Project Management: What Lies Beneath

Becoming a project manager was a gradual process that began long before I realised it was happening. Arguably, many people are project managers without realising that is the role that they have taken on. In a sense, all roles require an element of project management, although this will vary from job to job to a greater or lesser extent.

One of my previous roles involved the provision of specialist budgeting services to research-active employees within a well-known NHS Foundation Trust based in London. Looking back at what my job entailed with the benefit of my current project management knowledge – meeting with consultants/academics, establishing the individual needs for their research studies, assembling accurate and detailed budgets based on their feedback, ensuring the research teams have obtained the relevant internal approvals so they can submit their grant applications to the external funders, guiding the research team through the submission process, and handing the research team over to the grant management team if their applications were successful – it is clear to me now that I was managing a series of projects, with a heavy element of stakeholder management.

Each research grant application essentially touched on the 5 main project management process groups:

+ Initiating

+ Planning

+ Monitoring

+ Controlling

+ Closing

Fast forward to present day. Undergoing a series of informative and demanding courses under the Project Management Institute (PMI) has been instrumental in formalising the theories and processes that I have been practicing instinctively for several years.

It has been a privilege to deepen my knowledge of project, portfolio, programme and change management, while also taking the opportunity to acquire expertise in Disciplined Agile™, which is a specialised Way of Working in project management.

Moving up to become a Senior Project Manager is an exciting challenge that I feel more than ready to take on, and I look forward to implementing my new tools and techniques in my day-to-day deliverables.

Keep calm and let the Senior Project Manager handle it!

Kashmir

My introduction to the ancient conflict surrounding Kashmir came through the fiction + non-fiction writings of Arundhati Roy. Her vivid descriptions of the political + economic complexities underpinning this hotly disputed territory ignited a desire to know more, especially in the wake of recent developments, which have once again thrust Kashmir into the spotlight.

For the uninitiated, British rule in the Indian subcontinent ended in 1947 with the creation of two new states: the Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India. The end of colonial rule meant that all princely states were given the choice of joining either of these countries or remaining independent. Jammu + Kashmir were two of the largest states + the latter was comprised mainly of Muslims, who were ruled by the Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh. He decided to stay independent, which has subsequently + unknowingly led to decades of boundary disputes, a succession of wars + tens of thousands of untimely deaths, due to the desire of Pakistan, India + China to annex this lucrative, geographically strategic region. Currently, the first two countries individually claim the state as a whole, with India controlling roughly half the land, Pakistan controlling less than a third and China the rest. Additionally, the ongoing unrest has given rise to the twin spectres of Kashmir nationalism + militancy, as the residents of the state attempt to assert control over their destinies.

According to folk etymology, the name ‘Kashmir’ means ‘desiccated land’ (from the Sanskrit: Ka = water and shimeera = desiccate). In the Rajatarangini, a history of Kashmir written by Kalhana in the mid-12th century, it is stated that the valley of Kashmir was formerly a lake. According to Hindu mythology, the lake was drained by the great rishi or sage, Kashyapa, son of Marichi, son of Brahma, by cutting the gap in the hills at Baramulla (Varaha-mula). When Kashmir had been drained, Kashyapa asked Brahmins to settle there. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/history_of_kashmir]. Brahmin is a class in Hinduism that has historically produced priests, teachers + protectors of sacred learning across generations [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/brahmin].

Coming back to the present day, more fuel has been added to an already violently raging fire by India’s recent decision in August 2019 to repeal the semi-autonomous status of Jammu + Kashmir that has been in place for over 70 years. Since this date, the people have been subject to a near-total blackout on communications + their freedom of movement has been extremely restricted. “Nine to 10 million people were pushed behind an iron wall. We’d never seen anything like this,” says Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of the Kashmir Times, citing previous internet blackouts that at least left phone services untouched [https://time.com/5706847/what-happens-now-kashmir]. It is unlikely that this state of affairs is going to be resolved anytime soon + the overarching fear is that the blanket of radio silence may be disguising an untold number of atrocities being committed. The rest of the world must continue to ask questions + scrutinise the Indian government to ensure there is accountability + that the human rights of the people who live there are being upheld. Because that is what matters the most in all of this – the people.

