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Project Management – Predicting the Future: A Thankless Job!
By Susan Peterson

There probably aren’t any job descriptions for project manager positions that contain the requirement “Must possess keen ability to accurately predict the future”. However, that skill is necessary in order to be an effective project manager who is both proactive in averting project disasters, and who plans contingencies wisely. Those who possess this skill may not realize that it is employed in a variety of situations. I had an information technology project student who was embroiled in a highly controversial system development effort for his company. One evening after class he told me that he was being summoned the next morning to a high-level meeting regarding his project. Without even thinking, I said to him, ” I bet that they’re planning to move up the completion date”. My voicemail messages the next day included one from this student. His message said, “How did you know? They did exactly what you said that they would do!” He subsequently told other students in his class as well as those enrolled in future project classes that they should ask me if they ever wanted to know in advance what would happen on their projects. There actually are advance indicators of future events that project managers can recognize. This article discusses a few of those early warning signals.

“Reading the tea leaves”

One of my clients often talks about people who can “read the tea leaves”. By this statement she means that people look at what’s in front of them and recognize deeper meanings. For example, it may be easy to ignore internal organizational conditions that are external to a project. After all, a company’s inability to meet customer deliveries on time and within budget may not appear relevant to a project manager who is assessing the feasibility for a new information system. When it comes time to actually recommend a solution, a proactive project manager will have identified both the optimum recommendation as well as a “fallback” alternative recommendation. Obviously, the alternative will not be as effective as the optimum solution. However, by “reading the tea leaves” in advance and having an alternative, the project manager will be spared the devastation of having his/her optimum recommendation ripped to pieces by senior managers who are focused on the company’s overall declining financial position due to loss of sales.

Ignoring reality

So many project plans are developed without allowing for any problems or deviations. These plans are based on consistent availability of talented resources, all of whom have no other company responsibilities except to work on one project. Another fallacy that is often applied in project planning is that there is adequate time to complete every activity entirely as planned. While the project sponsor may insist that there be no slack time nor contingency planning for common project challenges, an “omniscient” project manager knows that the plan has to provide for situations that commonly occur. For example, even if specific resources are fully allocated to a single project, there is a high probability that there will be absences. Illness, vacations, and company-sponsored training are all common situations that impact even the most committed of resources. Failure to take these occurrences into account in the project plan can only lead to late project completion.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Ben Franklin)

Reviewing other projects, even if they are dissimilar, can be of assistance in determining what issues have a high probability for reoccurrence. An example of the need for this review occurs when an organization has a practice of continually shifting people from one project team to another. A “forward thinking” project manager will address this condition in the planning and executing phases. Activities and tasks can be defined in smaller timeframes. Cross-training can be included for critical activities. In this manner the loss of personnel is minimized since the work is being completed in smaller increments. Also, the loss of a key team member can be less devastating since there is a backup person in place to continue critical assignments.

Few people outside of other project managers will praise or reward those who can “predict the future” and can successfully plan for it. However, it’s a skill that needs to be a part of an effective project manager’s skill set. As you polish your crystal ball and rearrange the tea leaves, may you be able to deal positively with the challenges of project management.

© 2013 Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved – No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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