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Inside the Mind of a Project Manager – Solving Project Challenges

By Darren D’Arcy 22 Aug 2023
Inside the Mind of a Project Manager – Solving Project Challenges

Darren is the Portfolio & Programme Management (PPM) leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Advisory - Consulting division and a senior lecturer at IPM, bringing 20 years of expertise in advisory services. Leveraging advanced PPM, risk management, and process improvement methodologies, he has optimized major strategic projects for both public and private sectors. He identifies inefficiencies and risks, offering clients tailored strategies for top-tier project management and comprehensive risk control.

The following interview will provide insights drawn from his years of experience in the project management domain.

Q: Could you share some of the key challenges in project management and how you navigated through them in your career? 

A review of available literature identifies several common challenges in project management that I have experienced first-hand, such as scoping, planning, communication and team issues. In my experience, one of the key challenges in project management has been agreeing the intended value and benefits of a project. This can be complicated when organisations do not have a programme portfolio view and are unaccustomed to viewing their portfolio through the lens of achieving operational and strategic objectives. I've found that effective communication, the creation of a comprehensive project charter and a robust benefits realisation processes are crucial to address this challenge, as these methods provide clear expectations about the project's intended value, benefits, and goals. 

Another challenge that I've often faced is fostering a sense of ownership and accountability, not only among team members but also among stakeholders. It's important that everyone involved feels responsible for the success of the project, and it's equally important that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities clearly. However, this is often easier said than done. Stakeholders may have varying degrees of involvement and interest in the project, and this can affect their sense of responsibility towards the project's outcomes. I've found that regular communication, clearly defining roles and expectations, and stakeholder management can help foster a sense of ownership and accountability. Encouraging active participation and keeping stakeholders informed about the project's progress can also increase their investment in the project's success. 

Q: What strategies do you use to maintain project quality standards while also keeping an eye on the budget and timeline? 

In my role, the fundamental aspect of managing project quality lies in balancing the project management triangle: scope, time, and cost while ensuring benefits will be delivered. Despite pressures related to budget or timeline, I firmly believe that the project quality must not be compromised. Strategies such as risk management and contingency planning have been instrumental in upholding quality. 

To enhance this approach, I advocate for the development of a robust quality strategy. This involves considering the organisation’s expectations for the initiative, defining the programme’s principles for managing quality and the associated processes, and establishing primary measures for assessing quality, such as time, cost, or other specific metrics. The strategy also considers externally driven quality standards applicable to the programme outputs and the organisation’s existing quality management processes. 

This comprehensive quality strategy includes how to address and rectify corrective actions and quality defects. Furthermore, it details how the programme's quality assurance arrangements integrate with the quality management processes. An accompanying quality plan outlines the implementation of this strategy, ensuring quality is not just an aspiration, but a well-planned, integrated component of every project I manage. 

Q: As an accomplished educator, how do you incorporate real-world project scenarios into your lectures to enhance student learning and understanding? 

In my experience, incorporating real-world scenarios into lectures has enhanced student learning and understanding. I often use an array of case studies and examples from past projects to bring theory to life and provide a tangible understanding of project management practicalities. 

For example, in Risk Management I have found that it's important to illustrate to students how bias can cloud judgment. An apt quote that I often refer to is from the captain of the Titanic, who famously said, "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that." This quote serves as a powerful reminder of how overconfidence and lack of foresight can lead to disastrous consequences. 

I use accessible examples that students can easily relate to. Take, for instance, the example of going on a skiing trip. Taking skiing lessons can reduce the probability of having an accident, just like implementing preventive measures can reduce the likelihood of risks in a project. Wearing a helmet can minimize the impact if a crash does occur, much like having contingency plans in place for when project risks materialise. However, I emphasize that just identifying these actions and adding them to a risk log for a skiing trip doesn't guarantee safety if the lessons are not completed or a helmet is not actually worn. This parallels with project management where simply identifying risks and writing them in a risk register isn't enough; proactive action is required to manage those risks. 

Lastly, I emphasise to students the importance of understanding and believing in the rationale behind formalising certain processes, such as benefits realisation. By providing real-life examples and diving into the rationale and implications behind these processes, students gain a strong belief in the importance and value of robust project management methodologies. 

Q: In what ways do you think the educational landscape for project management will evolve in the next decade? 

From my perspective, project management education will likely evolve to be more hands-on, practical, and technology-oriented in the coming decade. I anticipate future project managers will require a strong understanding of emerging technologies like AI and machine learning and their applicability in project management. 

With the growing trend of near-shoring and off-shoring PMO functions, I believe it will be important for future project managers to effectively lead and manage geographically distributed teams. This will involve skills in cultural competence, remote leadership, and the use of modern communication and project management tools. 

Given the rapidly changing business environment, I foresee a demand for courses on managing virtual teams, navigating different regulatory and business environments, and leading amidst change and uncertainty. Moreover, soft skills like communication, stakeholder engagement, negotiation, and conflict resolution will be of increasing importance. 

Looking ahead, the current generation entering the workforce will need an education that is technologically advanced, sustainability-focused, flexible, and adaptable. I anticipate they will prefer self-paced, on-demand learning methods. This will mean a greater emphasis on online learning, modular courses, and lifelong learning opportunities. I believe that interactive, experiential learning methods that leverage technology will be more effective than traditional lecture-based teaching for this generation.