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Tuesday, 02 September 2008 10:43

Great Project Managers - Definition - Part 2 of 4

Written by  Michael O'Brochta, PMP
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What does it take inproject management to be the best-of-the-best, the top dog, a superstar, orworld class? What does it take to practice project management at the high end? Whatdoes it take to be a great project manager? Thanks to recent studies andresearch, the answers are closer now than they have ever been before.
This is a how-to paper. It describes how tobecome a great project manager, and it identifies a list of top factorsassociated with great project managers. This paper draws on recently publishedresults of studies and research by PMIâ and others about what top project managers knowand do, about why their projects succeed or fail, and about their projectmanager competencies. This paper explores how great project managers successfullydeal with the evolving and expanding definition of project success, with theexpanding complexity of projects, and with their increasing dependency onexecutives and others for their success. A central theme is that great projectmanagers have mastered the basics and have the discipline to adhere to them.
  • Part 1 is focused on some great project manager history.
  • Part 2 is focused on the definition of great project managers.
  • Part 3 is focused on the new studies and research related to great project managers.
  • Part 4 is focused on the required discipline and a list of what great project managers do and how they do it.

Project Success Equals Project Manager Success

Most project managers aspire to be great project managers. As project managers, we are in abusiness where our own success or failure is determined largely by the outcomeof our projects (Archibald, 2003; Kerzner, 2006). This is just as true now asit was several decades ago when Archibald and Kerzner first began writing aboutproject management viewpoints (Archibald, 1976; Kerzner, 1984). It matterslittle who we are or what is the viewpoint taken, the equation is invariablythe same: project success equals project manager success. When looked at from the executiveviewpoint, project management is seen as a means to an end, and when theproject succeeds, the project manager gets rewarded. When looked at through theeyes of the project manager, project success leads to bigger and betterprojects which, if successful, lead to career advancement. The old joke aboutthe first prize in a project management contest being a new project and thesecond prize being two new projectsreveals (in this case, rather ironically) just how strong a connection existsbetween our projects and our perceptions of success. Joking aside, in reality,the typical progression for the entry-level project manager is to take on ever-bigger projects with ever-biggerbudgets and ever-bigger rewards (Crawford, 2006). Great project managers not onlyunderstand this, they make decisions and take actions to capitalize on it. The“how-to” factor is that great project managers strive to work on and succeedon great projects.


Success Definition Expanded


Simply put, a project hasto succeed in order to be great. The issue with this simplification is that thedefinition of project success is anything but simple (Exhibit 2). The bigchange over time has been that the definition of project success has beengreatly expanded (Kerzner, 1998). In the1960s, the early days of project management, success was measured entirely intechnical terms. Either the deliverable product worked, or it did not. Duringthe 1970s that narrow definition was expanded to encompass completion of theproject on time, within budget, and at an acceptable level of quality. This hasbecome known as “the triple constraint” and has been widely used as the basisfor much of the project management industry. During the 1980s, the definitionof project success and its criteria expanded still further to include theacceptance of the customer. And during the 1990s, still more criteria wereadded, such as that the project not disturb the main workflow of theorganization and not change the corporate culture. This expansion of thedefinition of project success has been difficult for some to deal with, whileothers have folded a success definition step into their life cycle process(O’Brochta, 2002).


One highly public example of this expansion of thedefinition of project success is shown by the space program. In the early days,scientists and engineers were focused on developing the basic capability tolaunch a manned rocket, a narrow technical success criterion. Thataccomplishment was followed by the historic challenge (and expansion of the projectsuccess criteria) by President John F. Kennedy to “land a man on the moon andreturn him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.” By the time the spaceshuttle program was under way, the success definition had further expanded toinclude the customer—specifically, to produce commercially profitable materialin space. Recently, President George W. Bush took the success definition forthe space program into the cultural realm when he articulated the goal to“extend human presence across our solar system . . . because doing so improvesour lives, and lifts our national spirit.”


While few of us have projects associated with nationalspirit, many of us do have projects that overlap with a more localized versionof spirit, organization culture, and business processes. Business processre-engineering may have faded a bit from the popular jargon since its peak ofpopularity in the early 1990s (Hammer, 1990), but it is now that theproject-based work force is confronted with its impact, as we are increasinglydriven to be business savvy (Heerkens, 2005). We only have to look as far asthe information technology industry for examples of just how strong therelationship has grown between the project work being done and the well-beingof entire organizations that use the delivered product. Who among us has notbemoaned or applauded a feature change in the release of a desktop application?We react in this way because of the impact such changes have on how we feelabout where we work and about our corporate spirit. The “how-to” factor forgreat project managers shown by this is that they will succeed more often ifthey expand their scope of responsibility to be consistent with the expandeddefinition of success.


