Please tell me more about project management
April 25, 2011 8:45 AM   Subscribe

What are some of the project management best practices? Are there tools that can help keep a program manager aware of details or is this a characteristic of the person? If I wanted to hire a project manager, what should I look for to get a good/skilled person? Are there contract/independent project managers?

Obviously, I don’t know how to best word this, but to explain where I am at and what I’m looking for.

I have a small freelance writing business, and at times I can barely keep up with the work. I’ve noticed on quite a few occasions that although a program manager is assigned to work with me and/or other contractors, freelancers, internal teams at the company, sometimes they appear to drop the ball. For example, I will send a detailed email saying things such as File X contains the names and description of X, Y, and Z along with why or why I did not do something (I did not do B until we receive feedback from the client). To be honest, I will then receive an email 2 weeks later asking – did we do B? Why not? Or can I write a description of X, Y, and Z. To me, I wonder if there is way for the program manager to keep track of these details. It isn’t just at the freelancer/contractor level, however. The client states on a phone call will say “I want to see this done in this way, I want to see everything labeled with the name Bob”, whatever. I take notes and make a point of putting all of this into the document, but then I will see that no one else did it or the program manager will take off what I just added and I will send a note back as to why I added it. I really, really believe paying attention to details would help, but I am not a project manager and so maybe I misunderstand what they are supposed to do; I'm not trying to offend anyone, I'm just guessing as to what I think they could do/see if it can be improved/and hire my own person to do so.

I am planning to expand my business, and I really believe that a good program manager is what is I need. But are there people who can do the above? Are there really really good tools to use? Best practices? How can I know if someone is or is not capable of doing this? Do program managers feel they should only be doing task X or are there other things that he or she will also do (if they are needed to help with tasks to help meet a deadline? Will they do this?) Are there independent project managers or is that not done in this industry? Would just hiring someone from scratch be a really stupid idea?

I’ve also thought of just finding these tools (if they exist) and trying this myself – then if it works, hire someone with the instructions to use or learn about tool X or Y. Bad idea? I mainly want to focus on the science and writing, but I would do this if it meant a great team or solution down the road. Apologize for the lack of focus – I do believe that I want to hire a program manager next but I could be wrong and my resources and/or time may be spent in a better way.
posted by Wolfster to Work & Money (7 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A credential I'm investigating is the PMP - project management professional. There is a text produced by the certifying body that discusses project management in a single volume. If you read that you will very likely get a good sense of what project management is about.

In your examples I think you are having a specific management problem, which is that the lines of responsibility are either too complex or too diffuse to move efficiently. It is not uncommon. A project manager is responsible for getting milestones accomplished. When there is an issue, the manager is supposed to figure out where the issue comes from, whether or not it changes the necessary progression of milestones (you point to one where the customer is unresponsive and that slips the completion date. The person who's supposed to get the customer data should intervene, the PM should figure out the program impact) and what to do about the present problem, followed by what to do to keep the issue from recurring in general. Maybe the PM isn't doing that. When you have a specific work product to contribute to a program, you might need to manage that but the way your comments are written, the management problem seems to be in your client's house and not yours. If the project has a bad PM then it can degenerate into a happening, and as a vendor you have little control over that.

If I were in your shoes I would flag a customer input as a missed milestone and, instead of explaining why you didn't do something, call the PM with suggested work-arounds. Advancing an issue with -solutions- or -recommendations- beats throwing flags.
posted by jet_silver at 9:21 AM on April 25, 2011

um, a missing customer input.
posted by jet_silver at 9:22 AM on April 25, 2011

Best answer: In my opinion, the most important factors in determining whether a project manager will be successful are soft skills and character traits. They need to be disciplined, motivated, observant, able to react quickly and flexibly to change, good at communicating, detail-oriented, tactful and politically astute.

Next most important is subject-matter expertise in whatever the domain their project is in. This will depend a lot on the specific project, but it's at least possible, albeit more difficult, to be successful while starting from a low baseline here and building up this knowledge over the course of their project, while a PM will never be any good without the soft skill stuff above.

Least important is knowledge of the discipline of project management - again this will vary based on project type, and I'm sure is more important in things like software development or aerospace engineering where there's a huge number of resources and dependencies that must be kept track of in a formal way. My experience with people with certifications in project management, however, is such that at I consider it a mild negative when I'm looking at a resume and see a cert like a PMP. All too often I've found it means somebody who's going to spend their time constantly putzing around with workplans and Gantt charts rather than actually understanding and managing what's going on.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 9:28 AM on April 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

PRINCE2 is a great project management discipline and has some useful tools you can use to work around some of these challenges.