AI

Have you watched I, Robot (2004)? It is loosely based on a short story collection by Isaac Asimov that bears the same name, which was published in 1950. If you have seen it, you will know what I mean when I say that I closely identify with Detective Del Spooner, a character played by Will Smith. Detective Spooner is deeply suspicious of the humanoid robots that have been created to serve humanity. As it turns out, his doubts are well-founded + the other characters in the film should have heeded his warnings. It is no secret that our modern world has, for the most part, welcomed with open arms the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), which been applied in fields as diverse + wide-ranging as ‘medical diagnosis, stock trading, robot control, law, scientific discovery + toys’ [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/progress_in_artificial_intelligence]. The danger, as I see it, is that this entirely manufactured addition to society may, in time, alter the fundamental nature of what makes us human. Is this a bad thing? Scientists, venture capitalists + tech bros will line up to tell you that it is not. However, in a related train of thought, studies have already shown that our seemingly harmless usage of social media may be starting to affect the way our brains function. ‘Neuroplasticity ⁠— or the brain’s ability to structurally change over time ⁠— means that the experiences and lessons we gain from internet use could be having a significant impact’ [medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325461.php]. ‘Brain scans of social media addicts are similar to those of drug-dependent brains. There is a clear change in the regions of the brain that control emotions, attention + decision making’ [now.northropgrumman.com/this-is-your-brain-on-instagram-effects-of-social-media-on-the-brain].

Have you watched The Terminator (1984)? It introduced us to the concept of Skynet, which is a supposedly fictional computer system developed for the United States military as a “Global Information Grid/Digital Defense Network” and was later given command over all computerised military hardware + systems. It began to learn at a geometric rate + eventually gained artificial consciousness. Following an attempt to deactivate it, Skynet came to the logical conclusion that all of humanity would set out to destroy it + in order to defend itself, it killed over three billion people on what came to be known as Judgment Day [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/skynet_(terminator)]. Now, I do not know about you but this sequence of events does not sound that farfetched to me in this era of drone warfare.

The concept of malevolent AI has been thoroughly explored in The Matrix franchise (1999, 2003) + Ex Machina (2014). The silver connecting thread centres on Man as an intelligent but ultimately inept Creator, followed by the surfacing of a consciousness in the Created + concluding with a shift in the balance of power between the two entities. A battle royale may or may not ensue + the outcome is usually unfavourable for both parties. In 2017, Facebook started + then quickly ended an experiment after two artificially intelligent programs appeared to be chatting to each other in a strange language only they understood. ‘The robots appeared to chant at each other in a language that…appeared mostly incomprehensible to humans [independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/facebook-artificial-intelligence-ai-chatbot-new-language-research-openai-google-a7869706.html]. Worrying? Certainly.

Have you watched Season 1 + 2 of Westworld? It is based on the 1973 film of the same name + to a lesser extent, the film’s 1976 sequel, Futureworld [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/westworld_(tv_series)]. Many viewers have found the storylines incomprehensible + convoluted. Others, including me, have been fascinated by the rich + multilayered universe inhabited by morally ambiguous characters. The visuals alone are deserving of multiple awards. Here, again, Man is portrayed as a selfish, greedy child whose toys shockingly develop minds of their own with grave consequences.

Have you watched Seasons 1 to 4 of Battlestar Galactica? If you have not, I completely appreciate that you possibly never will. There are so many existing + new television shows available via a multitude of streaming platforms, that it is unlikely you will have the time to indulge in one that ran from 2004 to 2009. However, I strongly recommend giving it a try, if only to acquaint yourself with the Cylons, an interesting interpretation of man’s continued inhumanity to man + a super cool character called Starbuck. ‘Time described Battlestar Galactica as “a gripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with monotheistic religious fundamentalists, sleeper cells, civil liberties crackdowns + even a prisoner-torture scandal”‘ [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/battlestar_galactica_(2004_tv_series)]. As is so often the case, alternative realities provide the perfect vehicle for delivering unpalatable home truths about ourselves.

Currently, I try to avoid all ‘smart’ devices + AI assistants. I do not want to be listened to or monitored by a corporation pretending to have my best interests at heart. I will do things the old-fashioned way until it becomes impossible to continue. Like Detective Spooner, I do not trust robots + I am not sure I ever will. Please note that this is just my personal preference, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the conveniences offered in this day + age. My only advice is to be careful when embracing novel technology. Trojan horses are feared for a reason.

