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In my experience over the past almost 50 years in the working world, “project management” is one of the most, if not the most, universal (ubiquitous) skill set needed by individuals throughout their careers in all types of organizations. We encounter “projects” called by many names in both our personal lives and our professional lives. In fact, my Mother used to post a “jobs (aka projects) list” on the refrigerator when I was a kid. So whether we call it a job, a project, a program, an operation, an assignment; a campaign, a play, or something else; it still has all the characteristics of what we would know as a “project”.

Defining the Essence of a Project

Formally, we define a project as a: “unique venture with a beginning and an end, executed to one or more meet goals”. Or, slighted stated differently, “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”. So, a “project” would include everything from cleaning out my garage, to undertaking a campaign to raise funds for my church’s youth program, to building a software program to optimize my Amazon delivery routes, to planning my course schedules for the academic semester, and much more.

Essential Skill Sets for Effective Project Management

Whatever the “project” may be, there are certain skill sets that we all need bring to bear upon the work being contemplated.

  • First, we have to figure out what we intend to accomplish; what is our end objective? 
  • Second, we have to understand what work must be done to reach that goal. 
  • Third, we have to identify and gather the resources needed to accomplish that work.
  • Fourth, somebody (or a team of somebodies) actually has to plan and execute the work required to accomplish the project.
  • Fifth, we need to plan (as best we can) how to handle changes that will probably come up as the project progresses.
  • And sixth, we need to decide what it means to be “done”; i.e., how do we determine that we have, in fact, accomplished our goal for the project. Let’s take a fairly simple example to demonstrate how these skill sets come into play in executing a “project”.

I really need to clean out my garage! I’ve got stuff stacked in there that’s been there for 25 years and it’s a mess. It’s way past time for me to get busy and get my garage straightened up.

Skill Set #1

Define the end objective(s): My initial thought was that I needed to “clean out my garage”; but really, my actual objective is not only to clean that space; but, to reorganize (straighten up) the remaining contents of the garage. That latter objective is a bigger one than just cleaning the garage. As result, the “scope of work” has changed because I altered the end objective.  Because I changed the end objective, the definition of what it means to be “done” also changed.

Skill Set #2

Top-down decomposition of work:Now that I have decided my goal is to clean AND reorganize my garage, I can begin to figure out what work will be required to accomplish those objectives. This process sort of follows the old adage: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”  The obvious two big pieces of work are:

1.) Clean out the garage (contents)

2.) Reorganize (straighten up) the remaining contents of the garage.

Next, I have to break down each of these two “big” pieces into smaller segments of work; i.e., “clean out the garage” means that I need to sort the garage contents into three piles: stuff to throw away; stuff to give away; and stuff to keep. 

Then, I need to break each of these down into smaller pieces of work or tasks.

For example; “stuff to give away” might break down into gather: stuff to give to our kids; stuff to give to Good Will; and stuff to give to the Library. I would continue this work breakdown process until I have all known pieces of work broken down into tasks that I’m guessing would take about four hours of my time to accomplish.

Skill Set #3

Define the resources required: In addition to my personal effort (time), I need to think about other resources I suspect I’ll need to accomplish this project. 

 For example, I’ll probably need a bunch of plastic tubs to store the contents that I want to keep after cleaning and reorganizing my garage. That means money: maybe 20 tubs costing $5 each for a total of $100.  I may need to rent a small cargo truck to haul stuff to Good Will. That’s another $100. I’m going to think through each piece of work to try to estimate what resources will be required to execute that piece of work so I can plan for all expenditures required.

Skill Set #4

Execute the project: Obviously, somebody (me) better get to work if this project is ever going to get done. There are couple of ways I can plan out my work schedule. Since I think I know pretty much what must be done, I can use a sequential time plan where I layout my work in a logical series of steps (tasks) based the availability of my time over the next month or so. In this scenario, I might start by sorting the boxes on the north side of the garage; then I’ll sort the contents of my filing cabinets; then I’ll sort the stuff I have stored on the shelves. After I‘ve finished sorting, I’ll take the give-away stuff to Good Will and move the trash to the curb for city pickup. The other approach is to tackle the work in “sprints”, addressing the most valuable piece(s) of work first; followed by other pieces of work in descending order of value. In this scenario, I would tackle the boxes stored on the north side of the garage as my first sprint since getting that done has the highest value to me. In that sprint, I would sort all the stuff in that area; move the trash to the curb; take the give-away items to Good Will; and re-pack the contents I want to keep into new tubs for my reorganization effort. Then, I would move the second sprint which would be doing the same set of tasks for the filing cabinets. I would continue working in sprints until the project was done.

Skill Set #5

Accommodate refinement: Change always happens! Right?

I need to be thinking about potential changes that might come up that would alter the scope of work I have currently planned. For example, what would I need to do to accommodate my secret dream of building a woodworking shop in my garage? Or, how about following my other dream about buying a new 2025 Z06 Corvette?  Both would be great fun; but obviously, would drastically alter my work plans for cleaning and reorganizing my garage. Maybe, I’ll start a “GoFundMe” page!

Skill Set #6

Assess am I “done”? Assuming I stick with my original plan, how will I determine when I am truly “done”? Am I done when the garage is clean, trash is thrown away, give-away stuff is delivered to Good Will, and the stuff I want to keep is re-packed into plastic tubs?  Or, am I really done when all of those tasks are completed AND the contents of the garage are logically reorganized, packed in tubs, properly labeled, and stored neatly on the shelves in my garage (and we can actually park our cars in the garage!)? For me, the latter represents the vision I have in my mind’s eye as to what “done” really means.

I hope you have enjoyed this little episode designed to convince you that everyone needs to develop basic project management skill sets in order to successfully manage all the big and little projects, jobs, programs, operations, assignments, campaigns, etc. that are bound to come your way personally and professionally during the course of your life and career.