Shifting priorities and missed deadlines happen to all of us from time to time. Okay, they happen to all of us in the project management field pretty much everyday. The theory of why this happens has to do with the failure of our project methodologies to properly define scope, budget, and schedule. The practical result of this shortcoming is to force us to work around whatever systems evolved out of the flawed theories to create effective results.

Managing this conflict between reality and theory takes up a huge amount of our time. One one side we produce reports and generate measurements based ideas created anywhere from six months to two years before the actual events begin to unfold. These guestimates were certainly made in good faith, by people with the best of intentions for something, but occurred out of a completely different context than the one which actually exists. On the other we try meet the needs of those who actually make money. This creates a situation where, from the outside, things seem to progress in fits and starts, to take unpredictable turns, and to sometimes seem completely out of control.

In order to manage the “instability” created by this archetypal conflict the project manager effectively runs three separate lines of work. Some of us do it in public, in documentation and emails. Others produce artifacts for one or two but keep the real work in their heads, where others cannot interfere with it. These lines of work are:

1) The formal project
The formal project encompasses the all of the meetings, approvals, relationships, and documents required by the whatever methodology the company adopts. It also includes the less rigid but no less important email chains and agreements between the executives about what this project should accomplish. Managing this work stream requires more than reports and formal documentation; it also requires us to gain the confidence of the seniordecision-makers so they trust we will look out for their interests as the project unfolds.

2) The real project
The real project encompasses all the work involved with bringing the ideas outlined in the formal project into reality. The formal project is just so much paper and air; it’s the work of people which translates those efforts into working systems, buildings where the lights come on, and gets product of whatever sort your company makes out the door. The “real” project often gets the most attention from technical project managers – after all, we come from the world where making the business happens matters more than the documentation.

3) The interface project
The interface project encompasses all the communication and persuasion required to match the output of the real project with the requirements of the formal project. This project receives almost no press at all, but it is the most difficult thing most project managers do. We often call this project “spin”; I personally call it corporate kabuki. It’s not something I’m terribly good at most days though I’m trying to get better. It’s also the area where, I think, the learning curve for a new project manager in an organization takes the greatest toll. It is hard for people to trust you, in either the formal or the real project, when they do not know that you have their best interest at heart and you do not know the right code words and trigger points to sooth them.

More to think about, I guess but isn’t that always the case?