Startup founders and small company leaders rarely put project management at the top of their hiring priorities. Maybe they don’t need it, or can’t afford it. These are two assumptions that may come back to haunt them pretty quickly. After all, project management is a luxury in a core team loaded with smart people, how hard can it be?
Many think they can do it, but there is a big difference between doing it and doing it well. Few will have the experience, knowledge or tools to navigate a project that doesn’t go quite to plan, if a plan existed in the first place.
In my experience it’s not about how hard it is. It’s more about approach, control and discipline. Letting highly enthusiastic technical experts loose on a business critical project is a sure fire way to spend more money than expected and probably deliver late, or miss a quality or performance goal. These are bad outcomes for a cash-stretched business chasing a funding deadline or first customer contract.
So what can project managers bring to a growing company to justify hiring them so early?
A different outlook
A Project Manager will see the project from a business perspective rather than through the technical problem solving lens of the developers. This allows a degree of critical challenge and a more balanced decision making process where multiple views can be taken into account. The project can then be driven for the greater good rather than down a narrow technical path.
Many engineers or technical developers will, in their quiet moments, admit they can think through most problems, but are less inclined to write stuff down and share it with the rest of the team. A good PM will see the bigger picture, gather information and share it so that everyone has a common view of the plan, understand why it is the way it is, what’s happening around them, and where any potential problems might emerge.
An effective project plan will guide the team towards doing the right things once and well. It will recognise links between activities, sequences and dependencies so that everyone can see when and why to do things. This typically saves wasted effort or unnecessary waiting. The business case, built into the plan will balance the importance of various outcomes and allow the plan to flex in line with these priorities.
Project management methods introduce order, logic, and structure into the teams work plan. They recognise the multiple dimensions of time, cost and quality, and offer the means to plan for these, and introduce some contingencies to cater for the unknown. This provides a solid foundation, from which progress can be measured, variances recognised early, follow-up offered when it helps, changes made were necessary, and achievements celebrated when they are there.
Uncertainty is a fact of life for Project Managers. They are also trained to live with it, to refresh their horizons continuously to know where they are. Exploring options comes naturally, so they can navigate the most suitable path. The pursuit of a perfect technical solution does not have the same lateral vision and tends to carry on when pivoting may have been a wiser choice.
Everything introduced above is rarely the natural territory for founders or developers. This can be illustrated by walking through a typical case.
Tech start-up, growing fast
Imagine an early stage company that has pitched for a project and by the brilliance of their technology/approach/vision, wins it. The development may not generate a huge amount of money, but it is vital to their journey and a stepping stone to bigger things.
A rough plan is built and the team starts work. However, things change, materials aren’t available at the hoped for cost or lead time, mid-development tests don’t go quite as expected, and a key team member gets sick.
Other team members roll their sleeves up, work long hours on unfamiliar tasks and are diverted away from their own specialist delivery tasks. Mistakes are more likely to be made, and slowly, the project starts to slip away from the plan. Money is living the business, stress levels rise and the deadline is looming relentlessly.
The alternate path is to have someone on the team who can handle the project management. They don’t do anything on the technical side, other than let subject matter experts be just that – and concentrate on what they are good at. Weekly meetings will review the status across the team, share the progress and all the PM to respond early, communicate with stakeholders if needed, and manage within a bubble that has a better chance of success.
This last part is key – a good PM will have built the plan at the bid stage, included some contingency for money and time, and perhaps trimmed the scope to make sure the team isn’t over-promising at the outset.
Sure, this carries a cost, but it is a fraction of the costs or damage that may be incurred if the development goes off the rails in front of the first paying customer at such a critical time in the company’s growth path.