For the past year or so, I have been working at a global financial institution as Project Manager on the convergence of a number of systems for learning, performance management and talent management.   Working at Capgemini, I had carefully learned about all of the project tools that I would need – the ms project plan, the RACI, the Risks and Issues log, etc., etc.  and found all of these things to be useful.  But they were not the most useful things that I needed.   When I started in the role, my client told me that the key skills I would need to get the job done would be the ability to work with a diverse stakeholder group, be able to see the wood from the trees, and to ask the right questions to sift out the key issues to solve and see where problems were going to come up before they happened, and everything would be fine.   Knowledge of the system I was converging was less important to them as they had people who could do that already.  Over 12 months down the line, they were right (at least so far).
Reading the various pieces of literature that are around on the topic, there are a number of  opinions about how many attributes a good Project Manager should have, but the essential qualities have a common theme – over and above the ability to produce and track a plan.   The literature says that actual technical knowledge of the topic of the project is usually less important than softer skills and abilities, since unless your team is actively trying to undermine you the main thing is being able to co-ordinate and direct the efforts of those in the team, making the most of their strengths, to deliver a good result.  Of course, that does not mean you don’t do any work, since that is quite a challenging thing to do in a project environment.
This means that the basic project management skills can be applied in any environment to make something a success.  I was thinking about that.  On my project I was going to have a couple of days off – a weekend for the first time in quite a number of weeks.  I was going to the rather less than glamorous Camber Sands holiday camp for a weekend of fitness activities.  I was also hoping I survive the rather dodgy accommodation plus some fairly chunky bouts of exercise (around 6 hours a day) and thinking it will be a bonus if I can still walk on Monday. (As it happened, I could!)
Anyway, I was not going on my own.  There were around 30 of us attending and it was all organised by a friend of mine who displayed great project management skills.  Especially when you think that he has a day job which is fairly full on and he is organising a bunch of individuals who mainly get together at the local gym.  Its not easy, but he has done it with a smile, and I reckon he must be pretty good in his real work situation where he has some big projects to run for a financial services company.
The skills that he has shown fit in with my own personal experiences and those in the documentation.  I would summarise these as follows:-

  • Empathetic skills – to understand how others are feeling and be able to adapt behaviour/communications appropriately – for example ensuring that those who are nervous about the event feel confident about what may be a new experience for them.  I would also include ethics here – not sharing people’s concerns with others is important.
  • Understanding Project Tools and Techniques – not sure whether a project plan was drawn up, but there are certainly tracking and reporting mechanisms in place to look at who wants what kind of room, how much and when people have paid and even down to organising who travels with who and what people have for dinner at the restaurant.  All of which has required follow-up and good maintenance of records (saves arguments over who ordered the fish…..)
  • Motivational skills – definitely required in order to encourage people to attend and apply on time – and even to take on additional tasks to help out – getting someone else to take on the ordering of the birthday cake…..
  • Good problem solving – to be able to deal with the tricky issues of who shares rooms with who, and heading off problems before they happen.  How will cover be arranged at the gym for all the classes when all of the teachers are away for the weekend?
  • Pragmatism – calling out issues as they are as going through
  • Be well organised – a complicated thing to put together – with people, places and money involved
  • Know how to lead – having to give instructions to people over whom there is no authority whatsoever
  • Good communication – letting people know progress throughout – what is happening when, what is going wrong, when particularly interesting things are going to happen!

I was looking forward to and really enjoyed that weekend (I had certainly earned it).  It was my third year of going – although most of the work done by my friend will go unnoticed by many, those project management skills are much appreciated and essential to the weekend’s success.  Well done – and thank you!  Hopefully my client will also appreciate my efforts on assignment to apply those skills, too.
I am doing it all again next weekend, and my main concern today is that after a year away from the gym Monday to Friday I am going to be seriously shown up by everyone else there, who are very, very, fit.  Never mind – I’m going to enjoy it anyway!