January 24, 2023
Book Club
15 minutes
Natalia Rossingol

Making Things Happen - A 15-Minute Summary for Project Managers

What does it take for project managers to actually "make things happen"? Learn all the ins and outs of successful project management in our book summary.

The best managers do not need to have outstanding personalities – they simply have to know how to get things done. This doesn’t require any complicated theories or philosophy. Some tips from an experienced leader and common sense will do the trick.

“Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management” by Scott Berkun provides answers to many questions project managers may want to ask. Having software development background (he worked in Microsoft Corporation for 10 years), Berkun refers mostly to the engineering world in his book. Yet, the advice he gives will be appropriate for other domains as well, since all projects tend to face similar challenges.

Below is our short summary of “Making Things Happen” by chapter.

1. A brief history of project management

Project management has a long history – everything that has been built in the world is project managed by someone. Like software development is managed nowadays, the building of the Egyptian pyramids was managed thousands of years ago.

Even though the nature of projects may vary, most of them have similarities. There are requirements and constraints. Projects typically involve a budget, a schedule, and a customer. They depend on communication and decision-making. 

In any project, the main challenge is to organize the work of different people. The importance of a project manager’s role here is obvious – this person directs the overall effort of the team.

Berkun emphasizes good managers must maintain a balance of conflicting attitudes. They need to be both autocrats and delegators, pursue perfection yet tolerate ambiguity, believe in their people yet stay skeptical – the choice of a particular behavior will be dictated by a situation.

Managers are not hired to contribute a linear amount of work like a worker… Instead, leaders and managers are hired to amplify the value of everyone around them.

Recommended reading: 10 Managerial Roles, According to Mintzberg

Part 1. Plans

2. The truth about schedules

According to Berkun, schedules serve three purposes: 

  • This is how you make commitments - a schedule is a kind of a contract by which people confirm they are going to deliver something by a certain date.
  • They help you see a project as a whole – a schedule makes dependencies more noticeable. 
  • They break work down into chunks.

Even though schedules are helpful, they do not solve all the problems, like poor communication or unclear goals. Yet, they have value and need to be developed.

A schedule is just a probability, and doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember that the earlier you make estimates, the less accurate they are.

To make a good schedule, Berkun recommends doing the following:

  1. Create appropriate milestones: The more change you expect, the shorter a milestone.
  2. Add checkpoints: Review current progress, accounting for new information or customer’s feedback.
  3. Take experience into account: A team who has already worked on a similar project will need less time.
  4. Gauge the team’s experience in working together: If people have not worked together before, they will be less efficient.

Continue reading: 

3. How to figure out what to do

Project planning can be done from different perspectives, each of which is unique by itself as it contributes something special to the project. Berkun mentions three perspectives:

  • The business perspective. It is focused on factors that impact profit and loss, like expenses and competition. Planning from a business perspective, a team needs to know why their project is important for business, what needs their customers have that they can satisfy, and what will motivate customers to buy their product.
  • The technology perspective. This perspective is concerned with how things are built. A team tries to understand how much time it will take to build things, how they will fill gaps in expertise, what technologies are available, and how reliable the systems they plan to build will be.
  • The customer perspective. It is the most important one out of the three since any project is done for a customer. It means a team must study what customers do, what problems they have, and how they can help them.

These three perspectives overlap. The best thing to do is to create a holistic picture, getting rid of perspective bias.

4. Writing a good vision

The vision should never be like a religious relic… It should be worn out from use and have notes scribbled in the margins.

A vision includes high-level goals for the entire project. Communicating the intentions of a team, a vision keeps people focused. For a vision to have real value, it needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Simplifying effect. A vision must facilitate decision-making.
  • Intentionality. This document is a source of goals, explaining what activities will be useful to reach a goal, and what will not.
  • Consolidation. It consolidates ideas from research and analysis.
  • Inspiration. A vision describes a problem to solve, which inspires people to work on it.
  • Memorability. The ideas will guide a team throughout the project.

Berkun underlines that a good vision must be simple to read, not lengthy, and written by one primary author.

5. Where ideas come from

Trying to come up with an idea, we should remember two things. First – there are bad ideas. If an idea doesn’t solve a problem, it is a bad one. Second, you can feel free to think both in and out of the box. There is no need to look for new solutions if they are ready-made.

Everyone can generate good ideas. A great tool is asking the right questions. Berkun mentions three types of questions, explaining how they direct a discussion:

  • Focusing questions. These are questions that draw your attention to something important that is absent.
  • Creative questions. These questions point to something that needs to be explored.
  • Rhetorical questions. A rhetorical question is insincere, as it’s not asked with the intention to hear an answer. They imply negative judgment and assume you know more than your recipient.

