A New Look at Project Management

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In modern times, project management is a technique utilized in many different fields of application including construction, engineering, industrial, defense (military logistics and organic) and, more recently, the development of software.

One of the earliest and most important contributions was given by the American Henry Gantt, who introduced in the early years of the 20th century a planning technique still remembered by his name (Gantt chart) which is still an essential part of any planning activity, something that all project managers must know. On the basis of his work many fundamental concepts emerged and were widely used in the practice of project management, such as the Allocation of Resources and the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), used to represent the structure of the activities of a project.
But modern project management gained its experience from the management of complex projects while a Manager Assistant has to know how to apply this methodology to more simple projects.

 

We all know that we are in a period of great transformation, the enormous amount of data involved in decision-making, the transformation of organizational models. The crisis of the economic model make essential to identify and optimize how to access information and organizational methodologies.
In particular project management techniques are affected by the transition period and the great dynamism and variability of the factors that influence all project stages.

 

For this reason the classic and well experienced model, the “cascade”, due to its constraints and rigidity, makes a flexible management of the project impossible. The result is that it is impossible to respect the defined scheduling and very often more resources are requested than those originally involved.

 

The list of activities or “check list” is usually the following:

1      Identify the basic activities (tasks) associated with each element of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS);

2      Represent the breakdown of tasks in a Gantt chart, highlighting the interrelations between the different elements of the project (macro-activities or work packages, task and output) in a time scale;

3      Assess the amount of work required (the so-called effort) to complete each task, determining the type of resources (human and otherwise) necessary for their implementation;

4      Calculate the time of completion of each task based on the number of resources assigned to them;

5      Determine personnel costs for the implementation of each task adding the cost of other materials and/or services required;

6      Determine the critical path based on the dependencies existing inside the WBS;

7      Calculate the total time by adding the times of all tasks that are within the critical path;

8      Determine the total cost: staff + materials + services.
This process seems to me very complicated for projects a Manager Assistant usually manages.

On the opposite end, the “simple project management” is definitely suitable for offices where the specifications are unclear, there is a high variability of priorities and evolving demands. For these reasons it is perfect for projects Manager Assistants have to manage, as usually the information is not clear, we don’t have enough resources and a very small budget.

 

Adopting a new management model may appear, at first, very difficult, because the temptation to fall back on the usual methods, such as the method “cascade”, is certainly more immediate and we are more used to.
The first two aspects that seem more interesting to evaluate and that can offer more benefits are:

  • A different approach to error management
  • The organizationand managementof timeand prioritiesin their creative aspects

 

A cliché about Manager Assistants is that there is little demand of creativity in the profession and I do not agree. The creative process is based on the flexible management of the complexity and who better than us to face complex situations?

 

The question is “what is the purpose of creativity?”
Certainly the main purpose can be identified in the resolution of a situation that has suddenly complicated, sometimes even in a surprising manner for the same Assistant who has to solve it, through a process of instantaneous solution, often unique in the interaction with other colleagues and with external stakeholders.

 

It seems obvious that in this process there is a high risk of failure and error, but it is through the potential failure that it is often possible to learn new solutions and reuse old management best practices in a different way to solve critical issues.
The risk inherent in creative improvisation often tends to keep people on well-known territories, trying to repeat the success stories previously explored. This approach has several flaws, most notably the repetition of the creative act that ends up making it useless, because it is surpassed.
We are often tempted torepeatsuccessful experiencesin order to limitthe risk, since learningin organizationstends tomove towardsroutineandpredetermineddefault.For this reasonwe prefer to stay inwell-establishedpatternasthose of the “cascade” project management techniques.

 

I want to underline that risk sources are more and more identified and located not only in infrastructural or technological assets and tangible variables, but in human factor variables, and decision making. The interaction between human factor and tangible aspects of risk highlights the need to focus closely into human factor as one of the main drivers for risk management.
For this reason we have to pay a lot of attention to situations in which we are involved and consider that people around us change constantly coming into conflict with this trend to repeat default and predetermined actions.
Staying on predefined trails limits the risk, but in this way we cannot take full advantage of our ability to act creatively, that could allow an innovative management process.

 

The Assistant, in order to handle the unforeseen, must have recourse to all her experience and her leadership to overcome the block and find the solution. Ironically, the error in a situation that gets complicated is what can really lead to innovate and revolutionize an established procedure. To achieve this result it is necessary to be extremely flexible, and that the structure we have behind us supports and ensures a high level of response to solicitations coming from an error breaking the daily routine.

 

It’s amazing the quantity of experience and the amount of information needed in one of these emergencies, and as a figure of strong leadership such as the Assistant, even though not deterministic, can be decisive.
This brings us to the second point, the management of the project team.

 

The organization and the dynamics of a group are always different, while communication techniques have sometime common elements and the basic structures of the project remain generally unchanged.
Different people have different problems, for this reason we should try to avoid retracing familiar patterns sacrificing the implementation of new ideas and solutions.
Acting outside the schemes, thinking outside the box, could provide surprisingly positive results and innovation. We must, however, be careful in trying to understand what makes this type of approach winning rather than disastrous or even harmful.

 

First of all, we have to consider the awareness of the team and the level of improvisation they can face. The Project Leader, in this case the Assistant, must be very familiar with the characteristics of people who are part of her team, and the group should include individuals able to handle discontinuities and challenges.
The discontinuity should not be treated as an eerie factor, but must lead to the creation of new material that gradually brings the team members to overcome their limitations in an unconscious way.

The brainstorming technique, leaving the initiative to flow free, is an exciting opportunity during which the Assistant/Project Leader can provide the necessary documentation to other members of the group to find a solution or can help them to focus on new and interesting ideas coming up.
From this brief analysis we can see how the management of a project is essential to have a positive approach to risk management and error, using the moments of error as a potential source of new ideas for innovation, enriching the trust and awareness of the team members.

 

In the same way the Project Leader, through the proposition of new processes can lead the team to exceed their limits and to manage in an innovative way problems that definitely could be resolved by conventional techniques, but without being able to bring new contribution in terms of professional growth and innovative work team.A single brain can’t bounce different ideas off itself! In this situation each team member has a responsibility to contribute equally and offer their unique perspective on a problem to arrive at the best possible solution. Teamwork can lead to better decisions, products or services.

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About Author

Mariachiara Novati

Mariachiara Novati lives in Milan, has a degree in Foreign Languages, a Master in HR Management and a second one in Marketing & Communication Management. She works as a Manager Assistant since 1992 covering different roles such as Scientific Secretary, Personal Assistant and Office Manager. In almost 20 years of experience she changed many companies and she improved her skills through different experiences and the continuous learning. She enjoys dynamic environment and challenges, being able to work autonomously as well as a team player, and capable to manage pressure and stress maintaining high levels of work quality. She has great communication skills and a strong sense of responsibility. In 2005, accepting a new challenge, she went to Singapore where she lived and worked for 2 years.When she came back to Italy she founded the free website MACSE (www.macse.it) dedicated to the professional development and training of Manager Assistants and after one year she became President of the first Italian association dedicated to Manager Assistants (www.macseitalia.it). At the moment she works as Senior Executive Assistant of CFO in one the most important editorial groups in Italy.

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