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Good OM Reading: What Successful Project Managers Do

March 27, 2015

mit coverIn today’s dynamic and competitive world, a project manager’s key challenge is coping with frequent unexpected events. Despite meticulous planning, the manager may daily encounter such events as the failure of workers to show up at a site, the bankruptcy of a key vendor, a contradiction in engineering guidelines, or changes in customers’ requirements. Some of these events were anticipated but whose impacts were much stronger than expected, some could not have been predicted, and others could have been predicted but were not. All three types of events can become problems. A new research article in MIT Sloan Management Review (Spring, 2015) describes how successful project managers cope with these challenges with 4 approaches.

1. Since project progress depends on individuals who represent different disciplines and parties, collaboration is crucial for the early detection of problems as well as the quick implementation of solutions. But the various parties to the project are loosely coupled, whereas the tasks themselves are tightly coupled. When unexpected events affect one task, many other interdependent tasks are quickly affected. Thus, project success requires both interdependence and trust among the various parties.

2. Project managers faced with unexpected events employ a “rolling wave” approach to integrate planning/reviewing with learning. Recognizing that firm commitments cannot be made on the basis of volatile information, they develop plans in waves as the project unfolds and information becomes more reliable. They develop detailed short-term plans with firm commitments, while also preparing tentative long-term plans (that include redundancies, such as backup systems or human resources).

3. Successful project managers never stop expecting surprises, even though they may effect major remedial changes only a few times during a project. They’re constantly anticipating disruptions and maintaining the flexibility to respond proactively. The book Great by Choice describes one of the core behaviors of great leaders as “productive paranoia.” 

4. When unexpected events affect one task, many other interdependent tasks may also be quickly impacted. Thus, solving problems as soon as they emerge is vital. Corrective action is possible only during a brief window. One study of construction project managers found that they addressed 95% of the problems during the first 7 minutes following problem detection.

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