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Real World Project Management: An Introduction

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Everyone talks about project management, but what is it? Isn't project management just organization to get the work done? In this overview article, the first of an on-going series, project management expert Joseph Phillips delivers the big picture of project management.

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Capturing the Picture

I like photography. I like to look at pictures; take pictures; and mess with filters, lenses, and light meters. I've learned that to really capture a good photo, you have to see the developed photo in your mind's eye. You have to look at your environment and see how it will look once the film's been developed or after the image is printed on your color laser printer. You have to see into the future to capture the present in your camera. You must have vision.

Being a project manager really isn't that different. A project manager must have vision for what the project is to create. The project manager inherits the vision from the key stakeholders, the project sponsor, or even management. To plan for the project work, the project manager must envision what the end result of the project will be. Like taking a photo, a good photo, the project manager has to study, observe, and see the end result of the efforts before the work begins.

Another way to look at your new friend the Iron Triangle is to imagine the photographer's tripod. If you've ever worked with a tripod (hopefully with a camera on top) you know the secret is to have the tripod balanced and level. In fact, some camera tripods have a level built into the head, so you know when it is level. A level tripod ensures that the photo's horizon is flat; it makes a goofy picture when the ocean is slipping down to South America.

Now imagine that one leg of the tripod equates to scope, another to time, and the last to cost. We agree that the tripod has to be balanced to take a good picture, just as a project has to have balance to be successful. If any leg of the tripod is extended more than the others the tripod is off-balance—just like your projects.

Some tripods are nice and heavy. A heavy tripod helps when you've taking a photo in the middle of a river or you're fighting a wind storm. The trouble with heavy tripods is that someone has to carry them. What some photographers do is carry a light tripod and then suspend their camera bag under the tripod to fend off any shakes. A neat trick.

In project management, what's keeping your project sturdy? Imagine that the area within the three legs of the tripod represents quality. If any leg of the tripod is out of balance quality is likely to suffer. Quality is in proportion to the amount of time, cost, and scope available for the project deliverables. When one angle of the project suffers, so does quality.

What good is a project's deliverable if the project is finished on time, but the product or service doesn't work as promised? Or if the project manager spent all the money but didn't create all the promised deliverables? Quality is affected by the balance of time, cost, and scope.

Following this snappy analogy of photography, what kind of camera do you want to put on top of your tripod? If you're like me, I bet you want a digital SLR, capable of 12 megapixels, and a few gigs of memory for your digital photos. Or you could rely on a manual 35mm camera with slide film and a nice set of filters.

But wouldn't you have better photos with the 12-megapixel digital camera? Not necessarily. Just because you have a fantastic camera doesn't mean that your photos will be fantastic. It's not the camera that takes the pictures—it's the photographer.

In our project management analogy, the camera is the mechanics of project management. The person behind the camera is the project manager. Just as the photographer has to know how to adjust the camera to capture the perfect photo, the project manager has to know how to adjust the controls within project management to deliver on the project's demands.

Good photographers and good project managers have much in common: experience, a foundation in the fundamentals, and a willingness to learn. At the core, I believe, is an ability to capture a vision—and then process that vision for others to see.

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