What successful project managers do

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Increasingly, there are questions within the project management profession about whether traditional project management methods, which focus on long-term planning and stability, are still effective at managing risk, or if new alternatives, such as an approach popular within the software industry known as “the agile method,” are needed today.

In response to such questions, leadership experts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior leaders from NASA and Procter & Gamble conducted a study of more than 150 successful project managers from more than 20 organizations. They found that the most successful project managers cope with unexpected events by combining traditional and agile approaches to project management. The shift within top-performing organizations to provide greater flexibility to project managers is reflected in the changes to project management that have been made at both NASA and Procter & Gamble. At NASA, a group of 23 project managers mutinied against a project management course whose procedures they said were far too restrictive to enable them to cope with the increasing unpredictability of their work environment. In response, senior leadership gave them permission to rewrite NASA’s project management procedures and ultimately granted all individual project managers within organization greater autonomy. Similarly, at Procter & Gamble, 18 technical standards and 32 standard operating procedures have been reduced to four technical standards and four standard operating procedures in order to give project managers at the consumer goods giant more flexibility.

“What Successful Project Managers Do” by Alexander Laufer, Edward J. Hoffman, Jeffrey S. Russell and W. Scott Cameron (MIT Sloan management review, March 2015).