What Successful Project Managers Do

  • Alexander Laufer, Edward J. Hoffman, Jeffrey S. Russell and W. Scott Cameron
  • March 16, 2015

Traditional approaches to project management emphasize long-term planning and a focus on stability to manage risk. But today, managers leading complex projects often combine traditional and “agile” methods to give them more flexibility — and better results.

In today’s dynamic and competitive world, a project manager’s key challenge is coping with frequent unexpected events. Despite meticulous planning and risk-management processes, a project manager may encounter, on a near-daily basis, such events as the failure of workers to show up at a site, the bankruptcy of a key vendor, a contradiction in the guidelines provided by two engineering consultants or changes in customers’ requirements.1 Such events can be classified according to their level of predictability as follows: events that were anticipated but whose impacts were much stronger than expected; events that could not have been predicted; and events that could have been predicted but were not. All three types of events can become problems that need to be addressed by the project manager. The objective of this article is to describe how successful project managers cope with this challenge.2

Coping with frequent unexpected events requires an organizational culture that allows the project manager to exercise a great amount of flexibility. Here are two examples of advanced organizations that took steps to modify their cultures accordingly.

A group of 23 project managers who had come from all over NASA to participate in an advanced project management course declared mutiny. They left the class in the middle of the course, claiming that the course text, based on NASA’s standard procedures, was too restrictive for their projects and that they needed more flexibility. With the blessing of NASA’s top leadership, the class members then spent four months conducting interviews at companies outside of NASA. This led to a rewriting of numerous NASA procedures. Among other things, NASA headquarters accepted the group’s recommendation to give NASA project managers the freedom to tailor NASA’s standard procedures to the unique needs of their projects. A similar movement to enhance project managers’ flexibility occurred at Procter & Gamble, where the number of procedures for capital projects was reduced from 18 technical standards and 32 standard operating procedures to four technical standards and four standard operating procedures.