Project Management

Pay attention to the small details rather than worrying about big events

There's a huge list of books telling us “Don't Sweat the Small Stuff”. They are, uniformly, well-written and uplifting to read. However, for project management, they kind of miss the point. Project management isn't about not sweating the small stuff; its about paying attention to all of the little details and allowing the “big” stuff to fall out as it will. Or, as one wise person once said to me “There are no big decisions.”

What? Have I lost my mind completely? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. In this case, though, it's mostly no. Let's go over the logic together and maybe it will make a little more sense.

Project management is, on one level, the discipline of making constant small adjustments to the scope, resources, and time involved in a specific set of changes to an environment. This change could be anything from putting up a physical structure to a new logistical arrangement or an entirely new process. These adjustments either bring the change closer to the project charter's truthiness or move it away from it towards a more “fact-based” approach. Which of these fits in better with the desires of the projects sponsors depends entirely on the political situation.

Satire aside, project management's concern is the day-to-day small adjustments which keep things running. As project managers we work daily with the work teams, removing obstacles and mitigating risks so they can do their work. If things are working out, we are a few steps ahead of our team, talking with people and securing resources for the next day or the next weeks of work. If things fell out of control, then we have to work hard to just keep up and hope the documentation will take care of itself.

Notice what's missing from the description? There's no high concept work or big drama. No showdowns with managers telling them they are over budget and off spec. No board meetings where we stand up and declare our project a success or dramatically reveal its utter failure. No “pivotal” moments at all, really, just the steady work of making things work, time after time. But I also know from personal experience that those big moments do happen and they loom large in our worries about what will happen next.

Those pivotal moments, though, are not really decisions. They are the result of a thousand small decisions we made, for weeks or months before the actual event, which lead us to either a blaze of glory or a burn-out moment. In those moments themselves there is very little we can do; we are really just along for the ride. Glibness might serve to help defuse the emotions in a bad situation, but it will not change the reality of what is about to occur.

Think back on the last time you had to go to a meeting to close a failing project. It was probably a pretty glum experience; people sat around waiting for the blame to fall, the sponsor looked like he just swallowed a live frog, and that knot in your gut told you packing most of your pictures in a box was a smart idea. However, the meeting itself probably didn't contain any actual decision making. Instead everyone admitted what they already knew and someone (probably the project sponsor) made a ritual pronouncement along the lines of “it's dead, Jim.”

Celebrations follow the same format. No one decides when the project has succeeded, or if they do its usually flying in the face of an obvious failure. Instead the final pre-implementation meeting consists of a long chain of acknowledgments followed by hope that everything will go well on the day of the event. There are really no more decisions to be made, barring unscripted reactions to the inevitable chaotic disruptions.

In other words – don't sweat the big stuff. The big meetings and events which give us ulcers grow naturally out of the daily activity we engage in to keep our projects running. Leave those worries to the people who have nothing better to do but circle around, looking for success to leach on and misery to warm the cockles of their dreary hearts.

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