Only connect

Recently, I’ve been meeting with other project managers around my company to discuss project management, with the aim of improving my knowledge and skills. I often start out asking them what they think the most important skills are for a project manager and what project management means to them—that is, What is project management?

A sampling of responses:

  • A project manager basically moves a project along and keeps things on schedule.
  • Project managers must be organized and track details; they should be the kind of person who organizes their sock drawer.
  • Anyone can be organized and track details; the important things are influencing people, anticipating and resolving issues, and seeing the big picture.
  • Project management is about relationships and can be akin to therapy.

I’m glad to get all these perspectives, especially the ones that confirm I’m doing work I’m suited for. If you need to be organized, keep things on schedule, and work well with people, maybe I have a lot of it down already.

Still, getting such different points of view made me wonder how to identify what’s really important in this kind of work. I know from experience that not everyone can be organized or track details, but if these are givens in the eyes of some, what can take one beyond these basics?

I started to think of a web with a project manager in the middle, bringing together separate people or groups by means of that web. In my job, I work with documentation managers, writers, production leads, engineers, and localization managers, among others. Everyone has a different focus, and my job is to bring all those together into one coherent whole. Keeping the project on track is part of this, but to keep it on track you need to be aware of the big picture and how all the groups’ different focuses and needs fit together. You need to make connections among people as well as among the various parts of any project.

And there’s more to project management than just this. Influencing people is key; you need to get people to do whatever is needed for the project, even if they don’t report to you, and at times you need to convince them to do things differently. Again, connections come into play; you need to connect with people to influence them, and you may need to show them the connection between their tasks and those of others to convince them that it’s important to do what must be done, as well as doing it on a particular schedule.

Foreseeing issues before they occur and mitigating risks also requires being able to make connections. Seeing how each part of the whole is connected to the others can help you spot gaps in the process or in communication among key players. It can help you identify dependencies, which can show you where there’s a risk of problems arising. No strategizing can be done without making such connections.

So I’ll say, as E.M. Forster did in Howards End, “only connect.” Okay, maybe not “only,” but certainly “connect.” And given that I find making connections even more satisfying than organizing, tracking, and scheduling, I think I’m doing the right kind of work.

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