Published here November 2013


Musings Index

Project Management in Lehmann's Terms
A Q&A session with Oliver Lehmann[1]

If you pursue a discussion over the Internet, on LinkedIn especially, you can meet some interesting people. The following is an intriguing exchange that took place about a year ago. For discussion, Oliver Lehmann of Munich, Germany, posited some strong views on project management. Here is a selection of his fascinating perspectives and our reaction to them. The exchange has been edited for brevity.

Oliver Lehmann: (on the subject of change requests from stakeholders) Project managers should consider themselves administrators of investments.

Max Wideman: Very good suggestion, though not my top priority. I think a better question in this area is "Whose money is it?" In a project with multiple stakeholders, if the requestor is not contributing to the funding of the project I give less priority than if they are and then I know that the change request is serious. As an aside, I have found that when my own money is at stake I tend to be much more cautious!

OL: Each project is a new learning process. High-pressure environments make people learn wrong things.

MW: The first part is true, but I am not so sure about the second. High-pressure does separate "the men from the boys". The boys (and dare I add women?) tend to fall apart.

OL: The hardest job for a project manager is knowing where the project stands. The second hardest is knowing what team members actually do.

MW: First part, yes, true. But however hard, the answer is inevitably an estimate at best. But any estimate is better than no estimate. It is surprising how many people are actually unwilling to even provide an estimate of their progress. They simply do not want to know. As to "what team members actually do", should that be "what team members are actually doing"? Either way, I think that a competent project manager should have some knowledge/experience of the work in hand. There was a time when I would not ask anyone to do what I was not willing to do myself (on a construction site, that is, though not to the same high quality workmanship standard). In more recent years, high tech stuff defeated me.

OL: Project management certification is not there to meet expectations but to set them.

MW: Frankly, in interviewing a candidate, for me a certification on its own simply ensures that he or she understands the project management lingo.

OL: Most managers make decisions based on numbers. Give managers wrong numbers, and they will make wrong decisions.

MW: I am not sure this is necessarily true. In my view, a good project manager certainly pays attention to the numbers but in the last analysis should pay attention to their past experience and "gut feel" (does the proposed response feel right?)

OL: Reserves are the gaps between objectives and constraints. Project managers should watch these gaps closely: A manager without reserves is a feeble observer of big events.

MW: In practice the situation is a little different. You may be given a project with no contingencies. In this case you have to decide whether you think it is possible to create some "reserves" out of the budget as presented, or refuse to take on the project in the first place. A project manager with integrity should be quite prepared to do that, or at the very least insist on the necessary reserves before starting.

OL: Project management is 90 percent management and 10 percent leadership. Good project managers delegate the first 90 percent to project associates and focus for themselves on the leadership job.

MW: Good observation, though that assumes that they have associates to whom they can delegate!

OL: Project managers delegate too late. You must start delegating work before the workload overburdens you.

MW: Yes, indeed. It is a question of setting expectations by establishing roles and responsibilities.

OL: When project managers have to explain organizational deficiencies in the project, they mostly respond by referring to technical troubles.

MW: I have not experienced this. May be that's because they are afraid of upsetting their employers?

OL: Project management literature and education consists of too many na´ve concepts, like the assumption of a single handover to customers/users, when staged deliveries and multiple deadlines are far more common today.

MW: True. But the exact nature of any particular set of "staged deliveries" depends on the area of project management application, which is probably why literature and education tries to simplify their content.

OL: Project managers should not trust promises of "Best practices" or "Controlled environments". Instead, they should develop situational intelligence, understand organizational dynamics and strive for life-long learning.

MW: This is quite a bag full and seems to me to be a part of the general self-improvement to be expected of a genuine project manager. Incidentally, if a project manager is employed under contract just for the project, how do they get to know the environment, situation and organizational dynamics? It seems to me that these are things that one only gets to know after a period of time in the service of the company.

Oliver Lehmann started his own training business in 1995 after more than 10 years experience running and supporting projects in the engineering/processing business with a focus on automobiles. He is currently President of the PMI Munich Chapter (2012).
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