Why I Love Project Management
By Alora C. Chistiakoff
Throughout my career I have held roles with all kinds of titles, but in the end, at my core, I am a project manager. That is how I see myself and how I tend to identify, no matter what my formal title. And it’s for a very, very simple reason: there is one constant in business, and that is change. And managing change is usually most successfully done when broken down into bite-sized pieces as a project. That is what I love doing: implementing some kind of change (ideally an improvement) by breaking it down into realistic pieces, mapping out a plan to successfully accomplish the goals and then making it happen.
There is a built-in occupational hazard in this, of course, and that is that most things can be framed as projects. I was once having a conversation with some project managing friends, and one was talking about how she planned and executed her move from one state to another as a project and tracked progress in Microsoft Project; and another friend scoffed at me when I implied that I did not approach hosting a dinner party as a project… until she stared me down and got me to admit that I really did. She knew that, of course, because she does the same thing. My husband teases me because I put grocery lists in Excel and our personal goals in MS Project with milestones and action items tracking our progress.
I’ve managed departments and people, and yet doing either of those things well invariably also understanding how to manage projects. Helping staff accomplish personal and professional development goals is often best done as a project: identify the goals, determine a reasonable timeline, outline milestones, establish check points, and procure the necessary resources to make it happen. Managing a department is a combination of managing operations as well as a series of projects designed to execute change that is necessary as an organization grows and evolves.
There is a classic management expression that says: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Project management is about a providing a framework so that whatever your “it” is, you can not only measure it, but you can actually manage it to successful completion.
Aside from the amusing little occupational hazards of being a career PM, I have also found a great deal of personal development value in what I have learned in my professional life:
Be pragmatic – A project manager’s job is to make things happen, to do it efficiently, and to be realistic. Idealism can be a wonderful, inspirational quality, but pragmatism is necessary to get things done.
Pick your battles – This is an aspect of pragmatism to be sure, but it is even more than that. It is knowing how to read a situation to understand which battles are going to cost you, how much and whether or not your personal/political capital is best reserved for another time and place. This is about reading and responding appropriately to the context in which you are working.
Success requires communication – Being a project manager requires that you recognize that everyone involved has a vested interest and their own point of view, and that effectively communicating with them about the project requires recognizing, respecting and understanding their position.
Break it down – Life’s biggest challenges are always most intimidating when they seem too big to manage. Since project management is about identifying how to break down solutions into actionable, measurable pieces, this skill is always applicable no matter what you do. Breaking a problem and/or solution down to it’s basic building blocks and then working out a plan that meets the requirements of both the individual piece as well as a plan to integrate everything back together into a cohesive solution is critical and applicable to all aspects of life — whether it’s planning a wedding, moving from New York to Texas or finding a new job.
What I love about project management is that it has given me a way to view the world, to keep it from being overwhelming (at least all the time), and shown me how to define and measure my own opportunities for success. Even more than that, it’s provided me with microcosms in which I have had the opportunity to discover new business models and new organizational styles to see what lessons I can learn and then how to re-apply the most applicable ones someplace else.
As I’ve been looking for a new role as part of the move to Austin, I have been struggling with whether or not it does me more harm than good to brand myself as a “project manager.” But the fact is, even when I am careful to call myself something else, when I look around me — at my life, my business dealings, my goals — I see a series of projects. So what has become painfully clear is that, no matter what title anyone applies, project management is now just a part of my intellectual DNA and it’s probably not particularly helpful to try to define myself (either personally or professionally) without recognizing that a huge part of how I look at the world is a by-product of being a project manager by trade.
Fortunately that’s not a terrible price to pay, since I do really love what it has taught me and the opportunities it has brought me.
Alora C. Chistiakoff has spent a decade managing projects, leading change initiatives, developing teams and implementing technology solutions in startup and entrepreneurial environments in the Bay Area, NYC and now Austin, TX. She blogs regularly on business, leadership and career management at The Pragmatic Contextualist.