The Art of Project Management, by Scott Berkun

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I first learned of Scott Berkun last year, when I followed a link to one of his essays and found it thoughtful and well-written. I started reading his blog, joined his mailing list. and kept my eyes out for new content from him. So when I saw his book, The Art of Project Management, in the Fog Creek library, I grabbed it and read it over the past couple weeks.

It’s really good. It’s a well-written book condensing his years of project management experience into chapters with good questions to ask and lists of tactics to try. Lots of sensible, down-to-earth advice about what it takes to manage a project from start to finish, including how to get started, how to define the project, how to relate to your team, and how to drive through to the finish. Check out the sample chapters from the book website

One of the things I really liked about the book is that he starts from the problem that needs to be solved (e.g. coordinating people on a project) and works outward from there, suggesting several possible solutions. Rather than presenting a big-M Methodology, he presents a variety of tactics the prospective manager can use; in the case of coordination, he suggests everything from a whiteboard outside the office listings the current to-do list, to Excel spreadsheets, to Gantt charts, to heavy-artillery project management software. They’re all just different tools that can be deployed to solve the problem. By keeping the focus on the problem, rather than on specfic solutions, he provides a much more useful perspective than other business books that try to espouse the One True Way of management.

Along similar lines, he tends to focus on the questions that the project manager should be asking, rather than the specific answers to those questions. For instance, he points out that the point of a vision document is to answer certain questions about the project; if it is not useful in later guiding how the requirements are developed and the work task list is created, then it has failed as a vision document. He doesn’t give a format for the vision document or meaningless stuff like that; he just explains what it will be used for, and therefore the questions it has to answer.

I was also pretty inspired by his bibliography. The books I had read I really liked (e.g. Sources of Power and Peopleware) and the ones that I hadn’t, he provided really interesting descriptions of that made me want to read them (several of them are winging their way towards me from Amazon as we speak). I often flip straight to the bibliography of books these days to judge whether they’re worth reading, so seeing that he liked several of the same books I do made a positive impression on me.

It’s a good read. I had planned to pick up a copy for my personal bookshelf, but I got a chance at receiving a free copy so we’ll see how that turns out first. But I definitely recommend it – I have a feeling I will refer to it often in upcoming years.

5 thoughts on “The Art of Project Management, by Scott Berkun

  1. I got a copy of this at eTech (and I guess I owe O’Reilly a review of it). I’m about 1/3 of the way through, and I’m having a similar reaction.

    However, I almost feel like it’s a book for someone who’s already been on several projects. It won’t help a novice project manager.

    It will also not help someone who can’t work without a formula (i.e. 75% of the project managers that I encounter day to day as an IT consultant for large organizations).

  2. I actually found it pretty helpful even as somebody who’s never managed a project. I’ve been on enough projects that I recognized most of the symptoms that he was discussing, so I could see how his strategies would help, even though I hadn’t been in charge of those projects. But it would be less useful for somebody straight out of school – it takes having been mired in bad projects for a while to understand that things that sound basic get screwed up all the time and really matter.

    And I agree that it won’t help people who need a formula. But that’s what I liked about it. Life’s too complex for a formula to work.

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