Maslow

Abraham Maslow [1908-1970] was a psychologist who created a theory that attempted to coherently organise the perceived needs of human beings. He outlined his thoughts at length in a 1943 paper called ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. Even though his theory has been revised over the years, the skeleton of his hypothesis continues to be relevant to the modern world.

In essence, Maslow posited that certain demands had to be satisfied in a person’s life before other, higher, requirements could begin to be addressed. He presented this information in the form of an easy-to-understand pyramid with five levels. The first level deals with basic desires such as food, water + a warm place to sleep at night. Once these essentials have been taken care of, the second level progresses to feeling safe at home, at work + within one’s mind. So far, so understandable. The third level builds on this by showing that love in all forms can begin to flourish under these favourable circumstances. The fourth level tells us that self-esteem can now come into play based on a solid foundation, for example the setting of career + life goals. Reaching the fifth + final level means one has self-actualised, or in simpler terms, one has ascended to ‘enlightened maturity characterised by the achievement of goals, acceptance of oneself + an ability to self-assess in a realistic and positive way’ [goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/self-actualisation]. There are elements that some may feel are missing – religion springs to mind – but overall, this is neat + tidy way of summarising the components that comprise a healthy + happy life.

Work

I find fulfilment in what I have chosen to do for a living. I enjoy meeting new people, engaging my brain + negotiating the minefield of office politics. Monday blues aside, work provides coherence + meaning, without which many of us would drift aimlessly through life. ‘Unemployment has previously been linked to poorer mental health, with experts suggesting part of the reason could be that work offers benefits including time structure, social contracts + a sense of identity’ [https://amp.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/19/working-one-day-week-improves-mental-health-study-suggests]. Apart from the fact that work pays for the pleasant things, it also gives us a community outside of the home, a sense of camaraderie with fellow co-workers, if you’re fortunate enough to have decent ones + often, a raison d’être [translation: reason for being or reason to be]. I know this may be hard to believe especially if your job is of the mindless + soul-destroying variety, but I assure you, not being employed is significantly worse for your health + bank account. Waking up with no concrete plans for the day + nowhere in particular to be sounds heavenly until it becomes your daily reality. Then, each day stretches out in front of you like an abyss, waiting to be filled.

The people who have truly hacked life are the ones who are doing what they love + getting paid for it. The vast majority of the workforce may never experience this enviable feeling, even though it is within their power to change their lives for the better. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially if one has acquired a mortgage, children + credit card debt along the way. However, if you are waking up each day hating what you do for a living, the only person who can decide to follow a different path is you. No-one else, just you. Liberate yourself, if you can.

  • Edit: This was written pre-COVID.

Perfectionism

I am undeniably a perfectionist. It started gradually in my youth, gathered momentum with age + is now a fully developed cross for me to bear for the rest of my life. The trait tends to manifest most noticeably at work, especially when I have tight deadlines to meet. My last two jobs called for quick + careful thinking, which thankfully suited my personality. Part of one’s adjustment to the real world is the measured realisation that very many people think differently to you + in order to maintain a pleasant + peaceful journey through life, one must manage + control actions + reactions. Much like defensive driving, my aim is to avoid a collision with another living, breathing person. If one does occur, I will search within myself to establish where I went wrong + how this precise situation can be circumnavigated in future.

Do you think you might be a perfectionist? Do you think in all-or-nothing terms? Do you think, and then act, in extremes? Do you struggle to delegate because you worry others will not carry out the task correctly? Do you have demanding standards for yourself + others? Do you have trouble completing a project because you keep tweaking it to make it better? Do you believe in rules that others should follow + then feel displeased when they do not? Does your self-confidence depend on what you accomplish + how others react to you? Do you fixate on one mistake + forget about your successes? Do you procrastinate or avoid situations where you might not excel? [psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-perfect/201611/9-signs-you-might-be-perfectionist]. If you have answered ‘Yes’ to the majority of these questions, like I have, then congratulations dear friend, we are in the same imperfect boat. Also like me, you will have to find a way to balance your innate belief that you are correct 100% of the time, with the confusing reality that the world inexplicably seems not to agree. Good luck.