Brian Sheehan
As a Technical Writer and Blogger, Brian enjoys the challenge of bringing concepts to life via the written word. He is a big fan of project management, technology, and cheeseburgers.
August 21, 2012 · 3 min read

Riding the Waves of Project Management

The romantic figure of Sinbad the Sailor is a familiar one in fiction; dating back well over 1,000 years, the seven tales revolve around the adventures of a heroic Persian who finds fame & fortune whilst riding giant birds, escaping from man-eating apes, navigating underground rivers, and evading underfed dragons. As might be expected, he had a penchant for getting into trouble — being continuously stranded, abandoned, and shipwrecked in nearly every foray. Yet, at the end of the day, he always came out on top (usually laughing all the way to the bank).

The moral of the Sinbad stories? Well, let's not get too daring — the tales are mostly just a fun rollick, afterall. They do, however, convey some basic realities not so uncommon in the world of Project Management; namely, the unexpected always happens and it's up to you (and your wits) to find a solution. What kind of unexpected things, you might ask? Although I doubt man-eating apes will appear in your next project meeting, you may wish to consider the following challenges as you sail your own ship into Project Management territory...

The Ripped Sail: Your organization's galleon is zipping along and then, alas, your mainsail suffers a thoroughly long tear... no matter how windy it is, you are dead in the water. To put it more succinctly, your project management teams are working hard but no tangible progress is being made. All their effort is for naught. The culprit? Your 'ripped sail' is an ill-defined Project Plan. Examples: a project with no clear milestones, unspecified deliverables, and dependencies that interweave more than the spider webs in your grandmother's kitchen cupboard. In addition to bringing life to a PM's strategic machinations, a Project Plan answers all those pesky "How?" and "When?" questions (e.g., When will milestone x be reached? How will we do it?). Whether it's likened to a roadmap or a blueprint, the Project Plan is the de facto formal document that brings structure to a project. When a Project Plan is unclear and lacks well-defined progress points, your project will grind to a halt while your team trudges along their circular paths with no end in sight. The wind may be gusty, but your ripped sail will just keep on flapping...

The Grumpy Crew: The sail is fixed, the winds are favorable, and your cutter is slicing the water like no one's business. So far so good but, above the din of your team's daily work, you hear grumbling and an exasperated sigh, punctuated by the dark muttering of a complaining co-worker. All does not seem well on SS Project Management... savvy? In fact, if you don't know anything is wrong until you hear a complaining colleague, then you may wish to hone your project management skills a wee bit. As mentioned in a previous blog post (Virtuous Kick-off Meetings), enduring communication is a necessity when managing/motivating team members. If you're a Project Manager or Team Leader, then one of your core responsibilities will be remaining as informed as possible about the state of your project. This means leaving the confines of your office and interfacing directly with those whom you are relying on to bring the project to life. This doesn't mean being a meddler or an interrogator — the last thing you want to do is to annoy/freak-out your team. As with anything, management style is all about finding the right balance that works for you... ideally somewhere comfortably in-between Benevolent Neglect and the Spanish Inquisition.

The Broken Rudder: Speaking of benevolent neglect, if your ship wanders starboard when you want it to go port, then you're either asleep at the wheel or you have a broken rudder — for the purpose of our analogy, though, these are essentially the same thing. In this case, the 'broken rudder' is characterized by Management (whether it's a Team or a Project Manager) showing no real interest in crafting a successful project. This problem could be caused by any number of real-world issues: a lack of leadership skill, a lack of motivation, or an overly collaborative personality (e.g., every decision requires a meeting and a vote). A lack of project leadership can create a void that both disrupts and compromises the flow of a project — decisions are not made, deadlines are postponed, and acrimony ensues. In other words, your rudderless ship/project will meander aimlessly until someone takes the wheel... or until the Captain wakes up (perhaps literally). The solution? If you're the guilty party, then either improve your management skills or find your real calling. If you're a team member, then your options may be limited... unless mutiny is in your blood.

The Siren Song: In ancient Greece, the dangers of the sirens were well-known to every sailor (perhaps even Sinbad) — the creature, typically a femme fatale combination of avian and female, would lure sailors to her rock-strewn island abode with her sweet singing, whereby the hapless fellows would meet a horrific end. It is, effectively, the ultimate distraction. As your projects mature, it may be wise to remain aware of the distractions within your teams and how to best deal with them. A reality of project management is that, quite frequently, projects do not proceed at a consistent pace; for example, the Quality Assurance team may have completed their work, but cannot proceed to the next task until the Developers complete their revisions (mismatched dependencies, bad time planning, and/or misallocated resources are often to blame). The result is employees doing busy work or, even worse, wandering from cubicle to cubicle and distracting co-workers under deadline-pressure. These type of project management missteps, particularly in large organizations where the effect is more pronounced, account for both inefficiency and lost working hours. While there's no need to become a micromanaging watch-tapper, it is important to remain aware of preventable distractions within your organization while fostering a collaborative, yet productive, environment.

Have you encountered unique challenges while sailing your ship in Project Management waters? Tell us about it in the comments below. Also be sure to Like/Tweet us if you enjoyed this article!

When not sailing the seven seas and evading man-eating apes, Brian likes to read stories to his daughter and go for long drives.