What The Hell Is Project Management, Anyway?

"Project management" can sound like everything and nothing all at once. We spoke with a project management pro to clarify what it really means to get people moving in the same direction.

Project management seems like a classic chicken-and-egg career conundrum: How do you prove you’re adept at managing projects if you haven’t worked as a project manager? Beyond that, what does project management really entail, and how is it different from, you know, being a manager? And what tools do the pros actually use, since there seem to be a new one released every week?

To better understand some of the managerial speak around project management, I spoke with a 20-year veteran of the field, Frank Ryle. He’s worked as an international project manager for Arup International, managed construction and operation of the first Cadbury Schweppes factory in Russia, and now trains and teaches project management. Ryle analogizes project management to a nine-hole golf metaphor in his book, Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros, available now as an ebook and due out soon in paperback.

In a phone interview, Ryle was, well, frank, honest, and eager to clear the clouds of vagary away from a field he’s worked in for most of his adult life. 

Fast Company: Where did project managers come from? Have they always been around, just under a different name? Were they just good bosses?

Frank Ryle: Project management was just a thing you did, a job you had, but nobody wrote about it just a little while ago. You weren’t a ‘Project Manager’ in the 80’s and 90’s, but when something went good or bad, everybody else stepped backwards, and you were the one left. Project managers were the only ones who could talk about the process, not just the product. And, usually, you were the person who had the charm to do it.

Where do project managers traditionally turn to for education and improvement?

We all mostly learned by doing it. But after a while, it was the PMI (Project Management Institute), and particularly the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge). That’s a big book, and written for insiders. What’s that saying—once you put it down, you can never pick it up again? Since the first version, in the late 1990’s, it’s grown to about 37 official steps. It’s the de-facto bible.

My book is a simplification of that. One way of putting it is, if David Allen is about Getting Things Done, this book, and project management generally, are about getting bigger things done.

Let’s say you want to get project management experience, but you can’t really get that kind of leadership chance at work. What’s a good way to start expanding your skills on your own, maybe in spare time?

Everybody has projects now. Lots of people have projects in their work, they just don’t know it. Software has automated a lot of things, but not goals, resources, and products. That’s something you can find in all kinds of work.

What kind of person makes a good project manager?

You should be comfortable with ambiguity. You have to be willing to reshape the rule, the process, whenever things change. It’s really important to be comfortable with people too, different cultures, so much of business being international now. You’ll be called to walk into a situation where you don’t know the people you’re working with, maybe not even where, or their genders, and say, ‘How do I work with these people?’ You’ll have to create a bit of a roadmap for yourself, and, hopefully, be likeable enough to get by.

There are lots of tools out there, but it seems hard to know if one works until you’ve run through a project. How can someone make a good choice?

Use a tool if it suits you. And it’s a natural impulse, really. I’ve seen people set up big company-wide Microsoft Project installations, only to use it just to create simple Gantt charts. Don’t rush out and buy a Swiss Army Knife. If you hire a carpenter and they come to your home, you can ask them if they use a Swiss Army Knife, and they’d laugh at you. They’d have a good hammer, a good saw, a screwdriver. Some of our gadgets and software try to do too much. But some tools are great, and they’re getting better. We have, I’d say, another five years before we see the light with our software.

What do you mean by that?

There are people who get lost in projects, but we never know. People will ask them, ‘How’s this project going?’, and the response is, ‘I’m fine, but what have you heard?’ We need tools that are like a GPS in a car—they take information from three or four satellites, or, in this case, multiple clues. Software that’s aware of everything—the weather outside, price estimates, maybe even politics, in international situations.

So technology isn’t something that’s made project management necessarily easier, overall?

I think technology has given us a wonderful communications tool. But it’s made us more efficient, not more effective. There’s a difference: Remote working has put us in a position of having to impress our bosses, giving constant feedback, which is not what every project manager wants. The point of getting somebody to do something is to get it done, not to have them impress you.

When you wanted to get a team working on something back when, you’d get them together in a room, they’d pass bits of paper around, and they’d get it done. Once software actually gets us to that condition again, then we’re effective.

What’s one of the best tips you’d give someone managing their own projects, maybe in their off-work hours?

In project management, too many people don’t create a WBS, a work breakdown structure. They have a schedule, and they have a budget, and neither are accurate. You create a document that’s just the work, with names, the amount of work, estimates on the time for the work.

You’ll hear (as a project manager) people say that, if they had known all the work that would be involved in every step—deliveries, committees, approvals—their estimates would have been better. The WBS will make you better.

(Note: Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

[Image: via Frank Ryle's Amazon page]

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Add New Comment


  • Obi Oduche

    I'm working with a startup and looking for a job change. To build my resume strong, I was thinking of doing some certifications, probably PMP or Scrum or both. Does anyone have any idea on the pros and cons of both and which one is more beneficial from career growth point of view. My role is that of a Manager - Business operations.

    I researched on internet and came across some organizations giving training and certifications for both PMP and Scrum

    It seems like PMI is just the certifying body and I need to get PMP training from other companies like PMstudy. Can someone tell me which is the best training provider in US for PMP? Is it PMstudy ( http://www.pmstudy.com/ ) or someone else?

