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How Do You Define a Successful Project Management Career?

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The criteria for what constitutes a successful project are pretty clear: full scope delivered on time and within budget.

Consider how a "failed" project is characterized: Press reports of conspicuous project failures declare "the project was several years late." Or, "the project overspent by so many millions of dollars."

But what does it mean to say that a project was late? Late with respect to what, some arbitrary date by which all such projects are supposed to be completed?

And what does it mean to say that a project overspent? Overspent with respect to what? Some arbitrary amount that all such projects are supposed to spend?

The fact is that both of these values -- project completion dates and the budget -- are not arbitrary in the least. These values are determined by the same person who is responsible to not exceed them: the project manager.

Let's look at that. The project manager determines the project completion date and the budget. The project manager then manages the project so as to not exceed those values.

Why, then, should a project ever be late or over budget? Think about it. We have it made! We get to say when and how much -- we simply have to meet those commitments. Our destiny is in our own hands. How can we fail?

And yet ... we fail.

I can hear the rebuttal now: "The schedule and budget were imposed by management, or the client or the sponsor." No they were not. You were given "targets." If you accept those "targets" as your budget and schedule commitments, you are setting yourself up for failure.

As the project manager, you are responsible for determining the schedule and the budget. If you cannot bring them both in line with targets, the sooner you say so, the better.

Success also means not failing. Quickly killing a project that will never meet targets is a good way to avoid failure. Alternatively, you can negotiate changes in targets for scope, schedule and budget so that it's possible to succeed.

Regardless of your personal criteria for a successful career, success as a project manager implies success in managing projects -- and that means meeting commitments that you make.

How do you define a successful project management career?


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For many years now, we've read studies, such as the CHAOS report, that expound on the relatively high failure rate of IT projects. High with respect to what, highway construction projects?

Given that the typical highway construction project is proposed, studied, risk managed, and planned for years before the first shovel of earth is turned, and that a massive body of laws, regulations, standards, and technical requirements drive every design, and that materials, products, and processes are mature and standardized, and that a coterie of safety experts, inspectors and regulators watch over every step, one would expect a typical highway construction project to have a low failure rate.

IT projects, on the other hand, tend to be subject to snap decisions by sponsors, little executive oversight, and limited time for planning, due to short schedules driven by "competitive pressure" and ever shorter product life cycles. Scope is frequently vague, stakeholders frequently too busy with "business as usual" to participate in planning, requirements gathering, or testing, and project staff are rarely dedicated to the project.

Software tools are buggy, poorly documented, and poorly supported by the vendors (or "supported" by a user community). No wonder so many software development teams are using Agile methods to shorten their development cycle, limit their scope, and keep "the bar" within reach.

So, how would I define a successful project management career as a practicing IT project manager? It would be characterized by a series of projects that delivered usable results quickly enough to be of benefit, to customers that understood how to use them, that could be supported throughout the product life cycle by the organization in a cost-effective manner, and that didn't require major business process surgery to replace at the end of their life cycle.

In short, success is defined in terms of results delivered, because project management isn't about budgets and schedules; those are just the means to an end.

I gave this a few minutes thought, and am not thinking my career is project management, as much as it is product management. I was born, which was a project that initiated a product launch, and at the end of the product lifecycle, a project will be initiated to put me in the ground.

As a product life cycle, I see stages not phases. Each stage has a different set of challenges, and rewards. Throughout it all, there are decisions to be made related to what projects are initiated to improve the product, and these improvements take many forms.

Income optimization in mid-career may necessitate taking on more risky projects, such as a job change, or may be related to improving life/work balance.

A successful project related to my career is one that meets my goals related to the stage of the product life cycle I am in. I can redefine the project, and therefore the product specifications, based on my current or long term needs. Either way, it is all in my hands to define and implement a project; or not to.

I am my product.

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