Creating a personal project management center of excellence

February 2009 » Columns
It’s 2009, an (important) new year, and we’re out of the gate. Many things—the new year, a new administration, a topsy-turvy upside-down world—all have me thinking about change (I can believe in). I’ve been asking myself the questions, and I bet you have as well. This year, let’s channel some of our fresh optimism into action.
John Doehring

It’s 2009, an (important) new year, and we’re out of the gate. Many things—the new year, a new administration, a topsy-turvy upside-down world—all have me thinking about change (I can believe in). I’ve been asking myself the questions, and I bet you have as well. This year, let’s channel some of our fresh optimism into action.

Here are some thoughts on how you can become better at your work and passion—better as a technical professional and project manager—and how you can become a center of excellence that draws people, opportunity, and success to you.

Get back to the basics. Project management is a difficult job, almost always defined as "responsibility without authority." Combined with the inherent complexity of the profession, our work often leads to a sense of frustration, and a loss of control and power. Some of this is normal—the way things are and will continue to be. Still, you do have control of an important piece of the game—yourself—and often, more control of others than you realize. So start first at the core (you) and work out from there. Recommit to the basics of good project management: planning, scheduling, and budgeting. Following are some ideas:

  • Develop a one-page "project plan" form that lists project objectives, scope, key milestones, budget, team members, client requirements, communications tactics, et cetera. Then commit to using this plan format for each project for the next six months.
  • Talk with the president of your firm and ask if the company has a project management manual, and if it does, get your hands on it. I bet there is one, and that the president had a hand in developing it. Get it, bring it up to date, and be an instant hero.
  • Create a profile of the project manager role in your firm, using yourself as a model. Make a list of major responsibilities and requirements. Compare notes with others in your peer group.


Get some training for yourself and your team.
No matter how good you are, there is a lot you can learn from others. Sign up for a class in one of the core, non-technical areas. Project management, business development, and general management are my favorite high-value areas. Then, "sell" this to the firm in tough, budget-crunched times. Following are two ideas for doing that:

  • Offer to split the cost with your employer. If you’re willing to invest in yourself, the company will likely be much more inclined to pay.
  • Take the lead in organizing an in-house training class. Bring the experts to your firm, spread the investment over a larger group, and reduce travel expenditures. Make a difference for the team this year.


Communicate better.
There is so much you can do here: conduct weekly project team meetings, daily huddles, internal training, and inter-group cross training; update e-mail guidelines; share the company plan, initiate an open-book management approach, et cetera. The tactics are straightforward; it’s the strategy that’s missing. Become a better communicator with management, the project team, client contacts, vendors, sub-consultants because this is what great project management is all about. These interactions aren’t distractions from the work, they are the work. These connections are often the source of the real opportunities of business and life. Take a genuine interest in others, and remember the adage of using "two ears and one mouth." The secret to great communication is listening.

Go see a client … now. Are you a project manager with client contacts you wish you could visit if only you could spare a moment? Well, don’t worry; I’m sure they’ll understand. They know you’re busy. They’re not going to think of you as selfish, only calling when you need something. And surely if you call your contact, he or she is there right now rather than out having lunch with a hungrier competitor. Get the picture? If you don’t have time, then make time. Your paycheck comes from your clients, and great project managers invest in their future through building rich relationships with people they can help—both today and tomorrow.

Get your name in the lights. I know the average engineer doesn’t seek out the stage, the spotlight, or even the credit. So don’t be average. Technical proficiency, expertise, and experience all count, but only if it is known. In our new, wacky world, you must do some promoting of yourself and the firm. A superb way to accomplish this is through authorship—a technical paper or poster, a research publication, or a white paper, column, or article in a trade magazine. Does it seem daunting? There is a process and you can get help with it. The important task is sitting down and putting it on paper. After all, you’re the expert here, right?

You’ve heard some or all of these suggestions before. But remember, it’s not what you know, but what you do with what you know that matters most. Make 2009 the year that you personally set out to become a super project manager. I guarantee that your effort will pay off—for the firm and for you.


John Doehring is a principal and managing director of ZweigWhite’s strategic advisory services group. He can be reached at jdoehring@zweigwhite.com.


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