My project manager career path began in earnest working as a graduate in construction project management in the NHS, while completing an apprenticeship in project management. Theoretical learnings from my course, coupled with the high paced role I was immersed in, contributed to my steep learning curve.
Those taking their first steps into the world of public sector projects may very well find themselves thrown in at the deep end of projects, as managers seek to accomplish more with fewer resources.
Luckily, if you are a newcomer to the profession, you can hope to embrace a vibrant community of peers, seasoned professionals, and old-timers. It helps to adopt a reflective mindset and learn from others’ trodden paths, which is why I am keen to share three key reflections from my first 100 days in project management.
1. Be creative in applying project tools to live projects
The application of project tools to live projects is not an exact science. In fact, it’s closer to fine art as you may reap some surprising results from experimenting with different tools.
For example, tutorials about stakeholder management invariably begin with an instruction to ‘identify’ stakeholders and then ‘map’ them in some way, often as a ‘power/interest’ grid. When I applied this technique to a project, I realized that one of our in-house teams (required to vacate a newly leased space) had low negotiating power over timescales to leave, but very high interest in the solution for their new space (i.e. ‘high interest/low power’).
The grid prompted me to seek ways to enhance their influence over the outcome, most notably by obtaining their requirements for the new space and tracking their benefits from the move.
2. Take on extra responsibilities to meet project objectives
Within a year of my first project management role, I was playing second fiddle to a senior project manager on a high-profile capital scheme. I felt that my job description only really told half the story, if that. Role demarcations, though dynamic, can be clarified by asking yourself one important question: “What extra responsibilities do I need to take on for this project to meet its objectives?”
When I posed myself this question, I found myself conducting peer reviews for project documentation (usually performed by committees), project health checks (traditionally the province of the Programme Management Office) and recovering project management fees from a client (usually the responsibility of a credit controller). These activities, amongst others I completed, were critical to the project’s success.
3. Apply intuition to navigate ambiguity in projects
When I joined my department, I was signposted to the live process map, home to all relevant processes to be adhered to by project managers. However, I found that the process map did not opine on certain issues I later came across. For example, it did not provide guidance on the use of third party asbestos removal companies different to the approved in-house contractor. An intuitive approach dictated that the in-house asbestos manager be consulted to provide comment on the matter and that an agreement be reached with the third party.
To summarise, your first dalliance with project management might expose you to a plethora of project tools, so it’s helpful to be open-minded in selecting tools that add value to your project. Furthermore, project roles tend not to be wholly prescriptive as teams need to adapt to meet diverse workloads. It’s important to think critically about the extra responsibilities you may need to assume in order to satisfy your project’s objectives. Finally, exercise your faculties of intuition, as certain grey areas are not always accounted for by documented process. As long as you can justify your actions, you can inspire confidence in others of being in harmony with the principles of good governance.