What is Project Execution?  More specifically, what do we mean when talk about a “Project Executor?”  We've heard this type of project manager described as a person who just “gets it done”, calling to mind the relatively famous catch phrase of blue-collar comedian.  That certainly embodies many of the connotations  we associate to the term, but what about the denotations?  I've seen a recent blog post ask this very question, only to get a variety of answers that didn't really get us closer to a formalized definition.  As the blogger asked, "How do you know an executor when you see one?”  Having a website, newsletter, and podcast dedicated to the subject, this is something I should have an answer to.  And no, it's not the person who keeps killing your projects.

As I was sitting in my office pondering this question, staring out my window at, what was for all intents and purposes, a beautiful Texas spring day (It will “officially be spring in a few weeks), I conjured up the image of Phaedrus from Robert Pirsig´s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance(1).  It is the image of him sitting at his desk, staring at the mountains outside his window as the day goes by, the sun goes down and comes back up again, all while pondering the definition of “quality”.  Like clockwork, the blue-jay that repeatably pecks at my window breaks me from my trance.  Sometimes I wonder which one of us benefits more from the fact that my window doesn't open.  To avoid taking off on a cross country bike ride (I don't own a motorcycle) and developing a full on 'Chautauqua' on the subject, I decided to pursue more accessible resources for constructing my Project Executor definition.  After all, a good project manager will use all of the appropriate resource available to him or her.

Like a good project manager, I dusted off my copy of the PMBOK®.  The dust reminded me that I need to pick up the new fourth edition.  I thought this would be a good place to start.  After all, Project Executing is one of the five Project Management Process Groups.  The PMBOK® defines the word “execute” as “Directing, managing, performing, and accomplishing the project work, providing the deliverables, and providing work performance information”(2).  OK, that's a little more in the right direction, but that could also be the definition of a project manager.  It's not really separating the chaff.  Looking at the Executing Process definition, it's described as those “processes preformed to complete the work defined in the project management plan to accomplish the project's objectives defined in the project scope statement”(2).  One could say that the Project Executor has a mastery of these processes.  But that doesn't really paint the full picture.

One thing that can be said, the Project Executor always takes it a step further.  So I thought I would take it a step further as well and move the next Process Group, the Monitoring and Controlling Process Group.   PMBOK® defines this as the “process performed to observe project execution so that potential problems can be identified in a timely manner and corrective action can be taken, when necessary, to control the execution of the project”(2).  And it is here that we really get to the heart of what makes the Project Executor.  That person has mastery of all aspects of project management, but it is their actions within the Monitoring and Controlling Process Group, their ability to be stellar in this area, that really defines the Project Executor.  They are constantly monitoring the overall project performance and regularly measuring variances from the initial project plan.  This allows the Project Executor to stay on top of the overall status of the project, understand what he/ she needs to be concerned with, and know what needs to be done to correct or address any issues.  The Project Executor is not only looking at the specific work being done, but also looking at it within the context of the entire project effort.  Not only is the halliard taught, but the entire ship is going in the right direction and on course to deliver its cargo on time, to the proper port, and as efficiently as possible.

There's a feedback loop, with the Project Executor in the center, that allows for variances and changes to be seen quickly so that everything stays on course.  And when things do get off course, a course correction has already been charted and it's known what needs to happen to make up for it so that the overall end goal can still be achieved.  The Project Executor excels at managing change.  Managing changes is at the heart of what we do as project managers.  The projects we manage are in and of themselves change; change to the organization, change to the customer, change to a process, etc.  So, it's not surprising that the Project Executor is masterful at this and therefore in such high demand.   Here's what I mean.

Managing Constraints

The Project Executor excels at prioritizing, monitoring, and managing all of the applicable project constraints: schedule, cost, scope, quality, and resources.  Schedule control is pretty obvious, and extremely important.  Time is the only constant.  You can't add, subtract, or save time; you can only manage how it's used.  The Project Executor is constantly monitoring the schedule and making changes as needed.  By tracking and using actual work (as opposed to just percent complete) and communicating with the project team members as to when they are going to be completed with their assigned work, the PE can have an accurate and living schedule.  Measuring performance, monitoring and updating the activity list, managing changes and slip, and being able to intelligently apply corrective action allows the PE's schedule to be like concrete.  Not in the sense that it is “set in stone”, but rather that it gets stronger and stronger over time.

Scope Creep is one of the main causes of troubled, delayed, or even failed projects.  Being able to manage, verify, and control the scope is a vitally important aspect of what makes a PE.  The PE knows that if it's not in the schedule, it's not getting done.  Therefore a key attribute of any good PE is the ability to have a well defined, accessible and repeatable process for gathering, documenting, and getting stake holder agreement and sign-off to the entire breadth of requirements and deliverables.  Furthermore, the PE has a similar process for dealing with changes to those  requirements and deliverables.  The PE is exceptional at understanding, documenting, and communicating changes along with, more importantly, their impact on the overall project; negotiating with the stakeholders to evaluate the change and if it's worth the cost.

The Project Executor knows the that quality can sometimes be a tricky thing.  Sometimes there are criteria and metrics to which you can measure quality, more often it is more subjective intangible.  After all, this is what  Pirsig's character was obsessed with and took several hundred miles, a few hundred pages, and a very complex locomotive metaphor to explain.  The PE knows how to efficiently and effectively monitor and measure the project results and deliverables against the agreed upon and defined quality standards.  A PE is also able to put all of that into perspective in terms of where the  importance of quality falls within the overall scope of the project.  Does it need to be great, or just good enough?

Cost, budget, profitably - however it's referred to, it's something everyone is concerned about.  There are a variety of factors that can influence, change, and impact project costs.  The Project Executor has an uncanny ability to influence those factors, control those that can be controlled, and understand the impact that each one could have on the overall success of the project.  The PE also has the gift of foresight and can forecast such that problems and budget overruns can be headed off when they are identified, instead of waiting until the money's gone before reacting.  The PE's monitoring actual work and actual cost and evaluating them against the projected costs and project progress enhances and increases the PE's foresight ability.

It's people that actually get project work done.  The Project Executor's ability to manage the project team brings all of these other skill areas together and can make or break the project.  Managing the team is not “cracking the whip” and keeping everyone on-task.  Rather, it is inspiring the team and getting the most productive work out of everyone.  The PE is an exceptional and empathetic leader that understands the project team members are not only key to the overall project completion and success, but also invaluable resources for managing and controlling costs, quality, schedule, etc.  The PE makes sure that the right people are working on the right tasks or project deliverables and ensures that they have the appropriate availability, environment, resources and limited distractions in order to get the work done and contribute to the overall good of the project.

It's All About the Work

The Project Executor's overall goal is to complete the project on-time, within budget, and to scope as planned.  The PE's ability to repeatably do this successfully comes out of their monitoring and controlling the project work and progress.  You can't manage what you don't measure.  The PE knows this, which is why the PE measures everything from actual time and work to resource availability to schedule changes and impact to costs and beyond.  A Project Executor is efficiently and accurately collecting and measuring the overall project performance, assessing that information, and then using that information to effectively make informed decisions, mitigate risks, identify problems, suggest corrective action, and provide updated and accurate status and progress reports.  The Project Executor is looking at and managing the project's performance with regard to schedule, cost, scope, quality, resources, and risk.   With all of this, a Project Executor is able to time and time again, no matter the size, scope, or type of project, “”Get It Done!”  And with that, I think I'll treat myself to a cross-country bike ride.

(1)  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, 1974, Robert M. Pirsig
(2) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)Third Edition, 2004, The Project Management Institute
How Do You Know A Project Executor When You See One?  by Bryan Peterson