Project Management in a World of Overload. Project Management in the modern real world, History and today

Everyday Project Management is an amazing book and everyone should read it. This chapter is an excerpt of the book Everyday Project Management by Jeff Davidson

In this chapter, you learn why having work-life balance is vital to project managers who seek long and prosperous careers, and you discover the importance of learning project management fundamentals. In later chapters, you’ll see that when all is said and done, people skills are every bit as vital.

Project Management and success. Success, to What End?

What is the value of being successful in your career, rising in your organization, earning ever more salary, and generating praise from many corners, if you don’t have a sense of work-life balance? More pointedly, as a project manager, what is the value of bringing projects in on time, at the desired quality level, and on budget; being recognized as highly effective; getting promoted; and looking forward to long-term career success—if you do not achieve work-life balance?

Are you truly successful if each day is a battle? Do you have to drag yourself out of bed, make it through the morning slog, find your way to your desk, and begin again on what seems like an endless series of tasks without a break? Is that a life worth pursuing, deserving of emulation, and the one you sought when you were climbing up through the ranks?

It might seem unusual in a book on project management to first discuss the notion of work-life balance. Yet, to be a successful project manager for the long haul, you need to experience work-life balance on a semirecurring basis. Why only semirecurring? Because nobody lives a life of sustained work-life balance, day in and day out. While you can battle through your current project and maybe the next one as well, despite being out of balance, you actually seek long-term career success. So, this otherwise unusual first chapter will prove beneficial.

Which word best describes today’s typical project manager?

Here is a multiple-choice quiz question: Which word best describes today’s typical project manager?

  • Overworked
  • Underworked
  • Energetic
  • Lazy

The appropriate answer could well be “None of the above.” Powerful social forces have the potential to turn each of us into human whirlwinds, charging about in “fast forward” mode. Work, time away from work, and everything in between appear as if they are part of an unending, ever-lengthening to-do list, to be handled during days that race by quickly.

The World as We Found It. Project Management as a legacy

To say that career professionals in general, and project managers in particular, work too many hours, and that too much work lies at the root of any time pressure they feel and the leisure they might indulge in, is to miss the convergence of larger, more fundamental issues. It’s everything else competing for our attention on top of our workload that leaves us feeling overwhelmed. Once we are overwhelmed, the feeling of being overworked quickly follows.

Nearly every aspect of society has become more complex since the year 2000. Traveling is becoming more cumbersome. Learning new ways to increase productivity takes its toll. Merely participating as a functioning member of society guarantees that your day, week, month, year, and even life, along with your physical, emotional, and spiritual energy, will easily be depleted without standing at the proper vantage point from which to approach each day and conduct your life.

Do you personally know anyone who works for a living who consistently has unscheduled, free stretches? Five factors, or “mega-realities,” are simultaneously contributing to the perceptual and actual erosion of our leisure time, including

  • Population growth
  • The information tidal wave
  • Mass media growth and electronic addiction
  • The paper trail culture
  • An overabundance of choices

1. Population

From the beginning of creation to 1804 CE, world population grew to one billion. It grew to two billion by 1927, three billion by 1959, four billion by 1974, five billion by 1987, six billion by 1999, and seven billion by 2011, according to United Nation sources, with eight billion en route. In less than five years, the equivalent of the current population of the United States, 330,000,000 people, will be added to the planet.

The world of your childhood is gone, forever. The present is crowded and becoming more so. Each day, world population (births minus deaths) increases by roughly 200,000 people, based on Worldometers calculations. Independent of what type of project you’re managing or are about to manage, and regardless of your political, religious, or economic views, the unrelenting growth in human population permeates and dominates every aspect of the planet and its resources, the environment, and nearly all living things. This is a compelling, yet under-acknowledged aspect of our existence, and in a moment I will link them to the four other mega-realities.

More densely packed urban areas have resulted, predictably, in a gridlock of the nation’s transportation systems. It is taking you longer merely to drive a few blocks; it’s not your imagination, it’s not the day of the week or the season, and it’s not going to subside soon. Population and road use grow faster than our ability to repair highways, bridges, and arteries.

City planners see no clear solution to gridlock on the horizon, and population studies reveal that metropolitan areas worldwide will become home to an even greater percentage of their countries’ population. Cities large and small will face unending traffic dilemmas.

The Impact on You—How does ever-increasing population affect your career and your life? Increasingly, it might make sense to live closer to where you work, because commuting in each direction could prove to be burdensome. It also can be helpful to telecommute more often, so that you don’t have to go into the office or visit the project site every day. You can rely more heavily on the tools that we all have in our homes now, including phone, e-mail, texting, logging onto the Internet, and in some cases faxing.

Because your project team could be geographically far-flung, you don’t meet with them in person on a regular basis, if at all.You could be among those who are geographically distant from the individuals to whom you report. You connect via cyberspace, relying perhaps ever more so on video apps such as WhatsApp or Zoom.

