project management, Toby Elwin, blog, Who's on first, Abbott, Costello

What does project management mean to me — a project manager’s sermon

project management, ark, cubit, toby elwin, flashblog, #pmflashblog
“Wait! Now you tell me … cubit? What is that?” Noah, PMP*

In the beginning was change. Well, the beginning, itself, was change. From the beginning, however, change challenged. Some wanted change, some preferred more of the same.

Change versus same creates confusion.

To clear up confusion, someone powerful stepped up and said, “change must be” looked around said, “make it so”, then retired to a local watering hole for results.

Things were suddenly interesting, now there was expectation, not just option, but anticipation.

With necks on the line, our early kin debated what to change, when, and, in the early days very firm delivery dates, of what was at stake.

People accountable for change generally:

  • Embark on a cattle drive and hope most of the herd arrive;
  • Plot trajectory towards something you expect is over there;
  • Engineer a process map of what should be;
  • Harass others with verbal, mental, or physical threat;
  • Pitch a horseshoe for luck; or
  • Devise a plan

Flash forward a few millennia to this project manager’s journey through the valley of death (well more a trail of tears through a valley of despair) and what project management means to me.

Though intended as a sermon, I come as a repentant sinner to share my humble station of divine grace of what project management means to me through countless projects, emotions, and nerves saved.

Return to Change

My journey began in strategic planning. My function:  facilitate and design strategic plans.

Implicit in strategic plans is a complicit adoption of said plan. But prior trails lay littered with dusty, 3-ring binders and the hollowed-out souls of those who planned before. Early in planning, many stakeholder conversations included:

  • “Not this again … “
  • “We tried this before … “
  • “We never implemented the last plan … “
  • “Why is this any different from the other efforts … “
  • “I have better things to do, like run my organization … “
  • “Let’s just skip this effort and pretend we never met, they never follow through anyway … “
  • “Who cares what we plan, they end up telling us what to do anyway … “

The not-too-subtle message:  why get excited when nothing changes? People were tired their prior commitment went unrealized, efforts fizzled, and the prior state returned to rule.

Change comes as either incremental improvement or a launch of something new. However conceived, something different this way comes. The solution was not just planning, but planning for change in people and around what to learn for competence needed to contribute. Whether new product or new process, if people do not know what it looks like, than they will not know they got there.

Some react to change and some plan to change, the difference reveals project management to me.

There’s a Process for That

Early in consulting, I was surrounded by professionals who created a lot of documentation. This den of vipers spoke of logic and presented rational process flow diagrams and reengineering process maps.  These fork-tongued, serpents heavily-weighted plans with process models and slightly amused themselves with people pacts within process.

project management, who's on first, abbott, costello, Toby Elwin, pmp, #pmflashblog
Costello: All I’m trying to find out is what’s the guy’s name on first base. Abbott: No. What is on second base. Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second. Abbott: Who’s on first.**

To this confederacy, change meant process, not people; technology over competence. People and behavior rarely entered discussion until “as-is” and “to-be” process mapping finished.

Maps intended to satisfy people need, but people need to experience the journey to really understand what happens at the destination.

I could not count project success without end-user adoption and utilization of the project objective.  Too many projects with too many failures. Too many times getting it done went against getting it accomplished.

Luck is not a reliable substitute for a plan. However, I could not expect a change if I was not prepared to change.

I saw their exercise of project management and thought to join their cabal, speak their language, communicate change, and measure progress of where to start and what to account for.

Who’s On First

What project management provides me is an intentional plan for change and a shared perspective of what change will look like.

What project management means to an organization:  competitive advantage.

Project management provides a body of knowledge to understand how to plan end-user adoption and utility. There is no process that assures success, but there are options in project management that help articulate success:

  • Identify scope,
  • Understand risk, and
  • Plan how to modify and align expectation

Rolling out a process to change is not a plan to change from here to there. Project management is about getting the most people from where they are to where they need to land; style points are deducted for losing people along the way.

