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Simplify the Job
By Barry Otterholt

The Project Manager’s job is far more complicated than it needs to be. There are far fewer skilled project managers in the workplace than complex projects that require them. A common-sense solution then, is to simplify the job of the project manager. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Limit your role – A common trap is for the project manager to accept responsibility for scope. The project manager does not typically have the authority to dismiss requirements, and so does not own scope. Scope is a function of the outcome that is expected by the sponsor, and is inherently owned by the sponsor. If the sponsor expectations are not aligned with the resources he or she authorizes, you cannot be expected to deliver the expected outcome. The project should be reviewed with your sponsor on a regular basis to ensure scope and resources are in balance. Where imbalances exist, the sponsor must authorize a decrease scope or increase resources. Following this rule, you will spend less time rationalizing impossible outcomes, and more time on creative ways to optimize the things you actually have control over.
  • 90 day rule – Define tasks such that they can be completed within 90 days. This provides two benefits. It sets a milestone within grasp, which motivates people to achieve it. It also provides enough near-term understanding of the work to be done that the risk of run-away effort is minimized. Following this rule, you will spend much less of your time mediating opinions about tasks that have no clear definition and have more time to optimize efforts on well-defined tasks.

  • Zero-based meetings – Many recurring meetings continue on their own momentum, long after their usefulness has ended. It’s not unusual for me to find over 30% time which can be handed back to staff merely by eliminating unnecessary meetings. That’s like giving staff an extra day or two a week. Challenge the inventory of meetings from time to time. Let your zero-based meeting bias show. Start with the assumption that no meetings are required, anywhere, any time. Were the need for a meeting can actually be proven, assume nobody needs to attend. Obviously this is nonsensical, but you’d be surprised how much waste can be trimmed from the work day and how much more people enjoy the workplace when they get more work done.

  • Sync Sessions – Here is a meeting that seldom occurs, and can be the highest value series of meetings a project manager can have. Conduct weekly review meetings of 15 to 30 minutes with each of your directs, where they openly discuss their workload, share crative thinking about ways to approach their targets more efficiently, and synchronize their estimates according to the work which remains on the task. This ends up being a fair investment of your time, assuming you are in charge of 7 to 15 directs, but the payback is among the highest of anything you can spend time on. After all, the only true project variable is the human mind and how they see what needs to be done. Following this rule will provide more time to engage in creative and emotionally fulfilling dialog with your team and the result will improve the bottom line cost and schedule.

There are many other ways to simplify the job, but these are among the most effective I’ve found. They require some courage to implement, but the payback is quite worth the effort.

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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