of the team, rather than prima donnas who want to grab all the glory.

A good leader

In a complex technical project, there is no room for old-fashioned martinet style leadership, based on shouting and sarcasm. The various knowledge workers involved respond well to clear instructions and being left to get on with it, so the leadership consists mainly of scoping the project carefully at the outset, ensuring buy-in, and then keeping the project on course.

These characteristics are brought to bear on the seven key aspects of the project:

  • cost
  • scope
  • time
  • quality
  • resources
  • risk
  • contracts.

Cost and scope are inextricably intertwined. The more the client wants the project to do, the more it will cost. That used to work for projects that were costed on a time and materials basis, and is the main reason for horrendous cost over-runs.

What usually happens in the brave new world of fixed price contracts is that the supplier allows the project to creep in a vain attempt to keep the client sweet. The upshot of this is usually that quality suffers, mainly because the project team becomes demotivated by having to redo work that has already been done, resources become stretched because project creep plays havoc with milestones and deadlines, new risks enter the project, and client and supplier fall to arguing over contractual details.

So, a properly planned project needs the involvement of a project manager from the outset, not only to ensure the trains run on time, but also to write the timetable for them in the first place. So they arent a false economy at all.

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