The second in a series of interviews with project managers…
John Bolton is an experienced project management professional with particular expertise in the management of all types of projects and programmes across both the public and private sector. He is a registered Managing Successful Programmes Advanced Practitioner, a Registered Project Professional and PMP certified. He has significant experience in the management of project managers.
Past projects include the implementation of ERP systems into manufacturing and government environments, the implementation of a management buyout from a local authority and he is currently working with schools on new build construction projects.
In his current role as Programme Development Director at Parallel Project Management, he spends most of his time working with clients on developing and delivering bespoke project management courses. He uses his experience to empower organisations to improve their project success rate and individuals to progress in their project management careers.
John offers his insights and opinions on the world of project management today.
Tell us about the first project you worked on in a project manager role?
In 1980 I was responsible for the migration of an entire computer system workload from one type of computer hardware to another. It was not recognisable as a ‘project’ in today’s sense of the word but it did require similar levels of planning and commitment. It is interesting to see the way that the informal management of things like this has become more and more structured. I do think that in some cases this has been at the expense of reactiveness and dynamism. There is a widespread confusion between compliance and control. Project managers should remember that the bureaucracy of a project is intended to add value. If the method becomes the project then you are doing it wrong.
Was project management a specific career choice or did you progress into it from a different role?
No, I started out as an indentured apprentice for Hawker Siddeley with every intention of making electrical engineering my profession. I ended up in the IT department (called Data Processing then) and migrated to that environment during the 80’s. I found myself managing myself and others and one day my job title became ‘project manager’.
How important do you think professional PM qualifications are for career progression?
I think that project managers need to have a sensible amount of basic PM education. They do need to make sure that this is complimented with experience and a suitable amount of technical knowledge. It is always useful to stretch ones-self to learn new things and develop a more thorough understanding where it is necessary. Having a structured view of personal development backed up with industry good practice such as the APM competence framework will help enormously. I think it is dangerous to develop academically too far and too fast without a secure grounding in the application of that knowledge. I know very good project managers with no formal qualification and some extremely well qualified (on paper) people who frankly couldn’t manage their way out of a wet paper bag.
How do you see traditional project management methods evolving in the future?
I think they will remain more or less static but the emphasis of them will become the management of people rather than charts and schedules. Things like stakeholder analysis are extremely useful but more as a catalyst for discussion and debate rather than revelling in the creation of a wonderful analysis grid. I have little time for those folk who spend all of their time planning. I have seen grown men reduced to tears trying to get Visio to produce a product breakdown structure because that is what is expected by the organisation ‘method’. Project managers only really need four things; a budget; schedule; a specification and a means of managing the evolution of all of those. Everything else is simply a means of achieving them.
Is there a certain type of person best suited to project management?
What real benefits have you seen in organisations that have embraced the control of a formal PM approach?
I see organisations being more successful and better controlled in the delivery of the things they are trying to do. They have better predictability of outcome and an ability to change and adjust their approach to accommodate any perturbations in the plan. Project managers have a clear view of what is expected and can demonstrate their successful achievement.
What is your view of Risk Management within a project?
The treatment of it as a separate topic is ridiculous. Project management is risk management. Everything PM’s are encouraged to do is geared towards the reduction of risk. Encouraging PM’s to follow a process to deal with risk is missing the point. Everything is to do with risk, from producing a schedule, agreeing requirements, calculating a budget, managing changes, etc are simply things that reduce risk. The thought that we can reduce the future to a list of things on a risk register is frankly bizarre.
1) The things that actually go wrong are never on the risk log because no-one thought of them;
2) Those on the risk log are never the things that go wrong because the PM knows what to do about them;
3) The things on the risk log are only those that the PM knows what to do with because that way they look effective;
4) The things the PM does not have an answer for are never on the risk log because they don’t have an answer for them and will therefore look ineffective if they appear without an answer;
5) The things on the risk log are not ranked according to their assessed probability and impact because if they were they would not be in the order everyone knows to be right;
6) The risk logs are more or less the same as the things thought of last time because that is an easy way of populating a risk log quickly, thus looking effective.
7) The only bigger cottage industry than risk management is basket weaving… or is it benefits management?
In your opinion, what are some of the toughest challenges faced by project managers?
Managing a project after the main contractor is appointed. It is very easy to become a passenger as they know that you have very little option but to carry on… They need to get people to follow them and get them to WANT to do the things the PM needs them to do. Any amount of paperwork and ‘stuff’ will be of no use unless there is a personal commitment and devotion to the project.