Book review: The Art of Project Management By Scott Berkun

December 4th, 2006 by jose

Are academics managing projects? The thesis of this post is that we academics are project managers without formal training in project management. You ask for money to do a research _project_. If you supervise or mentor students until they get their PhD, you are managing a project. If you teach a class, you are managing a project. Do you see where I’m going?

When we read Dilbert, we think: “Oh, the industry world is crazy. The academia doesn’t work that bad”. That is true, but I’m sure there are things we can borrow from their world (e.g., trying to write down the process we follow to achieve some results, and try to improve it). This is what Berkun talks about in his book. For example, in the processes of writing your next article, which parts could be delegated? Did you ’hire’ -make connections with- the right person to take the parts that could be delegated? When coming up with new ideas for future research, how do you select which ones to follow up and which ones to ditch?

Topics include:

  • How to make things happen
  • Making good decisions
  • Specifications and requirements
  • Ideas and what to do with them
  • How not to annoy people
  • Leadership and trust
  • The truth about making dates
  • What to do when things go wrong
  • As you see, plenty of relevant sutff for academics here.

Berkun is:

an author, public speaker and consultant. He worked as a manager at Microsoft from 1994-2003, on projects including (v1-5) of Internet Explorer, Windows and MSN.

Berkun has written what could be the first project management book that doesn’t have a load of technical information on Gantt charts and related fashionable topics in the the industry. Even though project management seems to be a hot topic for the ’Dilbert’ people of the industry, academics have taken little notice of this trend.

One thing that is missing from time management (TM) methods is how to decide which project to work on next. TM helps (a lot) with getting things done at a micromanagement level: An academic using a time management method will probably be more efficient getting to the right task at the right time.

One of the most interesting chapters is on ’making good decisions’. Surprisingly, Berkun says that in the interviews he performed for this book no project manager used the formal methods of decision making that we teach in judgment and decision making (JDM) departments, so one has to wonder how much of the basic research gets to applied settings like this one.

A surprising fact if that, to get a paper out of the door, we probably use methods (processes) that have changed little since out PhD advisor passed them down to us. Are academic processes good? According to Berkun, good processes, accelerate progress, prevent problems, they make important actions visible and measurable, and people impacted by them are in favor of them. I’m sure we have some methods that are far from optimal.

In summary, an interesting read; while it’s not the first book that an academic would pick to improve her productivity, the intutitions and ’no-nonsense’ recommendations in this book are valuable. Oh, and the writing is surprisingly good.

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