I was given a fab new wheelie suitcase as a gift at the weekend, which is great as I seem to be doing a lot of travelling at the moment. On the way to the UK at the weekend I found myself sitting next to a guy in a leather jacket. He obviously wasn’t taking advantage of the latest Eurostar campaign. By the time we were halfway through the tunnel I knew that he was on his way to see a band play in Camden with his mate Tim and that the last time they saw that band the sound system was so bad it was a waste of time. He also treated me to a run down of a good hour or so of his favourite music. The wonders of modern technology. So by the time he actually spoke to me I felt like we were old friends. No, I jest.
Bref, a can of beer having loosened his tounge he felt sufficiently bored with his music to attempt to strike up a conversation. I don’t speak to strangers on trains. It’s my time to do my own thing: read, sleep, plan articles and novel plots in my head, text my friends, catch up on all the thinking I haven’t had time to do. Plus my mother taught me well. Needless to say I didn’t appreciate the interruption to my perusal of my copy of Marie France. After a few short questions and answers, he asked me what I did.
“I’m a project manager,” I replied. Silence. “That killed the conversation.”
Tim’s friend apologised for his ten seconds or so of complete blankness. “It’s just that I don’t know what a project manager does,” he said.
I tried to explain a little: plan things, organise other people to do things, monitor how it’s all going. The more I tried to explain the more pointless my job sounded, especially after he grasped the essential concept that in fact I had no staff and had to cajole people into doing what I want as I couldn’t just shout at them. He was a techie and told me he was pleased that his users feared him. Apparently shouting is his management tool of choice.
Fortunately, at about this point I was rescued from further muddled explanations by a call from Tim, who wanted to arrange a suitable meeting point. Tim’s friend and Tim managed to make their conversation last until we arrived at Ashford where I got off and escaped having to explain why shouting doesn’t work for me. Or any other successful PM.
Wheeling my new suitcase through the station I wondered why it is so incredibly hard to explain what we do. PMFORUM has an article about this, but it doesn’t provide a 30-second elevator speech answer. And I’m not sure I agree with a part of our job being ‘chatting people up’. That doesn’t really work in British English. HRA Consulting have tackled it too in their article ‘So you want to be a project manager?’ As they are a consultancy selling project management training they have a vested interest in making it sound glamorous. There is some truth in Mike Harding’s statement:
Why would anybody want a job where success means everyone assumes it must have been easy, and problems mean you’re going to get kicked?
I have yet to find the ideal answer, an answer I can give Tim’s friend and the millions of people like him who have no idea what we do. I’m looking for a phrase I can use in any situation, for anyone, that succinctly explains why project managers are so crucial to businesses and organisations. Any ideas?