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Conducting and Project Management

Some more thoughts on similarities between conductors (recently, for me, this means choral) and IT Project Managers.

Strategy. The conductor shapes the whole piece as a performance by setting style and expression, and has a clear idea how he wants it to sound. (It is striking how performances of the same piece can be very different). In the same way, the PM sets out the strategy for the project and holds in mind a vision for how it is to be done.

Rehearsals / training. In many ways, the whole choral rehearsal process is a parallel to the repeated iterations of build-test-refine that any system undergoes before it is finally released. Rehearsing a choir is not just about teaching the notes, but also about how to sing together as a unit. As well as coaching individuals, a project manager ensures that the team knows how to work together – what the internal team processes are, who is expert in what, and so on.

Detail. While holding the whole piece together and the choir in time by keeping the beat steady, the conductor also brings in different parts at the right times, and indicates changes in tempo or expression. To do this he must have an intimate knowledge of how each individual part fits with the others to make up the whole piece. A PM uses his detailed understanding of the business background and of how all the various planned tasks fit together to decide which are the critical tasks to bring to the fore at different points during the project.

Constantly changing priority. I’m struck how my current choirmaster will sometimes sing along with a part when it falters for a little while until it is secure again. Perhaps at that point he may not pay attention to some of the other parts at all. I once sang in a concert where the conductor never brought my part in at all, because he knew he could safely ignore us. This is very much the way a PM will focus on a hot issue until it is resolved maybe to the exclusion of other things for a short while. And of course the choirmaster can only sing one part at once, just as at any point in time at work we can do only one thing at a time.

Contribution of team members themselves. In an ensemble, listening to each other is critical, to keep together – in time, in tune, and expression. In a project this means discussing issues, being aware of what colleagues are doing and chipping in sometimes when needed. The PM should encourage an environment that enables this to happen.

Finally, both have ultimate authority – there may be some discussion at first but ultimately what you say, goes, and there is nobody else to stop you. Which means you need to get it right!

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  1. October 6, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Hi Peter,

    I like these analogies, I have published a similar article before on cooking and project management.

    I would like to republish your post on PM Hut as I think many project managers will enjoy reading it.

    Please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

  1. November 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm

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