Getting people to Mars takes good project management

Andres Raieste, Partner and Chief Project Officer, August 18, 2021

Traditionally, project management has been a relatively straightforward practice – there is a clear definition of “done” that must be delivered within the expected schedule and cost. And most of the project management discipline has focused on navigating the complexity of keeping the project within the triangle of scope, cost, and schedule. So, if you’re building a house and promised your spouse to move in by Christmas, well, you better get a good project manager. But here’s a brain teaser, how can the project manager succeed when the design is constantly changing along the way?

Project management in the modern design-led product development world

The issue with the traditional approach is that project management has been obsessed with the “done.” But ask yourself, when is Netflix or Facebook ever “done”? The same applies to government e-services, enterprise ERP systems, and almost all other digital products. Nothing is ever really done, and the moment we sense something might be done, this usually means it’s starting to lose its relevance. Because of this paradigm, traditional project management sometimes struggles to stay relevant.

So, hello, “agile”? Not so fast. A common problem with different agile approaches is that many take a somewhat contrarian approach to traditional project management without offering alternative solutions to the issues usually addressed by conventional project management. While agile shifts focus from strictly goal-and-constraint-driven planning toward prioritizing business value, it doesn’t provide much help in situations where targets are clear and you either make it or don’t. We can’t say that income tax didn’t get collected this year because the necessary e-service didn’t launch on time. And you can’t say to an investor who just funded your launch of a small MVP in 12 months that it’ll take twice as much – often, that means you are out of business.

There is always a schedule or a time during which your product vision has market relevance. And there is always a budget or return of investment that tells whether the project is worth doing or is better spent elsewhere. Modern project management is guarding those investor expectations to deliver the essential success criteria. And while “done” can often be exploratory, project management makes the crucial success drivers for the business clear and works toward removing the obstacles. If HBO Max targets its European launch for 2022, we can only imagine the number of parallel objectives needed to meet the deadline. And we can imagine there is a very competent project or program manager guarding those deadlines and driving the dependencies to meet the objectives.

This is especially crucial with the advent of design-led product management, where iterative design choices often make sharp pivots to adhere to the changing competition or market fluctuations. With the approach having gained ground almost everywhere, design-led product management is now the industry benchmark. Even Elon Musk’s SpaceX is rolling up their latest rocket, the Starship, with iterative design – which, on that scale, is the first-ever in the space industry. In the same example, we imagine the top-level program management function would guard and push the objective of placing a human on Mars by 2026 (think about that being your objective as a PM!) and identify and set constraints for product management, design, and engineering to make decisions enabling them to achieve related goals.

In agile productized organizations, the role of a project manager is to guard and drive essential business objectives and initiatives that can cross multiple product and value streams. For example, the expansion of a business service into new geography by a specific date promised to investors will require coordination across numerous products, technical dependencies, business decisions, policies, politics, change management, and so on. The project manager is typically the driver of that business initiative, ensuring that everything comes together within target business constraints.

Figure: project management over multiple product lines.


Growing to the next level

To enable PMs to achieve the required objectives, they need to have the necessary ownership, driving the project from concept to completion. PMs work collaboratively with all stakeholders to move the project through various milestones and obstacles. They set goals, track key dependencies and deliverables, identify risks, and drive mitigations across all project stages. They understand the motivations behind key stakeholders and convince and compromise where necessary to guard the primary objectives. They continuously develop and adapt processes and methodologies to the needs of the project. They own the execution and completion of the project and are held accountable for the results.

This doesn’t mean that the PM is expected to know everything and sit on top of the organization to get things done. Instead, they need to be resourceful and collaborative and have excellent delegation and communication skills to ensure different parties are on the same page and aware of the same targets and information to make relevant decisions. For example, a PM is not expected to be an expert in software engineering but is expected to understand how to make engineering collaborate with design and product management to meet the customer’s project goals and communicate and measure the same objectives for all parties.

The main challenge is that every project is unique. There is always a certain layer of “unknown unknowns” in a project. The project manager must be capable of navigating this complexity and spreading the risk of the unknowns into relevant competence areas. Examples include involving subject-matter experts or consultants in case the project is lacking strategic direction or requires research; empowering product management and design if project success depends on innovation or outperforming competition; establishing and communicating quality, cost, and schedule targets to engineering so they can make necessary tech and delivery decisions, and so on. The project manager must identify complexities and form a relevant team and common information field, making it possible for different contributing parties to make necessary decisions and compromises.

This means that excellent PMs possess outstanding interdisciplinary communication and problem-solving skills. Veteran PMs have more experience in dealing with unknowns and adapting to new complexity dimensions. It can be a very different experience as a project manager for launching a small app or driving a new ERP system across multiple enterprise divisions across several countries. Therefore, all engagements demand a certain level of competence, an experience that allows PM to tackle the intricacies that are likely to unfold. The need for constant adoption can be overwhelming. Our industry is almost guaranteed to be delivering things in 7–10 years that we cannot yet imagine, and we must have capabilities that might not even have been invented yet.

Project Management Office for accelerated PM development

To go to the next level as a project manager, always look for new opportunities. You can’t go from wedding planning to overseeing nuclear power plant construction, but you can and should take small, controlled steps toward increasing your exposure to more complex environments. Coaching and mentoring can be incredibly helpful to increase your chances of success and accelerate the whole process. A seasoned project manager can often ask questions you didn’t think of or phrase the things that you didn’t even know that you don’t know. You must seek out a coach; only you (are expected to) understand the true complexities of your project and should be able to formulate what kind of coaching is needed – your direct manager is seldom capable of helping you with every type of problem you might face.

Finding the best coach can be tricky, which is why we are investing in Project Management Office and our PM community (what we call a Hive at Nortal) to create an environment, or perhaps even a “free marketplace,” for coaching and sharing experience. No book or detailed Confluence page can substitute for a good coach or advice from a project manager who has tackled similar issues. An excellent coach may be able to accelerate your career by years! And from another point of view, coaching is an excellent method for learning how to simplify and structure your thoughts and pass it on to the organization. Being a terrific coach has also been shown to contribute significantly to a person’s career.

Another value of Project Management Office is to “productize” tools and techniques that have helped resolve a particular matter in the past and can be re-used. These may be onboarding materials and guidelines for new PMs, budgeting templates, reports, plans and procedures, and so on. Complex projects often invent many tools and techniques, and it’s helpful if there are suitable guidance materials and templates available regarding how to get started – especially at the project’s inception phase. An excellent PMO is expected to drastically improve the project management quality and allow the organization to scale more easily.

Project management as a discipline is changing as fast as the business is changing. If you wish to peek into the future, just think of the current trends and what challenges your business may face down the line. The only sure thing is that none of us will be doing exactly what we are doing today, and the best way to prepare for that is to lead the change.



The source for the hero picture: 

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Andres Raieste

Andres Raieste

Partner and Chief Project Officer

Andres Raieste has conceptualized and executed large-scale digital transformation projects in Europe, Middle East and Africa. He is an expert in team topologies, in building vertically integrated cross-functional teams, managing global distributed delivery, product management and PMOs.

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