  • PMI is the world's leading project management institute for project management professional offering PMP, CAPM and other PM certifications.

    PMstudy http://goo.gl/MbV4rV is the Global Leader in PMP Training offering the best PMP Exam Prep classes and online PMP Training for PMP. PMstudy has a success rate of 98.7%. This rate indicates that 1.3% of the total classroom students who took their PMP-Prep course have exercised their option for full moneyback guarantee http://goo.gl/DZsrmj.

    I would strongly recommend them from my past experience! :)

  • scholar

    Briefly and simply, if I need to be in my school in 30 minutes, then I have to plan and manage washing my face, brushing teeth, getting clothes on, having breakfast and driving in 30 minutes. 
    So, if I succeed then I'm a good PM, right?

  • Val

     Actually, no.  To use your analogy, you'd also have to get your kids ready to go to school.  It's not much of a project if you are the only one you need to influence and direct.  Multiple stakeholders (customers, team members, vendors, peers and governmental entities) all have requirements and a stake in the project.

  • MatchWare FR

    An easy way to think about a work breakdown structure is as an outline or map of the specific project. A work breakdown structure starts with the project as the top level deliverable and is further decomposed into sub-deliverables using outline hierarchy...taken from https://www.workbreakdownstructure.com/

  • Adam Searcy

    I definitely agree that a PM must be agreeable to the balance between the unknown and the constant change contrasted with the continual struggle to maintain structure, order and direction. Interesting to hear your perspective on the growth of the general community in the last twenty years to a relatively new PM myself. Thanks! 

  • Khrys Vaughan, PMP, SCSP

    Love the comment comparing MS Project to a Swiss army knife. Have come across companies that rank knowing the software higher than a person's project management skills. Then of course they wonder why they're in the position their in. Software is a tool anyone can learn. Project management on the other hand is a skill.

  • Deltek

    Great read on project management, it certainly is a topic that sparks a lot of questions. Project management encompasses so many different aspects, from allocation of resources, to timeline and financing. It’s true that some of the tools and gadgets for project managers try to do too much, and many of them try to fit every company into the same mold. There are some good tools out there though, tools that are tailored to specific industries and give deep insight into a project from start to finish. There is still a lot of room to improve, and current tools continue to get better. One point that I’d disagree with is that technology makes us more efficient, but not more effective. Aren’t the two intertwined, and isn’t an efficient project an effective project?  A project that is completed on time, to the agreed parameters and within budget would not only be efficient, but also effective. There are definitely some factors that need to fall into place when using software to manage projects, including: company-wide commitment, strong project governance, well-defined scope and experienced project managers. Wanted to share my two-cents, thanks again for the article on this topic.- Claus Thorsgaard, EVP and GM Professional Services at Deltek 

  • Guest

    Project management always seems like one area where the most people struggle. This is a great article with some good tips! In my experience, the best project managers are also the best time managers. I think that with the majority of cases, time management is the most critical skill needed for any manager, but especially a project manager that typically will be working with a strict timeline. Meeting deadlines, or NOT meeting deadlines, can ultimately be the deciding factor for your project being considered a success or FAILURE.

  • Roy Wagner

    A project Managers Job is simple to describe:
    The job of a Project Manager is to make everyone else's job easier to do.Liaison between customer and contractors, Bridging the road blocks that appear, picking up the dropped ball and keeping things moving. Quality control and Customer satisfaction.

  • Dr. Paul D. Giammalvo

    Hi Kevin and Frank,
    Like Frank, I too am a life-long project manager, also coming from a background in construction and I would like to add that evidence abounds that "project management" in some form or another has been with us since the beginning of man- Taming of fire; Inventing the wheel; Pyramids of Giza; Great Wall of China.....  All examples of projects, right and SOMEONE had to manage them, whether it was aliens or not.....

    I really take issue with PMI in particular.  Here is a supposedly 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization with literally hundreds of millions of dollars in liquid assets and yet despite having been around for 40+ years and their "flagship cash cow", the PMP having been around for 28 years, why is it projects don't seem to be getting significantly better?

    Sorry folks, but IMPO, much of this hullabaloo about project management is little more than a scam..... A marketing ploy to generate huge revenues for not only PMI, but IPMA and APM and a host of other similar organizations selling books and dubious certifications based on the ability to pass multiple choice exams. 

    Seriously- would you get on the next commercial jet knowing that the pilot had never demonstrated he/she had ever taken off or landed a plane successfully but had logged 4500 hours flying time not as pilot in command, but in the cabin crew.  Then studied a book of sample questions or listened to a podcast for 35 hours, then took a 200 question, multiple choice exam of which only 175 questions actually count and passed it with a score of 106/175 or ~62%?  No, I didn't think so, but that is exactly what PMI is implying with their globally popular "Project Management Professional" (PMP) certification.  

    Even though I have spent a lifetime in project management, as both a practitioner and as an academic, I believe Peter Drucker was absolutely right- management is management is management in whatever form or incarnation it takes........

    Time for managers of all types to step back and do a reality check....

    BR,Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

  • MRjavinbur