Being the new Project Manager on the Block

10 November, 2014

If you have taken a PMP® exam preparation class and gone through the whole PMP® experience, you will have a perception of a nice, orderly world where projects are carefully defined and you, as the Project Manager, will be part of the initiating and planning process, as well as steering it towards a (hopefully) successful conclusion.

Sadly, the project management practitioners who sit the PMP® exam know that things are rarely, if ever, that clear cut. This is particularly true when a Project Manager is hired into a new company. Often Project Managers are hired to manage an already planned project and this can be a complete disaster.

As a newcomer to an organization, it is important to learn your environment before becoming assertive about how you want to do things. It is always wise to be sensitive to the organization’s culture and do things in its traditional way, until you find your feet. Then you will be in a position to influence the project management process by offering suggestions and trialling some of the techniques you learned on your PMP® course.

However, Project Managers rarely get the chance to sit back and absorb the culture without treading on people’s toes. A typical scenario involves a small company taking on a Project Manager and presenting the newcomer with a Project Plan and instructions to go off and make it happen. What you need to do is to ask for time to study the plan and schedule a meeting with the Project Sponsor to offer feedback and to ask questions.

What happens next is crucial to your success in this company. Review the plan. Does it have a proper Scope Statement? Is it clear what is in and what is out of scope? If not, write down some explicit questions. From your past experience, you should know what to expect here – has training been mentioned? Is the team responsible for creating training materials? Will the team have to deliver training? How is the handover of the finished deliverable to manufacturing going to be handled? Who will be responsible for what? Does the plan include a Work Breakdown Structure? If the people who developed the plan are not Project Management Professionals, it is unlikely.

Then study the schedule. You are likely to be presented with a Gantt chart, with no rationale on where the estimates came from. How confident can you be that these are based on sound data? Is contingency explicit in the plan? If it is not highlighted, then the estimates are probably padded? You need to determine what fiddle factor was used. Are there any inefficiencies in the schedule? Walk through a few “what if” scenarios. It is very useful to see what could be done if an external dependency arrives late, or an activity takes longer than planned.

Is the budget adequate? Is there even a budget in the plan? Many companies, where project teams are built up from a pool of permanent staff, do not manage cost explicitly. In these situations, time is literally money – the longer the project takes, the more it costs. If this is what you have been given, then time is going to be the critical constraint.

How many people are on the team? What are they like? Have you someone who can take on the role of technical lead for the project? Go around and meet these people. Get some insight into their capabilities and expectations. Buy a lot of coffee! Similarly, determine who your customer is and who the people that can influence or be influenced by your project are. In other words, check if there is any mention of stakeholders in the plan. Do not be surprised if there is not – small companies only have a few clients and everyone knows who they are. This sort of implicit assumption makes life tough for the new Project Manager on the block.

There is a good chance that communications will be absent from the plan – again the feeling could be that everyone knows what is required. This is another vital question for the meeting: how do you want status reports? Do you like dashboard-style summaries every week? Do you require daily, face-to-face sessions? Do you need long, highly-detailed reports? Whatever the Project Sponsor wants, the Project Sponsor should get. But you need to find this out as a matter of urgency. As a newcomer, do not be surprised if you are kept on a tight rein at the start. But if you provide the information required, in the format they like, you will soon win trust.

Have risks been identified? Is there a quality standard we have to follow? Do we need to go out and purchase anything? How about sub-contracting out work? In short, go through all the knowledge areas and work out what is missing from the plan. Then sit down with the Sponsor and find out what is missing. You need to be diplomatic here. Remember that the sponsor is probably the person who came up with the plan, so do not dismiss it out of hand – people do not like having their faults pointed out to them. If things are missing, volunteer to put them in place. Always ask if they have a particular way of doing things. If they do, use it; if not, offer to come up with a new way. Try to devise templates that align with the style the company has for other artefacts – show that you are contributing to the Organizational Process Assets.

It is not easy starting out, especially as a Project Manager. Just make sure that you have everything you need to get the job done. Be sensitive to what has been done already, but assertive enough to enhance what is given to you if it is not up to scratch.

Studying for a project management certification, such as the PMP®, will provide you with a framework to tackle any sort of project. Velopi offers a range of project management courses, tailored to all stages of the Project Manager’s career. Please visit our training page or contact us directly for more details.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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