The Blurring Line between Operations and Project Management


How many of you are in the “operations” side of your organization?  The Operations site provides information for managers and interested parties about the profession of Operations Management. Therefore, I was delighted when asked to participate in an interview with them on October 1, 2010 talking about the similarities and differences between project management and operations management.

We began with a discussion of my experiences as a project manager dealing with operations managers across several organizations. Clearly, the key difference between the two roles in a company is the time frame of tasks. Projects have defined beginnings and endings, whereas operations such as call centers and manufacturing are continuous processes. The successful outcome of many projects relies on quality services from operations including safety, training, facilities and business processes. Both areas – projects and operations – must be professionally managed to ensure effective organizational performance.

I find it interesting to note that in many companies today, traditional operations units are also projectizing (my new word!) some of their work. They are using a project model to field test new processes or set up a new location. As the operations personnel conceive and execute projects, I think they can benefit from some of the formalization and lessons learned in professional project management. Equally, I believe that project managers can learn valuable lessons from developing a better understanding of the challenges of operations.

Finding good people to mature into project and operations managers involves screening candidates for traits such as quality mindedness and continuous desire to learn and improve as discussed in my whitepaper Staffing Projects for Success: Back to The Basics (Registration with Cognitive Technologies required to download paper.) Here’s a link to the entire interview with Operations Manager.

Please share your experience working between the worlds of project management and operations management.

The Project Manager as Boss

The words “THE BOSS” comes heavily burdened based on one’s experience and expectations. For an older generation, their first thought might be an association with the singer, Bruce Springsteen who in the late 1960s, acquired the nickname “The Boss” when he and his band played New Jersey clubs and Bruce was responsible for collecting and distributing the band’s nightly pay. Alternatively, you may think about the new TV show “Undercover Boss,” which the New York Times cites as a show just “made for the anticorporate rancor”.

Whether you think of the boss as a positive person in your life or the bane of your existence, bosses are important. (pssst – project managers are bosses). Which leads me to tell you about an interesting article I read from Stanford professor Robert Sutton in The McKinsey Quarterly called, “Why good bosses tune in to their people”. (The link to the entire article is at the bottom of this post.)

Here are a few nuggets from the article:

  1. Studies show that for more the 75 percent of employees, dealing with their immediate boss is the most stressful part of their job.
  2. Note to bosses: your subordinates spend a lot more time watching you than you spend watching them.
  3. Bosses often get more credit – and blame – than they deserve. This happens explains the author because it is simpler and easier to find one person responsible than to try to dissect all of the small decisions and behaviors that lead to success or failure.
  4. Research shows that belief follows behavior and the author suggests a fake-it-until-you-make-strategy. Now I have trouble with this concept, I admit. Project managers lose respect and authority quickly when their lack of knowledge or expertise is transparent to their analytically inclined, smart staff. However, perhaps there are circumstances when acting as if you know what you are doing is enough.
  5. Be willing to take the blame. (see item 3) Accept the fact that senior management expects the project manager to know what is going-on on his project and holds him – not the subcontractor who was 30 days late – responsible.
  6. Good bosses and project managers provide psychological safety for team members – they encourage learning, testing out new solutions and they never ridicule or punish people for trying to do their job.
  7. Good project managers protect their team from the “incompetence, cluelessness and premature judgments” of key organizational decision makers. I would add here the caveat – to the extent possible. Sometime you really do have to “read the org chart” and support the decisions made above you.
  8. Good bosses and project managers make the time to acknowledge contributions to the project and celebrate team successes – even small ones.

Link to article:

Do you have some good boss or bad boss stories to share? Please do so via your comments.

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