Consider using product descriptions to be really clear about what you will / won't deliver, daily logs to keep you (and your key co-workers) up-to-date with your progress, and formal highlight reports to keep your stakeholders informed of status.

But, at the end of it all, if you've got rubbish managers, you can only really use these tools to limit your exposure.

Another thing to consider is that your ability to give the degree of attention to detail doesn't necessarily scale well. Perhaps your program(me) manager colleague is simple operating at a higher level of focus and relies on others to deliver the detail...?
posted by Lleyam at 9:44 AM on April 25, 2011

Best answer: I will come at this from a different viewpoint - rather than a project management methodology, look at it from a product lifecycle perspective.

Regardless of different types of product lifecycles out there, the basic activities (not necessarily in IT) are Idea conception, feasibility, requirements gathering and management, Architecture, detailed design, development/implementation/production, Verification and validation, deployment/sale.

You need to be able to distinguish activities/tasks from things that affect the product. If a customer states something, it *has* to go under the product specifications doc (requirements gathering/maintenance phase). Otherwise, it can be lost in the PM's inbox.

But daily tasks such as reviewing a draft or a report needs specific times/timelines and usually must be followed up with respective people, as these are additions to their core jobs (while it
may be *your* core job).

I may rambling here, but in summary, a quick reading of CMMI should help you gain a different perspective to the workflow involved in producing something. CMMI is usually applied in Software Development, but the major concepts are discipline independent.
posted by theobserver at 9:55 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps your program(me) manager colleague is simple operating at a higher level of focus and relies on others to deliver the detail...?

This is my guess. Project managers come in different shapes and sizes- and some have more precision when it comes to keeping the minute details of tasks straight. If these minutiae are part of the client's specifications, then it's absolutely the PM's responsibility to track and be aware of them. If the details are more of the "how" as opposed to the "what," then the PM may leave it to the individual team members to manage. If they do this though, they really should let the team know beforehand.

Strictly defined, program managers really shouldn't be tracking this level of detail. Project managers and individual team members will be called on regularly to give updates. It seems strange that your client is assigning a program manager to work directly with you rather than a project manager, but this may just be a title thing rather than a job description thing.

But to answer your at least one of your questions: Both program and project managers' primary responsibility is to make sure that the product is delivered to spec and on time. They should not be letting things slip by because they're not in the job description. As for how you can tell someone's detail oriented...I don't think you can without seeing them work. No one is going to say they're not. But watch out for phrases like "big-picture thinker." That should be a red flag for detail orientation.
posted by bluejayway at 10:07 AM on April 25, 2011

Response by poster: I really want to thank everyone for their answers; I am truly an outsider to this field, so even when I read many of these responses, I still don’t fully understand the role of a PMP. All of your answers will help learn more about PMP, and I hope that I can eventually (or define what I want) out of someone who will perform this job role for me. I do plan to hire someone down the road for this test, so this will truly help me conduct research.

Jet_silver: Thanks for suggesting a single text.

Strangely stunted trees: I wish I could favorite your response several more times. I have worked with PMP at previous fulltime jobs and at many freelance jobs, and I myself make such a list and wondered: why don’t they know the subject matter? I’m actually going to use your list for hiring eventually (soft skills first, followed by subject matter expertise, and a few topline ideas for PM). I also agree philosophically and may look a bit harder at a CV with the words PMP (I, too, have seen people at fulltime work places create Gantt charts all day long – then they never even shared the deadline expectations, but boy did their cubes have beautiful charts).

Lieyam: Thank you for suggesting those tools and perspectives. I need to read a bit more to see what that is!

theoberserver: I will definitely have to checkout CMMI, but I really like this: “If a customer states something, it *has* to go under the product specifications doc (requirements gathering/maintenance phase). Otherwise, it can be lost in the PM's inbox.” I’ve seen many projects at many companies, and the clients request is rarely or never makes it to any sort of internal document. I may look and see if there is some sort of protocol and/or way to stress the importance of this.

Bluejayway: The term “Big-picture thinker” is going onto my red flags list.

Thank you again!
posted by Wolfster at 6:22 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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