Project Management

As part of my recent training in audience development, we had a module on project management. I’ve been managing projects for years, of course, but had never studied project management or had any formal training in the matter. As happened all the way through our course in relation to ‘audience’, there was ‘discussion’ as to what exactly a project was. The commonly held ‘business’ definition of what a project is didn’t quite meet the needs of everyone present and some were quite put out by the restrictions in defining the term. From Starting out in Project Management by Murray-Webster, R. and Simon, P. and on our module PowerPoint:

A project is used to describe activities that are done to meet specific objectives for change. A project can involve new products, new services, or improvement to existing products or services.

Mmm! Technically correct but utterly failing to grasp the flavour and motivation of many projects in the arts. However, the thought that a structured way had been created to do the sort of thing I do all the time intrigued me. I downloaded a few samples from the reading list to see what was on offer. The following paragraph from Richard Newton’s Project Management Step by Step gave me real encouragement:

This book explains the essentials of project management in a simple way – but do not confuse simple with dumb or basic, think of it more as straightforward and practical. This book leaves out the esoteric and highly specialised parts of project management, not because they are too complex, but because in 90 per cent of situations, you don’t need them. If you are really about to start building a new Channel Tunnel, sending a satellite into space, or developing computer software to control all the traffic flows in a country, then yes, you probably do need the most advanced project management methods and tools and more than is in this book. But most tasks are not like this. There are lots of tasks that have sufficient complexity for you to worry about, that you will not be able to ensure they are completed successfully without some structure and tools, but for which the structure and tools can be simple, robust, practical, and easy to use – and yet still add huge value.

I didn’t even wait to reach the end of the sample before hitting the purchase button, especially following the promise that jargon would be kept to an absolute minimum.

Project Management Step by Step lays out all you will need to know for most projects in a very ordered way and has the modern, ‘dummies’, approach of introducing what will be learned in a section, summarising the key points at the end and giving the most important parts in list form. Following a first reading and a second run through with a fine tooth comb, reproducing all the templates as I went, I now have a twenty-five page eBook on my phone that I made by extracting all the important lists and tips.

So, for instance, the ‘five dimensions of a project’ – scope, quality, time, cost, risk.

Scope: What are we going to do, make or change? It helps to have an idea of why too.

Quality: What’s expected in terms of quality? Do we need first class honours or will it make little difference if we come in at a 2/2? What level of quality can we achieve or is worth it?

Time: Obviously enough, how long will it take to complete but, also, how much working-time needs to be put in?

Cost: Budget please?

Risk: Always a favourite of mine. Identify what can go wrong from the very start and do something about it.

C’est ça! Not rocket science at all! It’s great to have a simple-to-use tool for writing down all the things that could go wrong and having a way to prioritise them. I may, at some stage, stop managing all risks in my head!

On the budgetary side, however, this classic model of project management doesn’t quite match my experience of working in the arts. The budgeting assumes a fixed level of income from the start, with the inclusion of possible contingency. In my experience of running events, the budget that begins a project is often highly speculative. My powers of prediction are fairly good but I also know that there is an element of mind over matter – if I need to bring in that amount of money, I will keep working until I do. If I’ve got it sewn up from the start, as likely as not I won’t go chasing more money but will work on making the project better with the resources I have. But a single-sided expenditure budget with a bottom line where someone is going to foot the bill in the range of €x and €y is rarely my experience.

Something similar goes for time. When you must book a venue 18 months in advance and have an audience expecting a show to start within three minutes of 8pm, then contingency time is something you just don’t have. My annual jaunt to the National Concert Hall for two concerts with eight rehearsals and eight performances, sixteen stage changes, 500 young people and bus and van-loads of people and equipment has precisely two thirty-minute slots of contingency on the final day. I used one of them once and just kept promising my backstage staff more pints in the pub afterwards. Not that they were in a fit state to appreciate said pints but it was simply a choice of that or have an orchestra of young people sit on the national stage without having had a rehearsal with their conductor in the space. I used my thirty minutes contingency. Not that I’m not in the habit of doing everything I can earlier than it strictly needs to be done but, once the audience is seated, there are two minutes to get the show started and the quality of everyone’s experience will go rapidly downhill after that.

So, the cut-and-dry of business project management as described in Project Management Step by Step doesn’t quite fit the dynamic reality of the world that I operate in. It does, however, give me a very useful set of tools to improve the work that I do and to take on larger projects in the future with a structured way to approach them. Also, methods of downloading the rather large amounts of information I habitually hold in my head onto paper or into a computer will no doubt free up some brain space for those refinements that always make such a difference to the final presentation.

If you’d like to develop your project management skills, this is a great place to start. As most things these days, available in virtual or actual realities!

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