“Oh No!!! They just made me a project manager!” Here’s what to do…

A lot of very successful project managers started their careers by being thrown into the role just as everything falls apart on the project.  Usually, projects falling apart is the first observable sign, to the casual observer, that a project manager is needed to lead a project. It means your first foray into project management begins with project recovery.  Oh… how nice it would be to have been to be there at the beginning.  Too bad, so sad, maybe next time.  Let’s wipe that look of being a deer in the headlights off your face.  Here are some first steps for taking on this new role.

Educate Yourself: 

Find at least three project management books that are short or very easy to flip through to find guidance on Work Breakdown Structures (WBS), creating plans, and risk management.  There are hundreds of project management books, the mother of all of them is the PMI’s PMBOK® (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge).  It won’t be much help at this very moment but if you’re going to be doing this for a while it’s a must have reference book.  Join online project management groups and ask questions.

Define the Basics:

The Team: There will be a team of some sort identified. Establish who is either doing, or directly managing those who are doing, the work. This is your core team. The others are there for status updates; they are a kind of extended team for now. Immediately split this group up or you may never get anything done. Nothing personal, just two different objectives. My first team on one large scale project recovery had 27 members. NIGHTMARE!!!! Publish a schedule of the core team meetings and if necessary the extended team updates. With luck you can eliminate the second team with a reliable status report.

The Problem: This is a bit trickier. The problem sometimes appears to be that the project is late, because it’s not meeting milestones. This is a symptom, not the problem. Find the document outlining the plan, if there isn’t one, that’s a problem. Determine if the right resources are accountable for what needs to be done, it’s a part of the plan, again, if there isn’t a link to the resources needed, that’s a problem. Ok, you get it, most often the problem is that there isn’t an integrated plan outlining what the product of the project is, the work that has to be done, and the resources (the team members, the budget, and any facilities) needed to get the project done.

The Constraints and Requirements: What has to be done and by when. Now, as a PM you must ask “Why?” You have to understand the purpose of the project and its alignment to the final product (or service or process). Sometimes deadlines exist for very important reasons, sometimes they are targets. Understand what is negotiable, and what absolutely is not – know why.

Work with an expert:

Find a PM mentor in your company, one that will facilitate some initial meetings for you so that you can hit the ground running. If there isn’t a real expert in project management, go find one. Here is a quick test.  Ask them what is in a project plan.  If the answer describes a schedule, they’re not an expert.  It is part of it, but it certainly isn’t all of it. You will need to have planning sessions to understand the work to be done by the people who do that work. This is a larger group than your core team. You will identify and create response strategies to the risks they identify and differentiate them from the issues you are currently dealing with. Know the difference. For a small project these meeting might take around three to four hours.  For larger programs it could be up to four days.  There’s no time to develop the expertise – get an experienced project manager to facilitate, then learn as you go for next time… Yes, I’m afraid there will be a next time… and another…

There are a lot more things to be done of course, this is just a start – good luck.

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