Everything is a project, even this

As often happens in life, when I meet people at a party or some work thing and they ask what I do, I tell them I write books. They ask what kind of books, and when I mention I wrote a book about project management they get all condescending. Why would you write a book about something as boring as project management? They ask.

To which, I often say. Everything is a project.

And they say, what?

And I say, again, Everything is a project.

How did you get to this party? I ask. Well, that’s a project. How did you plan and deliver the last party you threw for others? That was a project too. The making of your home, the delivery of electricity and water to it, and the earning of wages to pay for all these things are all various forms of projects, or consist of activities roughly comparable to any definition of a project.

Then I say the kicker, project management is only as boring as the thing being managed.

On a good day, they  look at me for a long moment, their faces frozen with that lost in thought look we all make when someone surprises us with something interesting to say. And then they say “Huh”, in a way that implies their brain is doing actual thinking. To fill the void, I often ask where they are from, or if they’re having fun, successfully completing the project of changing the conversation with a stranger at a party. Often they decide to return to talk of projects, proving  it’s possible to make it not so boring after all.

On a bad day, they conclude I’m  more boring than they thought, and despite their full Martini in hand, excuse themselves to the bar to get a drink.

I wrote awhile ago about why project managers get no respect, and that’s because people who make a big deal out of the project-manageryness of their work, as opposed to the domain of the things they make (homes, software, films, cookies) come off as a kind of weenie, a pm-weenie if you will. They appear to be people who are more interested in schedules, budgets and methods than the results those tools help achieve, which is kind of weird. It’s like the director of a bad movie who talks only about his fancy zoom lenses, or that the film came in under-budget. They miss the point.

But the best project managers, including those people who do lead or manage things yet never use the pm title, somehow know instinctively that everything is a project. They know there needs to be a driving force of thinking, a constant source of social energy, a list or a table or a spreadsheet, that makes it easier for everyone to push their own small decisions forward, increasing the odds with every single effort that the results will be good. Good project managers aren’t even necessarily very organized, they know many ways to drive people forward and hold them to commitments, even without a GTD brain implant.

There are many ways to look at all that we do, but the project-centric view is potent. Everything in work, and many things in life, has a goal, a set of constraints, some design challenges, a schedule, a few dependencies, some key relationships, etc. And it’s hard to be good at managing, leading, teaching, creating, making or building just about anything if you have absolutely zero skills at project management. To me, anyone who is a writer, a VP, a salesman, a film-maker, a teacher or an athlete does project management of a sort nearly all the time.

When I get stuck, at work or in personal life matters, or I see someone else who is blocked, I say, out loud, everything is a project. If I’m blocked, what are my goals? What are my assets? What are my liabilities? How can I divide this big thing I’m stuck on into smaller pieces, one of which I might be able to tackle? And sometimes just realizing there is a simple easy way to re-frame anything into the form of a project is enough to get things moving again.

36 Responses to “Everything is a project, even this”

  1. Ren

    You are my Messiah! Finally someone who “gets it”!
    I am a paid project manager by day and an unpaid unappreciated Project Manager by life ;)

    Reply
  2. Jeff

    Very well said! And very true. I often approach my to-do list in this fashion because it is the only way I can get enough emotional distance to tackle it. Every time I interview for a new job I list project management as my top skill, even though I have never had a job as a “project manager”. The reasons you cite are exactly why the best way to get something done is to give it to a busy person (paraphrasing Lucille Ball, I think).

    Reply
  3. Sean Crawford

    If projects are Good (the definition includes concerted effort) and if people at a party don’t understand that “life” is projects, then perhaps they don’t want to be accountable to themselves for effort and success. I have enough self-honesty to know that if I made being organized in my home and storage locker a written Project, then I would surely succeed- but I resist doing so. It’s easier just to keep “trying” and talking about it.

    In my college recreation leadership class we tried to tell the teacher that we didn’t plan parties, they had to just “happen.” He burst our bubble with, “Are you serving coffee or milk?” (…and how many ash trays?) I think we rugged recreation types were afraid of responsibility, but didn’t know it. Like the folks at Scott’s party.

    Reply
  4. janetti !

    totally right.
    that final paragraph rocks.
    it’s something us pm-weenies know but you captured it in a way that will help me apply it.
    thanks scott!

