Project Practitioners > The Opportunity & Challenge of Being First

The Opportunity & Challenge of Being First

By Ann Drinkwater

The start-up of a formal project management function requires initiative and perseverance. If you or an organization you work for is looking to hire a project management professional, there are several areas that must be considered from both the employee and organizational perspective. The project manager in this type of environment must understand surrounding processes will likely be fairly immature and there will be many areas of groundwork and the establishment of a framework that must be completed before you can begin doing day-to-day or tactical project management. Organizations that are starting a formal project management offering, should strongly consider the formation of a project management office and standards committee. This month’s column will focus on the initial steps to consider from an employee’s standpoint. If you are the company’s first project manager, or you are asked to join an organization to assist in the establishment of procedures, policies and a customized methodology, these areas may assist:

1. Executive Support: As with most business initiatives, it all starts at the top. There needs to be buy-in, sponsorship and equally important, ongoing support and a focus on continuous improvement. When you are considering this type of endeavor, I highly recommend understanding the structure, organizational culture and really nailing down what has been tried before, what works, what doesn’t and what the viewpoint of the executive team is regarding project management and delivery. Understand from others in the organization how available the executive sponsor is and how decisive this person has been on past inquiries will help predict future support and effectiveness. I would suggest researching the executive team and those you will be relaying on for authoritative decision making. Reviewing their background and qualifications will help you understand the range of experience they may have available for you.

2. Roles & Responsiblies: You should ensure there is a clear explanation of what you will be expected to provide, what authority levels you will have and what and how other areas of change will be managed. You will likely need to be able to propose and make sweeping changes. If these changes require multiple layers of deliberation, this should be measured against your personal expectations for the position. Are you the type of person that is frustrated by bureaucracy and /or is there so much change needed that it will take considerable time before you can start delivering? What does project management mean to your new organization? There seem to many variations of what a project manager does and the goals of project management – I’ve seen these range from more coordination and scheduling meetings and pushing data to what I would consider a true project manager and managing the full project lifecycle and overseeing all elements of planning and execution.

3. Assess the Culture: What are the norms of the organization? While there may not be a documented, formal project planning and delivery process, how are things currently being done? What is the skill and experience level of the delivery team? Will they understand and be readily open to your suggestions? How have other change efforts faired within the organization? Does the organization look at project management as something that is applied to specific endeavors, or do they consider it more globally and believe in a project- driven enterprise. The latter will require a greater time commitment, organizational commitment, but is really what we should all be striving for. A projectized organization would utilize project management practices for all organizational needs regardless of whether it involves operations, service delivery, new product development, organizational changes, new market entry, internal process improvement or any business initiative. Project management really is an instrument for dealing with change.

4. Set Clear Expectations: It will be imperative from day one to survey the environment and create a phased approach for implementation. Setting and resetting expectations is critical throughout all stages and isn’t an area that should ever be discontinued. As you learn more about your situation, the organization, the team and other factors, reassess your plan and ensure there is a strong understanding and commitment from all stakeholders.

5. Educate the Organization: You will need to start small and begin to create an education campaign. Explain the areas for improvement, how the organization may benefit and what you expect to see as an outcome. Don’t be surprised if you have to start at the basics, with definitions and vocabulary. This can be time consuming, but is also an opportunity for you to make a positive impact and guide the organization to where you need to take them.

The bottom line is you should be realistic and cannot expect to walk into an organization as the first project manager and follow an established process or methodology. It probably does not exist. You should set clear expectations with the management team on what you will need to establish, timelines and what you need from them. Gauging the maturity of the project process during the interviewing process is the best time. You can’t start early enough on your assessment, consideration of the position and the overall education process needed. There is tremendous opportunity available for someone coming in to this situation, but it might not be for everyone. If you have considerable experience, have seen what works and doesn’t work, and enjoy making improvements and selling your profession, it may be a good fit. If you expect to have all the answers on process and methodology from day one and want to quickly dive into the nuts and bolts of everyday project management, perhaps another opportunity would be better suited.

While the areas above were presented from the employee’s viewpoint, they also apply to the organization. The organization should be realistic, set clear expectations and recruit for a more senior person to fill this project management office-type opening.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Ann, I agree totally! Having set up numerous Project Management Offices in a variety of companies, there are HUGE mountains to climb and anyone thinking that all they have to do is throw in a process. They would be very frustrated.

great article; any suggestion of scale down for small construction with medium/small projects; even these shuold be managed

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