I recently had the opportunity to talk to Adrian Taggart, one of the Parallel Project Training Associates, about his career in project management. He has had experience in a range of different roles and organisations so it was very interesting finding out about his background and he has plenty of good advice to offer both novice and seasoned project managers…
Adrian Taggart began his journey in project management as an MOD-sponsored student on a B.Eng. degree in Mechanical Engineering, spending 2 years working with the MOD as part of his learning experience. After choosing to go into industry once his degree was complete, he spent the next few years gaining further real-world experience whilst also studying Project Management at UMIST. This led to a technically-demanding role managing hydro-power projects, where he travelled extensively to Canada, Malaysia, Sudan and Turkey. During this time he also completed an M.Sc. in Engineering Management (including project management) from Bristol University. He later spent 3 years delivering a university course for an M.Sc. in Project Management whilst also working as a freelance project manager. He now draws on his nearly 30 years of extensive experience delivering PM training for Parallel Project Training, with particular expertise in APM and PMI Certification courses; he also offers bespoke Project Consultancy services as Director of Smoothstone Consultancy.
How did you first get into project management?
I was sponsored by the MOD as an engineering student and whilst the experience was very valuable I had a strong feeling of being a cog on a small wheel in a very large machine. I really felt I wanted a job where I directly affected things and so I went to the opposite end of the spectrum. I took a job as a ‘Project Engineer’ reporting to an Engineering Director at a factory in Burnley in Lancashire. I had a collection of small projects relating to a new factory layout and machinery acquisition. My career in projects started there.
What personal skills do you think are important for a project manager?
I know it is the clichéd answer, buts it’s true. You’ve got to be able to deal with people.
We should remember that the pyramids were built before Primavera was invented. In a technology obsessed world we sometimes forget that ultimately people deliver projects for other people and if you cannot deal with them then you will struggle to deliver projects.
But, there is more to it than that. All the time you have to be thinking widely and deeply about everything that is coming your way, and then be able to simplify that complex environment and concentrate on just the important things. I know that sounds overly simplistic but a sixth sense for seeing the important (and often not obvious) things is something that comes with experience; usually hard earned experience.
Have you ever had to deal with a project disaster?
I have a bit of a problem with the word ‘disaster’ largely because I feel most people underestimate just how difficult it is to run projects and how things often don’t turn out as expected even for the most diligent planners, but that doesn’t answer your question.
After the factory in Lancashire I joined a company making bespoke printing machinery. These were big machines that would fill a sizeable hall. The company went bust but was kept trading as a going concern by the receivers. It was chaos, with both suppliers and customers having lost money to us through the bankruptcy. My own project was stopped and at very short notice I was sent to Germany on another project, to manage a major machine reconfiguration with a team of very unhappy workers. I had a really torrid time and for so many reasons it was an extremely difficult project. After 6 months of grief from everyone involved we sat at the inspection bay to watch the first printed web to come through the finished machine. It was me who was first to realise that the print was on the wrong side and that we had built the machine back to front.
The fact that it wasn’t my mistake (I had built it to drawing) and that the client had been instrumental in the design error did little to cheer me up.
This happened nearly a quarter of a century ago and I recall as though it were yesterday, just how gutted I felt.
On a positive note though, I feel that you tend you learn more from difficult experiences and I certainly learnt a great deal on that project.
What are the benefits to organisations of properly managed projects?
Can I start with the drawbacks? If a project is well run it imposes numerous disciplines such as writing up notes, recording decisions, planning, verifying and checking. This isn’t consistent with the “engineering theme park” which companies can become when eager and over enthusiastic engineers are left to just get on with things. It would be going too far to say that it makes things become boring but it does bring some constraints on certain activities.
In terms of benefits I find that well run projects enable and force decisions on those involved. You do not get the same sense of drift as you do when the control is not there. These decisions often involve projects being terminated early, which is very often a good thing. Well managed project organizations tend to run a small number of projects well, rather than attempt a wholly unrealistic portfolio and in doing so compromise those projects with good potential.
Is formal project management only necessary for large organisations?
I like to think of project management as a basket of techniques that can be selected as appropriate by any practitioners. In this respect I’d like to think that an organization of any size could benefit from it.
As more people are involved in an organisation, co-ordination and communication becomes disproportionally harder and so the benefits of adoption of a standard approach becomes increasingly helpful. Inevitably this standardisation becomes centred on those techniques which form the backbone of what is considered to be formal project management.