It’s obvious that while focusing and creative questions are useful, rhetorical ones are not, and hence should not be used in a discussion.

6. What to do with ideas once you have them

It’s hard to find ideas, but it’s even harder to manage them. How can ideas translate into decisions?

To track and manage creative work, it will be useful to create checkpoints:

  1. Vision. In a good vision document, there will be valid ideas to investigate and start with.
  2. Idea groupings/lists. Once team members express their ideas, someone needs to organize them.
  3. Three alternatives. Narrow the ideas to three.
  4. Two alternatives. Research and question till you’ve got down to two alternatives.
  5. One design. Make a final choice.
  6. Specification. Document what you’ve chosen.

The number of checkpoints can be reduced, or some of them can be skipped – if you’re limited in time, just define a problem, pick three alternatives, and write specifications. Creative work has momentum, and narrowing down ideas to a single one can be more difficult than you think.

Part 2. Skills

7. Writing good specifications

Specifications are a form of communication, just like vision documents. They describe the functionality, clarify decisions, provide natural milestones, and accelerate the frequency of discussions.

Berkun explains specifications in terms of the software development process. He emphasizes there is no one accepted definition of specifications. What we should know is that there are certain kinds of information that end up in specifications. What matters is that the right information is specified by the right people, who produce separate documents:

  • Requirements (project managers, clients): This document outlines requirements and obligations, basically showing a desired end result.
  • Feature (project managers and designers): A feature defines a specific design that satisfies the requirement, this way describing a possible scenario from the customer's perspective.
  • Technical specifications (programmers): It details an engineering approach needed to fulfill a feature specification.
  • Work-item lists (the lead programmer): These describe how to fulfill a feature specification, breaking work down.
  • Test criteria: This is needed once a feature specification is ready.

8. How to make good decisions

Decisions are an inseparable part of our life – everything we do is a decision. So how can we improve our decision-making?

Berkun mentions two ways in which decisions are made: singular and comparative evaluation. Singular evaluation means you pick one option and analyze it against some criteria. If it meets the criteria, you choose it. In comparative evaluation though, you need to look for alternatives and compare them to each other.

Singular evaluation can be made when the difference between a great choice and a good one is not too big. If decisions have more impact, use the comparative one.

The simplest way to do comparative evaluation is through a pros and cons list. To see real differences, ask tough questions about your options to understand their probable impact, check assumptions and question everything that is not based on data.

You should also be aware that sometimes good decisions can lead to bad results – and then it is not a mistake of a project manager. Some things are just impossible to predict.

9. Communication and relationships

Essential components of all activities happening at the workplace are communication and relationships. Naturally, the one responsible for the effectiveness of communication and healthy relationships is a project manager.

Let’s start with communication. There are several reasons for misunderstanding. We assume instead of referring to facts. We lack clarity, thinking others understand us perfectly without any additional explanations. We do not really listen, waiting to get the next chance to talk – or, even worse, we do not pay attention. We attack someone personally instead of discussing a situation. We blame or ridicule others for their thoughts. Doing this, we get nowhere.

These harmful behaviors typically occur when group leaders demonstrate them or tolerate them in others. Berkun explains that it’s important for team leaders to examine their own behavior and talk to the team, asking people to share their thoughts and identify a problem.

As for relationships, the easiest way to improve them, in Berkun’s opinion, is to clarify roles. Talking to a person we work with to identify responsibilities can solve many problems.

10. How not to annoy people: process, email, and meetings

By making decisions that impact others, or tracking someone’s work, project managers can annoy their colleagues. But the happier the team, the more effective the project, so a smart manager will look for ways to minimize annoyance.

No one likes being treated as incompetent or without respect. No one likes it when their time is wasted on insignificant issues, or when they are made to listen or read something that has no meaning to them. Remembering this can lead a manager in the right direction.

Burken analyzes annoyance in terms of three things, saying managers can make these easier for their teams:

  1. Processes. Managers can set up some processes by themselves, or convince people with more power that the team can reach its goals without processes that seem tedious or unnecessary.
  2. Email. A good email must be concise and concern a specific request. The more emails you send, the harder it is to prioritize them.
  3. Meetings. In a meeting, managers play the role of facilitators. The primary function of this role is to help people communicate, which involves clarifying agendas, beginning a discussion, and directing a conversation.

11. What to do when things go wrong

No matter what you do, how hard you work, or who you work with, things will still go wrong… The only way to completely avoid difficult situations is to do nothing of importance.

You may find out that the quality is getting lower. It may happen that your management or a client does not acknowledge a certain problem, so it negatively impacts your work. There could be personal issues among your team members. Or you can just realize you’re falling behind schedule. In any case, project managers must always be prepared to handle difficult situations.

