My biggest motivator for understanding project management was working with bad project managers. I'm usually not this critical, but if you're stuck on a project with a bad project manager, things are going to get tough. I've spent many late night nights working to hit deadlines that should have never been agreed to. I've had countless months of frustration trying to understand what was happening. After spending decades learning every aspect of project management, I can reflect and pinpoint what went wrong. However at the time, I felt trapped and helpless. As the saying goes, I wish I knew then what I know now. Here's my best advice to business analysts trying to survive a bad project.
Five Techniques for Survival
- Tip # 1: Learn project management. I know it’s not your job, but you must know what good project management looks like to understand why bad project management happens. A good starting point is the Project Management Institute (PMI)–the organization that certifies Project Management Professionals (PMP). There’s no need to actually become a PMP, but it’s a good place to get the basics.
- Tip #2: If you're not clear on what's in scope and what's not in scope, build it into your requirements. Add a section to your standard requirements template if it’s not already there. It’s a real shame when a project manager can’t build something as basic as a scope document, but it happens all the time. It may feel like you’re doing the project manager’s job–because you are–but you can’t succeed with requirements if you aren’t crystal clear on your scope.
- Tip #3: If roles and responsibilities are not clear, have a discussion with your project manager about who's expected to do what. Use a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) model or something similar to guide the discussion. You don’t have to build the whole document for the project manager, just the areas that affect you. There are two dimensions to this: how/where you will be involved in the project and who will be involved in the efforts that you care about (e.g., the requirements document).
- Tip #4: Keep your calendar packed, but stay flexible if you need to. Bad project managers who are horrible at time management will waste your time in ways you can’t imagine. Impromptu meetings will be called, scheduled meetings will run long–sometimes very long, and meetings will be setup over other important meetings that you already have scheduled. You should always have a hard stop to leave a meeting that’s running long and you should always have a good reason why you can’t drop everything for an impromptu meeting. That said, regardless of the way it’s setup, there are some meetings you know you should be there for. That’s where flexibility helps.
- Tip # 5: Constantly ask for the project schedule if it's not available or isn't current. Scheduling is a difficult exercise that even good project managers struggle with. It’s a moving target, so if you staring at the same Gantt chart that the project manager posted six months ago, something’s probably wrong. Again, you don’t need to plan the whole schedule for your project manager, but you must know what he or she is expecting from you over the next couple of weeks. If you’re not 100% sure, make it a point to find out.
If you've been a business analyst for any appreciable amount of time, you know what it's like to be on a project with a bad project manager. And although you can't insulate yourself from all the havoc they create, you can certainly make your life easier by being smart. Start today by picking up a copy of the PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). It’s the guide that PMPs study to get certified and it contains a wealth of good project management principles. And maybe cut your project manager a bit of slack. It’s not as easy as it seems, especially if he or she doesn’t have the right background.