The project teams

Indeed, sometimes our project team is geographically far-flung because of talent considerations and the desire to keep costs down. If the talent we seek is overseas, and yet can do the job effectively within the budget we’ve allotted, then by and large that’s whom we hire and with whom we work. In many respects, the acceleration of both world population and the “gig economy” are inextricably linked.

You likely already know much of the above, but have you stopped to consider how you could have more-impactful interactions with your geographically dispersed team members or with stakeholders? We’ll keep focused on communication issues throughout the text. In particular, Chapter 13, “Reporting Results,” focuses on the issues addressed above.

The Information Tidal Wave

Many project managers fear that they are under-informed while, paradoxically, being bombarded by information. Over-information wreaks havoc on the receptive capacities of the unwary. The volume of new knowledge broadcast and published in every field is enormous and exceeds anyone’s ability to keep pace. All told, more words are published or broadcast in a day than you could comfortably digest in your lifetime.

Increasingly, there is no body of knowledge that everyone can be expected to know. In its 140th year, for example, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., added some 942,000 items to its collections. With more information comes more misinformation. Annually, more than 40,000 scientific journals publish over one million new articles.“The number of scientific articles and journals published worldwide is starting to confuse research, overwhelm the quality-control systems of science (Learn more about Quality Control and Assurance in Project management), encourage fraud, and distort the dissemination of important findings,” the science journalist William J. Broad, of the New York Times, once said.

Too many legislators, regulators, and others entrusted to devise the rules that guide the course of society take shelter in the information over-glut by adding to it. We are saddled with 26-page rules and regulations that often could be stated in far fewer pages. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not confined to government. Nearly-impossible-to-understand software manuals, insurance policies, car rental agreements, sweepstakes instructions, and frequent flyer bonus plans all contribute to the quandary.

Relying on the Best—Information and communication overload most definitely impacts you, and probably does so every day. You have to function in this world like other career professionals. The channel noise, which surrounds each of us, increases inexorably. Thus, it becomes important for each of us, but particularly project managers, to rely on the very best of information sources.

Tune into the best of news shows, and visit the best of web news sites. Rely on the highest level and most credible information sources as often as you can. Have the mental and emotional strength to tune out peripheral information that may be interesting or nice to know, but that, in perspective, doesn’t support you, your team, the project, your organization, or anything else that’s important to you.

The project manager needs both mental and emotional strength

Why are both mental and emotional strength necessary? Mentally, recognizing what’s best left untouched versus what does merit our attention is challenging enough. Then there is the emotional component. Because we want to be complete in our efforts, sometimes, even when we know an issue is probably not significant enough to devote resources to it, we have a hard time walking away, thinking “It would be so nice to handle that, too.” Thus, having only the mental strength, or the emotional strength, often is not enough—you need both.

The strength to let go, particularly in the area of information and communication, will become a skill that you’ll want to cultivate and more finely tune as you proceed up the ranks of project management. Why? Project managers, as a breed, tend to be over-achievers if not perfectionists. They want to take care of everything, be on top of it all, and display their prowess, but sometimes that is the path to costly errors, needless diversions, and, on a personal basis, potentially even burnout.

Letting go is often synonymous with abandoning erroneous notions that you harbor. Subconsciously, you could be thinking that if you don’t do absolutely “everything” on the project, you’ll be harshly judged. People will think you aren’t up to the task. Or, you know in your own mind that with a little more effort, you could have included everything! You develop an emotional attachment, unknowingly, to small issues. The risk of this kind of attachment is that you’re not going to finish the project on time—this is not likely to be a useful outcome for anyone! Read the Assessing the Risk in Project management and Quantitative approaches to risk article in PolicyMatters.Net.

The Center of It All—A project manager is the nexus for the brunt of the information related to a project. So, it’s critical to have the ability to prioritize information and assess new information’s validity and applicability to the tasks at hand. Project managers are the center of it all: of their bosses, stakeholders, project team members, and perhaps even outside vendors and suppliers—virtually anyone who has a role in the project. Reams of information are directed toward the project manager on a continuing basis, sometimes without a break.

The project manager has a job-related information overload burden

In essence, a project manager has a job-related information overload burden, whether or not it’s written in the job description! The temptation to read every e-mail on which you are CC’d can be overwhelming. The inclination to delve into reports, from cover to cover, that come your way, could haunt you as you realize you simply don’t have the time to peruse every line of every page. Often, you need to rely on summaries, and sometimes you need to merely skim the information you encounter.

Project managers need to be able to walk away

Project managers need to be able to walk away from some tasks without engaging them at all. The ability to prioritize and focus on what’s truly important is a vital and emerging skill, for virtually all career professionals, who face a sea of information that is unending. Upper management seeks out such individuals, those who know how to fend for themselves amid so much competing for their attention.

As projects are completed, time passes, and you find yourself assuming more responsibility, the strength to prioritize, weed out, and let go will serve you well. If you begin to develop such skills now, it will be to your great benefit for the many years and even decades ahead.

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