Project Complexity Increased

Complexity in project management is now receiving somemuch-needed attention. The timing is excellent. The expanded definition ofproject success is causing more projects to become more complex; more complexproblems are generating more complex projects. To be sure, it does not have tobe this way; simple solutions can be produced for complex problems. In theengineering world, these solutions are often referred to as “elegant” (witnessthe Post-Itânote or the iPodâ). However, in the absenceof incredible levels of innovation, more complexity is finding its way intotoday’s projects. Projects have more stakeholders, more requirements, moreinterfaces, more systems considerations, more dependencies, and even moreregulations. And since great project managers tend to work on or want to workon bigger and better projects, they will more likely than not find themselvesdeep in the jungle of project ambiguity and complexity (Frame, 1994). Anincreasingly popular “how-to” approach among great project managers for dealingwith project complexity is to adjust project management practices to matchthe nature of the project complexity.


“Filtering” is one such approach that has been wellresearched (Shenhar & Wideman, 1997). “Filtering” can be used to chooseprojects best suited for a particular project methodology or project managerskill set. For example, technical uncertainty can be classified on a scaleranging from low-tech to super high-tech for ranges of technology from wellknown and mature to new and cutting-edge. The history of performance with themethodology in question would be used as the basis for scoring each candidatenew project and deciding whether to allow the project to proceed using thatmethodology.


Complexity Dimensions

Time and Cost

Team Size

Team Composition

Competing Demands

Problem and Solution Clarity

Requirements Stability

Strategic Importance

Level of Change

Project Profile



Low Risk










Some Complexity

Some Risk










High Complexity

High Risk










Exhibit 3 – Project ComplexityModel


“Modeling” is another approach, which is making its way fromthe systems engineering discipline into the project management space. Engineershave had considerable success using modeling theories to deal with increasinglevels of complexity for many problem sets, including weather forecasting(Weather Research & Forecasting, 2007), war gaming (Rubel, 2006), and, morerecently, bioterrorism (Simpson, 2005). The basic approach used is to identifya set of representative characteristics or dimensions of a given project andthen to group projects with similar characteristics into categories; for eachof these categories, a particular model or methodology is applied. One suchmodel (Exhibit 3) includes eight complexity dimensions and three dimensions forthe project profile (Hass, 2007). Scoring a project using the model yields aselection of a project profile. For example, a decision might be made to choosea project profile with significantly higher levels of communications for aproject to renovate a popular historic structure because of the large number ofpublic interest groups and stakeholders involved with the requirements.


Project complexity modeling exhibits limitations similar tothose of other modeling applications. The results are limited by how well themodel has been tuned and adapted for the particular environment. Tuning themodel would, for example, involve adjusting the classification of a projectwith a six-month schedule from being a relatively short project in theaerospace industry to a relatively long project in the spy-business ofsupporting CIA agents in the field. Other elements of the model would besimilarly tuned.


Executive Dependency


Thesedays, project success depends not only on the actions of the project manager butalso on the executive. Unfortunately, sometimes this can mean applying bestpractice project management only to have the project fail because of executiveinaction or counteraction. However, this trap can be avoided (O’Brochta, 2005).Great project managers recognize this dependence on the executive and in factuse their sources of power to get their executive to act for project success.The “how-to” factor for great project managers is to identify the actions thatthey need their executive to take and then work within their organizations tochange the status quo, to be the catalyst for action within their ownorganization, and to get their executive to act for project success.


We are fortunate that there are somany high-quality and pertinent sources of reference information on this topic.By all means, read extensively, get plenty of experience, and make a listfor yourself of the actions that you would like your executive to take. As an example, you might consider the list shownbelow (Exhibit 4), which I developed based on my experience over the past fewyears consulting executives who want to help project managers, as well as on myexperience helping project managers themselves. In workshops that I led on thissubject, I asked executives to create lists of “executive actions for projectsuccess” from which I distilled the list shown below. As much as possible Ihave trimmed the list to a minimum number of actions, focusing on those actionsthat are practical and achievable in most organizational cultures, and I haveeliminated actions that are better suited to project managers and others thanto executives. If this list were a tool, I would consider it be the “Swiss armyknife” of executive actions for project success, focused on the essentials witha minimum of extraneous information. However, I must point out, perhaps evencaution, that this list will not work for all executives or all projectmanagers in all situations. As with any tool, skill and experience are requiredto use this list. Deciding what to include on this list and acting on itrequire considerable sensitivity to those involved and to the situation.


Aspiration Summary

Great project managers are distinguished by their acceptanceof the changed project environment andtheir determination to excelwithin this changed environment. They understand the expandeddefinition of success and have takenownership of satisfying the factors beyond the traditional definition, such as the triple constraint. Great projectmanagers identify the elements of complexity within their projects and use tools, such asmodeling, to help match project management practices to the project’scomplexity. They are acutely aware of the increasing dependency they have ontheir executive for success, and they are engaged in getting theirexecutive to act for project success.

Read 4993 times Last modified on Tuesday, 02 September 2008 16:55
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