    Reply
  5. Julie Angelos

    Hey Sc.tt,

    I bet this line really gets the chicks:

    “Project management is only as boring as the thing being managed.”

    Holy Moly. How about a rewrite to say something like: Project Management is as exciting as the project being managed.” It might be a bit more interesting.

    I’m adding PM to my resume even though I haven’t got one and I’ve never managed a project in my life.

    Julie

    Reply
  6. Ionut

    Also, when your project sucks, when you are obliged to do something boring and stupid, you should, in your mind, name the project “Creating Strategies, Tools and Methods to Quickly Resolve Boring and Stupid Projects”
    It gives you a higher purpose, with greater results.

    Awesome post!

    Reply
  7. Phil Simon

    As usual, I find myself agreeing with you, Scott. I like Ren’s comments as well.

    I didn’t think that I was really signing up to be a PM when writing my second book but, in hindsight, I was totally wrong. Coordinating the efforts of thirteen people from different continents, cultures, and areas of expertise was the hardest project that I ever had to manage. On any given day, I had to play good cop, bad cop, ego masseuse, editor, and a whole host of other roles thrust up on me.

    While definitions vary, that sounds like a decent one for project manager.

    Reply
  8. Mike Nitabach

    Everything is a project! I couldn’t agree more!

    I think the best everyday example is cooking dinner. You gotta plan the menu, obtain the ingredients, prepare the ingredients for cooking, cook the different dishes, and each dish has to be ready at the proper time and synchronized appropriately with other dishes.

    Reply
  9. Shane Hudson

    What a great read! Your view of Project Management/Life is so interesting, I completely agree with it but have never read/heard about it in that form before.

    Great post and I shall be reading more from you!

    Reply
  10. Scott Berkun

    It’s a small point of distinction, but this certainly is *not* the only view of the world I have or choose to use. It’s just a handy one, especially when I’m stuck on something, or see someone struggling to figure out how to deal with a situation.

    Calling some things a ‘project’ can trivialize them, or make them sound like work, which can easily offend other people, or confuse you from the fact that the thing might be meant to be enjoyed, or savored, rather than optimized or made efficient.

    Reply
  11. Andrew Welch

    Thank you for lending a degree of eloquence to a point I try to make to folks every day. The goal is the result, made more attainable by the quality of the process, not the nuts and bolts of the process itself.

    I used to read your blog regularly, and then visited just now for the first time in several years and found this post — it will be one that I reference often, I suspect.

    Reply
  12. Joel D Canfield

    When I was a kid, my dad worked in production control and quality control in electronics, and subscribed to the Frederick Taylor and Frank & Lillian Gilbreth schools of time and motion study; essentially, most of my childhood was training in project management.

    I just never bothered to use the term, ’cause most folks think ‘project management’ means you know how to type a to-do list into a certain piece of M$ software.

    Organising our trip to Ireland was a project. Writing my books? Projects, filled with mini-projects. The entire concept of ‘chunking’, so popular right now, is just another way of turning ‘great big tasks’ into manageable projects.

    Reply
  13. Rich

    I don’t think I quite understand and I read through to the end. I agree with you that everything is a project, but that’s exactly why I would think it’s boring. Managing my to-do list, running errands, sending e-mails are all a means to an end. When I can spend money from my bank account or get a reply from e-mail, then I enjoy the fruits of my labor.

    Additionally, for the very reason we all manage our own projects every day of our lives, the title and purpose of a project manager elude me. …If everything is a project, then aren’t we all project managers? I have to manage plus do the other thing my job title requires me to do, be it design, coding, writing, etc.

    If I’m way off the mark, please better explain it to me.

    Reply
  14. Dee

    How true that LIFE is all about projects! I live on lists!
    Well my new project is trying to figure out wordpress blogging…. and somehow adding it to my website.
    I get so overwhelmed when they use all these terms I’m not sure of…..
    anyways I’m trying to set up my blog using “picture perfect”
    theme. I’m just trying to move around intuatively and can’t figure out how to label and manage the left side of the blog where the slide down windows are labeled “about” etc…
    deelessard/blog to check it out.

    Reply
  15. Malcolm

    Very well said. I’m very interested in project management and in increasing my productivity overall.

    Reply
    1. Jim Young

      While life is all about projects, life itself is a project, sometimes boring, sometimes exciting, and brings true relevance to the expression “deadline.”

      Reply

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