Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager

Share on:

If you like this post, checkout Design for non designers

In my work as a Data Scientist, I often face project management situations. Most of the time, they are not clearly defined as such but yet they’re vital to the success of my work. For example, nobody will say

“Louis, we need you to manage this Data project.”

but I would instead hear

“Louis, we need you to find a solution to this problem, deliver it by this date, with those resources. And if you could make sure this opens future possibilities for us, that’d be great thank you.”

This is project management territory: planning, executing and maximising ROI along the way.

As part of my degree, I studied waterfall project management (see this post where I explain my experience leading a 25 people team for one year). And as part of the first 4 years of my career, I’ve experienced agile project management in different teams and setups.

But recently I decided to brush up on those concepts by reading Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager, a book vulgarising the theory from the Project Management Institute. Here are my notes.

Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager

Managing projects is equivalent to Leading people (Chapters 1 & 2) 

Across the book, the one concept that comes back all the time is that leading people is not only a necessary condition to manage projects, but that it can become a sufficient one too.

As put in Chapter two Success = People + Process.

So for better success you need to better lead people. How to better lead people?

For an unofficial manager, the situation is clear: you won’t have any kind of official authority. Back in the mecatronics class, the people I needed to lead to success were classmates with as much authority as me. Today in the workplace, my title is Machine Learning Engineer not Project Manager or Product Owner.

So the answer lies in practicing informal authority. Inspire people by acts, and they will follow (parts of) your plan.

Practice informal authority with 4 behaviours 

According to the book, there are 4 foundational behaviours to practice informal authority:

  1. Demonstrate respect (eg: confront reality and talk straight to people, anticipate potential issues from the other side, don’t ask for the Moon)
  2. Listen first (eg: you don’t have to know everything, look for answers, have empathy, gather input, don’t interrupt team members)
  3. Clarify expectations (eg: explain one more time, write better tickets, talk in stand-ups, organise one-off clarification meetings, explain how everyone fits in the big picture)
  4. Practice accountability (eg: be an example, finish on time, admit mistakes, chase for completion)
Project Management Institute

Clear the path to Done (Chapters 3 to 7) 

Once you start practicing the 4 behaviours for informal authority, you should see rapid improvements with People. But you still need a Process.

To keep things simple, let’s summarize the project management process as clearing the path to Done. This means you first need to know 3 things:

  • what is Done in my case?
  • what is my path to Done?
  • what is blocking the path to Done?

Clear the path to done with a 5 steps process 

The PMI and the book helps you answer those questions by laying out a 5-parts process:

  1. Initiate (eg: how will success be measured, define key stakeholders, define project scope)
  2. Plan (eg: build a roadmap, manage risks, use the Work Breakdown Structure, identify your critical path with GANTTs)
  3. Execute (eg: engage the team with a cadence of accountability meetings, hold 1-to-1 performance concersations)
  4. Monitor and Control (eg: keep stakeholders informed, manage scope changes)
  5. Close (eg: evaluate completion, draw lessons learned, publish achievements)

Conclusion 

Whether you practice informal authority or clear the path to done, applying those learnings help clarifying next steps. Try this at work or at home, and let me know.