The Project Management Trap

The Project Management Trap

I have a big, old white board behind my desk.  On any given day there’s about two dozen items listed on it that I need to get to.  It’s a mix of personal and professional to-do items.  Trust me – nothing makes me happier than checking one off.  It’s that half of a second dopamine hit that gets me by.  But it’s also a trap, and I’m aware of that.  The list only includes tactical steps toward executing a goal.  It doesn’t capture the goal itself or why I’m chasing it.

I notice this from a lot of people I’ve worked with.  If we close a JIRA ticket, then we think we have won.  If we change the status of a smartsheet row, then we claim victory.

For the first ten years of my professional career, I was a Project Manager.  I enjoyed it because I felt like an important cog in the machine.  Folks depended on me and that felt good.  There’s a lot of merit to the project management role.  However, in 2012, I joined a tech company, met the product managers and decided I wanted to do that for a living.

Fast forward eleven years and I’ve been doing product management ever since and have taken on several product leadership positions, building and developing incredible teams.  I’ve had to learn customer discovery, market analysis and how to craft a product strategy and vision.  

I am still susceptible to falling into the project management trap.  I can come to work and check boxes.  I can feel accomplished if I contribute to work that’s already laid out and then call it a day.

But I realize now that the value I bring isn’t in execution but in strategy.  I can change the course of what we work on, or how we work on it.  I can draw connections between our customers and our technology.  I can listen.  I can collaborate.  I can influence.  I can brainstorm.  I can think.  I can lead.

I’ve seen engineering managers who track down comments in JIRA tickets rather than think through a better architecture for the product or how to build a well-rounded team.  I’ve seen product marketers who compose meticulous templates for product releases without thinking about how it changes product positioning and messaging or tying any of the launch plans to actual dollars.  I’ve seen designers churn through designs like they’re short order cooks rather than think through a more holistic experience.  This is the project management trap.

Project management and project execution are comfortable because they’re easier.  No one has ever built a strategy out of a project management app.  Strategy must be done through iterations of analysis, testing and feedback.  There are only a few people per every thousand who can truly lead through strategy.  Everyone else manages and completes tasks.  There is no shame in either role, as they’re both needed.  Which role do you want to take on?  Which role do people expect you to fulfill?

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