Berkun discusses three topics that can be relevant when things go wrong:

  • Pressure.There are 4 types of pressure – natural and artificial, positive and negative. Natural pressure occurs when someone makes a commitment and then puts it at risk. This pressure is generally positive because it motivates people to invest in their work. Artificial pressure is a leader’s tactic: it can be both positive (reward-driven) and negative (scolding).
  • Feelings about feelings. Sometimes the emotions project managers receive are not directed at them, because they are not the result of the actions a project manager has done.
  • The hero complex. There are people who simply like dealing with stress, so they can create dangerous situations only they can resolve. If a risk is minor, a person with a hero complex will be useful. But if it’s big, the project can be in trouble.

Part 3. Management 

12. Why leadership is based on trust

The best managers take time to earn trust. Trust is built through effective commitment when we agree to do something within a specific timeframe. And it is lost when we demonstrate inconsistent behavior, acting unpredictably and refusing to fulfill our commitments.

To get people to trust you, give them power. Give people authority to make decisions, publicly declaring that. Try to persuade them, instead of dictating what they need to do. After all, trust in yourself – make sure you’ve got an inner compass that guides your choices.  

There are two types of power a manager has – granted, which comes from a title, and earned, when people consciously choose to listen to you. Both of them are necessary. For example, when some fundamental problems are occurring, it makes more sense to be autocratic. However, earned power is more influential. 

13. Making things happen

The ability to make things happen is a combination of knowing how to be a catalyst in a variety of different situations and having the courage to do so.

The difference between managers who make things happen and those who don’t is that the former set clear priorities. Berkun calls priorities the backbone of progress that must be reflected in every email, meeting, and question asked.

The best way to set priorities is through making ordered lists. On such a list, priority 1 must be taken most seriously – this is something without which all your work will be futile. Priorities 2 and 3 are much less important, and the gap between priority 1 and the other two is big.

Priorities are powerful since they can reframe any argument around what’s really important. Some problems causing heated discussions have nothing to do with true goals.

You also can make things happen when you say no to things that are not your priorities, this way saving your team’s energy.

14. Middle-game strategy

Mid-game is the middle of the schedule. It is challenging because many things are happening at the same time. Something works, and something doesn’t; some issues get resolved, and some have not been identified yet.

It is easy to get lost and find yourself “flying behind a plane” – in other words, trying to fix a situation when it’s already late and your project is out of control. To avoid this, Burken recommends doing so-called sanity checks – making sure the conditions you’re expecting are still true.

There are two kinds of sanity checks:

  1. Daily checks. These include questions a project manager must ask every day. What are our goals and commitments? Is what we are doing today contributing to our goals?
  2. Strategic checks. These are questions discussed at leadership meetings, which take place weekly or monthly. Are we going to hit the next milestone at the appropriate level of quantity? What are the biggest risks for today, next week or next month?   

These checks help identify issues and stay on track.

15. End-game strategy

All projects have more than one deadline – there are interim dates associated with a milestone. There are three deadlines any milestone in software development has:

  • Design / specification complete. All design and spec briefs are finished, and the team is ready to write a code.
  • Feature complete. The team is ready to focus on refinement.
  • Test or milestone complete. Quality has reached the appropriate level.

With milestones, hitting a date is less important than hitting it smoothly. If you don’t do it right, the next milestone will be at risk.

16. Power and politics

There is a natural instinct for motivated and ambitious people to try and get what they want by influencing people who have the power to make it happen.

In any group, there will be different attitudes and desires. This means that power and politics will always be an inseparable part of management. Politics does not necessarily mean unethical behavior – it is simply a skill of managing people and solving problems.

To influence how things happen, managers need to understand how to use their power. Berkun lists different kinds of power for managers to consider how they are used in their organizations:

  • Rewards – granting people bonuses and other rewards. People know you’re the one who can give them.
  • Coercion – control over penalties.
  • Knowledge – expertise in a certain area or information relevant for a particular decision.
  • Referent – knowing people. If you know or are friends with someone with power, that power will be referred to you as well.
  • Influence – the ability to persuade others, which is a combination of communication skills, confidence, emotional awareness, and observation.

Of course, power can be misused. People are self-motivated, so they can apply their power for personal goals – to take revenge, to get a promotion, or help someone they care for. This does not serve the project.

“Making Things Happen” by Scott Berkun will be helpful for a broad circle of readers – for team leaders and managers, students of management and product design, as well as for individual programmers and contributors. Much of the advice he gives is universal and can be used by anyone involved in project management, no matter what you do – develop software products, make an oven, or build an airplane. 

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