Aphorisms for project management

Whether you’re a powerful COO trying to juggle multiple departments or subsidiaries, a bench-jockey looking for silver bullets,

Randall C Willis
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Whether you're a powerful COO trying to juggle multiple departments or subsidiaries, a bench-jockey looking for silver bullets, or a more modest caretaker simply trying to sweep the factory floors between shifts, you are involved in project management. As I look at my own career, I have realized certain truths that no one bothered to explain to me.
Never having seen them spelled out in quite this manner, I present to you three particularly important ones that I have realized of late. They may not solve your troubles, but they may offer a little solace.
1. No matter how hard they flap their wings, some birds just aren't meant to fly.
The dodo was incapable of flight. Penguins don't fly. Ostriches don't fly. While they all have the same basic physical structures of birds capable of flight, each of these critters lacks the ability to get off the ground.
Similarly, I've watched a lot of people in project management spend inordinate amounts of time flapping their corporate wings trying to make doomed projects fly. It seems that our innate fear of failure is stronger than our fear of flying, and yet failure is an inevitable part of doing business. The key to success is what lessons you take away from your failures.
After realizing that no amount of yelling or hair-pulling will make this bird fly, however, the challenge becomes finding ways to gently transition a project from paradigm-shift mode to damage-control mode. This brings me to the second aphorism.
2. A control freak without control is just a freak.
So often in our day-to-day efforts to do a job, we are faced with the reality that we don't have the authority to complete our tasks. Despite the responsibility that has been set on our shoulders, the resources needed to pull off the job require signatures from reluctant division heads, Herculean efforts from coworkers, or outright acts of God over which we have absolutely no control (see Aphorism #1).
The challenge here is to realize our managerial limitations as early as possible and accommodate these limitations into the work plan. Otherwise, we end up sounding like a lunatic as we rave about missed deadlines, strapped budgets, and unreasonable pressures. Often, the only things we can truly manage are expectations.
But why would senior management assign a task that can't be completed with current resources or authority? This brings us to the last aphorism.
3. A task or request is never inconvenient until it is inconvenient to you.
It is generally best to assume that most senior management doesn't have a clue as to what resources are required to complete a task. In their defense, that's why they hired us. And because they are not directly affected by the handcuffs they have placed on us, it never occurs to them that they are being inconvenient or unreasonable.
By the same token, to accomplish the task, we run the risk of acting just as inconveniently to others around us (see Aphorism #2). Thus, it is important for us to take stock of what we can accomplish with the resources and authority at hand and again, make sure that we manage expectations.
Now, when one of you figures out how to effectively manage expectations, please let me know. I've got two more editorials to write, people to interview for stories, a trade show, deadlines coming out the yin-yang, and a boss that just……

Randall C Willis

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