The most undervalued project management skill

Find out which word more project manager job descriptions should include to better reflect that managing projects is more of an art than a science.

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The staples of sound project management are fundamentally administrative. They include ensuring that all project tasks are thoroughly defined, and that everyone engaged in the project has visibility of project progress and trouble spots.

A capable project manager also takes time to assign the right people to the right tasks, and to diligently monitor tasks so they are completed on time and within budget. If something goes wrong, it is the project manager's job to put it on track.

If you ask most human resources and C-level executives, the most desired traits in a good project manager are the abilities to define, track, and shepherd projects to completion — and to take necessary intervention steps with vendors, staff, and others when obstacles stand in the project's way. This is why administrative skills are at the top of project manager "desired traits" lists.

Examples of nontraditional project management solutions

But the best project managers will tell you that managing projects is more of an art than a science. Many times, project managers are confronted with obstacles that have few precedents, and that can't be resolved by looking in some project "cookbook" for a recipe.

This is no more apparent than in the world of project cargo — shipments of large equipment and goods like heavy-duty trucks, transformers for utility lines, or underwater oil drills. All are pieces of equipment that by virtue of weight, size, or dimension don't fit on normal transport and may not be able to travel on available roadways.

An Indian power utility was setting up a project in a rural area of India and needed to ship several 70-ton reactors, 152-ton de-aerators, 230-ton transformers, and 345-ton generators up the Ganges River by barge to the town of Zamania in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The total transport distance to the jobsite was 1,200 kilometers. Along the way, riverside jetties for loading and unloading cargo were lacking and some roadways were too substandard to accept heavy cargo. Security was also a concern, as there were known enclaves of terrorists along the route. To address the situation, the power company and its transport partner built their own causeways and bypasses through rivers. They blasted hillsides so super long cargo-hauling trailers could navigate turns. And they prepared themselves to handle terrorist attacks.

In Asia, a humanitarian relief effort rushed large trucks, tents, and turnkey kitchens to a tsunami-affected disaster site, but then found that it was unable to assess the last mile of road infrastructure with normal methods. To get around the problem, it used locals in the affected areas who had access to cell phones and could call out about conditions. As a result, the humanitarian effort was able to get heavy equipment and goods into the area. It even used cell phones to coach lay persons at the site on how to administer medical treatments to those who were sick or injured.

A supplier of well construction, technical engineering, and hydraulic fracturing and intervention services to the Australian oil and gas industry needed to transport 16 custom-manufactured pieces of oil and gas exploration equipment weighing a total of 95 tons from the UK to Australia in 14 days. These goods would normally go by ocean cargo, which is the most economical means of transport, but the company chose instead to ship by air because it was the only way to meet project deadlines and to avoid the enormous costs of delay. The heavy equipment was dissembled into assemblies and subassemblies before it was loaded onto planes, and then shipped to the jobsite where it was reassembled by onsite engineers.

The one word missing from many PM job descriptions

Fortunately, most project managers don't face crises of this enormity in their daily work, but great project managers will tell you that there are many times when innovative solutions and workarounds must be found to overcome problems that no amount of pre-planning could have identified. They solve these problems through effective communications, collaborative problem solving, and their ability to think "outside of the box."

HR and other departments that hire product managers see this, too; they try to capture these "out of the box" qualities in their project managers by looking for traits like excellent communicator or team player. But given how much of the unexpected is likely to surface in any major project, hiring managers would be equally well served to add the word innovative the next time they post their project manager job descriptions.

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About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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