One of the goals of the Project Management Tips site is to share information with experienced project managers and share thoughts and discussions with like-minded individuals. But PM Tips is also here to reach out to new project managers or those either thrust into the role unexpectedly or are considering it as a new career path. And many of those new or potential project managers are former resource or department managers who are now going to be tasked with managing a project rather than recurring activities that are typical of a department.

Because it's a long-term process, project management causes even well organized managers to experience difficulty. But if you are accustomed to controlling routine work in your own department, you already understand recurring workload cycles, staffing limitations, and budgetary restraints - the same issues you'll confront with projects.

However, the context is different: First, a project is nonrecurring, so problems and solutions are not matters of routine; second, unlike the limitations on your department's range of tasks, a project often crosses departmental and authority lines; third, a project is planned and organized over several months, whereas recurring tasks are projected ahead only for a few days or weeks.

Managing a project doesn't require any of the basic skills you don't already possess; you will employ the same management skills you use elsewhere. The planning, organizing, and execution steps, however, require greater flexibility and a longer-term view than your recurring tasks do, and the project is definitely an exception to the daily or monthly routine.

For the department manager, running a project can be compared to the task of starting up a new department. What distinguishes both activities from your other tasks is that there's no historical budget, no predictable pattern to the problems or resistance points, and no cycle on which to base today's actions. There's no routine yet established. And there is no ongoing performance that has been happening. In this comparison, the project is the act of getting the department up and running. That's the one-time nature that would make that a project.

we discussed the differences - and similarities between running a department and running a project. The goal was to help the incoming department manager who is now tasked with project management responsibilities or has chosen PM as a new career path understand what they are undertaking.

Once the department manager discovers that the job of organizing and executing a project is not so difficult as to be out of reach, the assignment will take on a different character. Instead of a difficult, if not impossible, task, it will hopefully become an interesting challenge to their organizational skills - it may even serve as an outlet for their creativity or a way to demonstrate certain skills - even as an excellent forum for developing leadership abilities.

The secret is not in learning new skills but in applying the skills you already have, but in a new arena. The project is probably an exception to your normal routine. You need to operate with an eye to a longer-term deadline than you have in the weekly or monthly cycle you're more likely to experience in your department.

Of course, some managers operate projects routinely, and are accustomed to dealing with a unique set of problems, restrictions, and deadlines in each case. For example, engineers, contractors, or architects move from one project to another, often involving circumstances never encountered before. Still, they apply the same organizational skills to each and every job. That's their routine.

It's more likely that you run a department that deals with a series of recurring tasks from one month to another: The same assignments, procedures, and results occur within the cycle; the same people perform the same routines each time; and you can anticipate problems and deal with them in a very predictable way. So when you are given an exceptional task - a project - you may be very uncomfortable and find yourself asking:

  • How do I get started?
  • Exactly what am I expected to achieve?
  • Who is responsible for what, and how am I supposed to coordinate the effort?

It's also likely that you're used to receiving information from a known source and at a specific time. You perform your routines - recording, interpreting, reporting, processing - and then convey the end result to someone else. But on projects, you'll be working with other departments so the steps involved in receiving, performing, and reporting will probably be very different from what you're used to.

This is a big challenge for someone who is assigned a one-time job (or a series of jobs) that are not part of his or her usual experience. And as for all new challenges, the key to staying in control of projects involves the elements of definition, planning, and organization.