It’s usually around 4am on a Sunday when Tracy Kidder’s classic description of project manager Tom West as ‘a good man in a storm’ comes to mind; that ability to plan for the unexpected then keep going when the unexpected occurs and things are at their darkest. It’s one of the most succinct descriptions of good project management I’ve come across.
The last three summers, I’ve crewed for a friend on his eighteen foot yacht in a mini-endurance event called the ‘Marlay Point Overnight Race’, a race for trailable yachts from Marlay Point to Paynesville on the Gippsland Lakes.
The race starts at dusk, and finishes at Paynesville, a distance of roughly 25 nautical miles (35km) – supposedly in time for breakfast. With favourable conditions the fastest boats can finish in four hours, although six to eight is more usual.
Recent events however have been notable for a mix of strong winds early, then very light conditions, and it has turned into a real endurance event, with many boats failing to complete within the 18hr time limit.
So at 4am, drifting with the current and no breeze, I found myself again recalling Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer prize winning book ‘The Soul of a New Machine’, perhaps one of the most influential books written about determination, single-mindedness, endurance and project managers.
From an earlier era (1980), it tells the story of how the first 32-bit Data General mini-computer (Eclipse) was brought into existence, largely by the persistence and force of character of the project manager Tom West and his team.
The technical issues they overcame still ring true to any developer of today, even though the hardware has changed dramatically. But it is the ‘softer’ people and political issues the project faced and overcame, that still confront any project today – the importance of executive sponsor support, how to build and maintain a project team, how to market the project internally, how the project manager shields the developers from distractions – these are the real gems for anyone needing to deliver a complex project.