To me project management means there is a toolkit to dig into at any point you say, “what a minute, this is crazy”.

The direction laid out includes what to start, what to stop, and what to continue, but if no adoption plan exists than you do not have a plan.

People Over Plan

What project management means to me:  there are people here that need motivation to succeed over there. Plans are rational people are emotional. Change is a constant cycle to plan for. If you get to the destination, but no one was willing to move with you, you lost.

People may find comfort in a plan, but a plan is not a prescription for success. There is no prescription to set something up for success, but there are options and project management provides engagement guideposts to understand what people need to stop doing and what they need to start doing.

Project management provides me a sense of confidence to review a project at any phase and understand what is working, what is at risk, and what needs to change.  As an accountant would look at financial statements to deduce the financial health of a company, project management provides signals of the project start, the project under way, and the project delivered.

I do not consider myself a project manager. Project management is not one-off, but repeatable. I consider myself someone who adopted project management to better work a plan for change.

In America we have a comment:  “It’s the economy, stupid“. Project management to me means:  “it’s the people, stupid”.

Project management is not a process, but a promise.

Project management is not about the plan, but about the people.

Project management can deliver you from hell fire and eternal condemnation. Clemency is yours, release yourself from process and walk with people towards a projected shared future.

* Noah joke reference
**Who’s on first joke reference

#pmflashblog, project management, flash, blog, Toby Elwin

This post is published as part of a first project management-related initiative to publish unique posts on a common theme at the same time.

More than 70 bloggers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK, and the USA contribute their thoughts on this topic.

Check out the complete list of posts . Much appreciation to the lead protagonist – Shim Marom.

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Comments 12

  1. Outstanding job, Toby. I think it’s amazingly appropriate that you used the Who’s On First routine, when we are simultaneously blogging on 80 websites…hopefully we are ALL on first…together.



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      Trying to figure “who’s on first?” gives me night sweats as similar conversations around “who knows scope?”

      As you point out in your post, project management is where the rubber meets the road.

  2. Toby, that’s my take from your post:

    “If you get to the destination, but no one was willing to move with you, you lost”. Fantastic observation!

    Thanks for taking part in the #pmFlashBlog initiative.

    Cheers, Shim.

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  3. Hi Toby,

    Great post! Your line, “People may find comfort in a plan, but a plan is not a prescription for success” rings true, and is one that PMs would do well to keep in mind.



  4. Thanks Toby, projects are most certainly about people and facilitating people through the change. As far as plans go, a PM should always be planning like we should always be communicating.

    Thanks for stopping by and reading my post as well. I’m still working my way through all the great write-ups!

    1. Post

      The current challenge with people and communication is cutting through the clutter. I hear a lot of feedback from project sponsors and stakeholders that the project managers send out too much communication. Perhaps our greatest challenge is action-oriented communication only to people accountable to make action happen. The balance is tough.

      I enjoyed your post What does Project Management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon and the advice you have from your, clearly, satisfying project management career. What would you say is the difference in a fresh project manager’s communication and mature project manager’s communication?

      The other posts have spanned an incredible diversity and shows so many aspects of project management. Thank you for coming over to read my contribution.

  5. PM may mean that there’s a toolbox of stuff to dig into when it is all going crazy, but when it’s all going crazy that’s also the time to put away the toolbox and focus on the original goals and the people involved – even if that means forgetting change management best practice or testing protocols for a little while. After all, what’s the point of having rules if you can’t break them?

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      I may be in the majority of folk who only look at change management as a behavior change, not a technology or project change issue. When I refer to change management I exclusively focus on behavior, end-user adoption, and human capital utility of project goal.

      I agree rules are there for context and relevance and look at project management process and tools as guideposts or repeatable/reliable options. I have never seen, or would advocate, all steps in the project management knowledge areas, all the time. As Agile advocates, “just enough”, the key is what enough is.

      Do you tell anyone you are breaking a rule or just break the rule and move on?

      Thank you for stopping by and adding your comment, I appreciate

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