Levels of Work in Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Last week, we attended your workshop on Time Span. Your explanation of the capability difference between a technician, a supervisor and a manager, I think, provides a profound clarification for a huge hole in our hiring process. I now understand the difference between the roles. How do I tell the difference between candidates? How do I test for time span capability?

Don’t overthink this, and don’t play amateur psychologist. Telling the difference between candidates is not a matter of climbing inside the head of the person across the interview table.

We spend a great deal of time in the workshop defining levels of work and that’s the foundation for the diagnosis. You are not trained in psychology, but you are an expert in the work. Play to your strengths as a manager.

The cornerstone document that defines the level of work is the role description. To determine the level of work in the role, I ask –

  • What are the problems that must be solved and how must they be solved?
  • What are the decisions that must be made and what must be considered in making those decisions?
  • What is the longest time span task related to those problems and decisions?

Let’s look at project management.

Can you manage a project with sticky notes stuck around your computer screen? The answer is yes, as long as the project has few problems or decisions, and is of very short duration. For a long duration project, the glue on the sticky notes dries out and notes fall to the floor (or behind the desk). Stratum I level of work.

Longer time span projects will typically require list making and checking deadlines. Sticky notes graduate to an Excel spreadsheet. The problems to be solved will reference documented solutions (like a best practice) that are well-defined (as long as we pick the right best practice to the problem to be solved). Stratum II level of work, project three months to one year.

But spreadsheets break down when the project becomes more complex. Difficult problems appear with no defined solution. The problem requires analysis. Priorities change, elements in the system are uncertain, yet must be accounted for. Project management software replaces the spreadsheet checklists. (MS-Project is a spreadsheet on steroids). Stratum III level of work, one to two years.

And then we realize that we have more than one project attacking the same set of resources. Everything that could go wrong on one project is now multiplied by several projects. Projects, and their resource allocation, begin to impact each other, competing for budget and managerial attention. Simple project management software gives way to enterprise project management software like Primavera and Deltek. Stratum IV level of work, two to five years.

With the level of work defined, looking at problem solving tools, the next step is to interview candidates about their projects.

  • What was the time span of the longest project?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the planning stage?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the handoff stage to operations?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the execution stage?
  • How were those decisions and problems managed?
  • What systems did you use to manage those problems and decisions?

Don’t play amateur psychologist. Play to your strengths as a manager. It’s all about the work. It’s all about the level of work. -Tom

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