What types of tools do you think are necessary for project managers?
My introduction to and development within, the profession was largely organic. It was only as I moved towards lecturing and training (especially for certification courses) that I fully embraced a more formal structure and in particular the content of the various Bodies of Knowledge.
When I move away from the constraints of a certification course, for instance when delivering a consultancy commission, I find it interesting to reflect on what tools and techniques from the Bodies of Knowledge that I choose to bring to the party.
Again it is a cliché but I spend most of my time trying to do the simple things well and many of the more complex but high profile techniques are largely ignored.
I look for a well-articulated business case (or contract), gated lifecycle models, clear requirement statements, a comprehensive statement of work, and appropriate stakeholder support well before Probability Impact grids or critical path analysis is put on the table.
Have you any advice for people considering a project management career?
Firstly, it is a really exciting career option. By definition projects are creative endeavours that have enormous influence on the lives of ourselves, our peers and those who come after us. As a project manager you really are “delivering the future” and that’s hard to beat when it comes to job satisfaction.
Secondly, I would hazard caution. It is actually very difficult (and very rare) to establish a career based purely on your ability to manage projects, such that you can step from one topic to another, from say IT to construction, solely on the basis of your project management expertise. This isn’t the forum to rehearse the “does a PM need topic expertise to run a project?” debate but we need to acknowledge that most people get to a position of project management via some prior expertise in the topic at hand. My advice to any youngster would be to try and develop some capability and expertise (and qualifications) in such a topic in the first instance, be it becoming an engineer, an IT specialist, a scientist etc. This will provide a route into an industry and a position of responsibility and then maybe in your mid to late twenties or early thirties try to gravitate towards project management, maybe with the aid of further education and training. Also, whilst in this early stage of your career try and experience as many things as you can such as different countries, different types of customers or suppliers, different management styles and techniques. It is surprising how opportunities diminish as you get to mid-career and beyond and how valuable and useful your previous experiences become.
What are the best ways of learning more about project management?
To my mind, the best way to develop the best instincts and behaviour is to work with others who are expert at their profession.
I accept that this is not always a realistic opportunity but at some point in our careers we will probably get lucky and we should seize the chance when it arrives, even if it has temporary drawbacks, like a relatively poor salary.
I can point to a few instances in my career (one in particular) where I got to work with some very capable peers and frankly I have been dining out on the experience ever since.
In addition to this though, formal training and education is very helpful. Clearly I am biased but the APM and PMI qualifications provide an excellent basis for practitioners. For the more ambitious, an appropriate master’s degree course can be very beneficial, if for no other reason that it will force you to read lots of books and really think and reflect on how you approach your work.
How do professional project management qualifications help in real-world projects?
Qualifications establish a level of credibility and demonstrate a commitment to, and interest in, the profession. These are, however, fringe benefits. If the various qualifications do not actually improve the individual’s ability to deliver projects successfully then they are of no worth.
There are critics but I fundamentally believe they do make such a difference. Consider the following.
Imagine being the first person to design a car. The control mechanisms would be evolved on a long and expensive trial and error basis. Imagine however designing a new type of car after you had lots of experience of different cars. The steering wheel (as opposed to a tiller), brake pedal, speedometer etc. would be the first things on the page. I think this is a main benefit of studying for formal qualifications. You become armed with the condensed wisdom of those who have come before you and so are much less likely to repeat their expensive mistakes.
Hopefully this will point you towards some of the more fundamentally important elements that must be addressed first and foremost. I would also hope that it gives practitioners a real sense of how important the soft skills are. In my experience the main benefit of so many of the tools and techniques is in relation to how they promote shared understanding through the team and in this sense the process is often more important than the printed output.
In your experience, what are the most common problems encountered in projects?
I am very influenced by the work of Frederick Herzberg. Many readers will be familiar with his “Motivation Hygiene” Theory but on the back of this he had something called “Job Design”. He suggested that some types of work were intrinsically more motivating than others. To simplify, he suggested that project work was intrinsically attractive to us.
I sense that this is both a good and a bad thing. It is good in that so many practitioners really enjoy their work and are prepared to devote enormous time and energy to them. I think it is a bad thing because people’s passion for their projects can blind them to some of the necessary objectivity.
Symptoms of this include doing without planning, reaching solutions before defining problems, excluding rather than including stakeholders, subjectivity rather than objectivity including resisting premature termination for sentimental reasons. I think many of these are common problems.