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Project Management? Conducting an Orchestra is Easier.

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I had always thought that project management was like conducting an orchestra, although somewhat less glamorous. Taking, or being given, a disparate group of people, each with different personalities, capabilities and responsibilities, and bringing them together to produce a result – be it a concert or a new customer management solution - both seem to me to require the same basic skills. However, I always felt there was something missing in my analogy.

A few months ago, I was at the Proms in the Park event on the Titanic Slipways in Belfast. This event runs concurrently with similar concerts in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and with the Last Night of the Proms in the Albert Hall. It was a fantastic, moving evening, as we sat on the very spot where the Titanic was built listening to, amongst other pieces, the Titanic Suite and Noah Stewart singing ‘Nearer my God to Thee’. The orchestra also accompanied an Irish folk band, a local singer, a solo flautist and Hayley Westenra – they had to deal with many different styles. But in the middle of it all, the conductor was interviewed, and he said that his job was to know a little bit about every person’s instrument and role, and that all he had to do was ensure they did the right thing at the right time. Maybe he was being modest, but it sounded like classic project management to me.

After the concert, as I was heading back to my car, I got talking to a couple of the musicians as we walked. I complimented them on the evening and asked how much practice they had had to do for this concert. “Nine hours” one of them replied. “Nine hours for over two hours of performance? That’s not a lot, is it?” I asked. “No”, he replied, “it’s not. But then we’re professionals!”

And then it struck me. Musicians in an orchestra are indeed skilled professionals, selected purely for their ability to do what they do best. They audition for their role, and the standards are exacting. For the time they are practising and playing in an orchestra, they are focused on that and that alone.

A project manager, on the other hand, often has to deal with people who are not necessarily as skilled as he or she would like them to be. These people usually haven’t been selected as the best person for their role in the project. They may not have the sense of teamwork and precision of delivery that a musician must have. They rarely have the time to focus on the project alone – often they have their day job to do as well. Whenever I have managed a project, I have had to bring together a group of people of differing levels of skill, knowledge and commitment. I have had to manage internal politics and varied personalities. I have had to chase deadlines, and readjust timing plans when someone misses a deadline – imagine the chaos in an orchestra if a musician missed playing a note or came in late. I’ve had to come up with innovative plans when something has gone wrong, or the incorrect item has been delivered (a recent example necessitated saws, stitching and glue!). And yet, in the end, the project has been delivered on time.

So, in the end, I have actually come to the conclusion that my analogy was wrong. Project management is not like conducting an orchestra – it’s an awful lot harder!

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