Faculty Spotlight: Manage the People, Manage the Project, says Douglas Brown

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Douglas Brown

Photo: Douglas Brown

Beginning as a military officer, then as a consultant and as a senior government manager, Douglas Brown has had a front seat in the project management industry. He was introduced to this field in “a voyage of discovery,” from traditional managing skills to an experience of applying proven processes to the bring about a successful project, to formal education and deeper experience with more complex and strategic projects and programs.

He’s put his expertise to use in the financial, communications and medical technology sectors and, more recently, in developing business and management processes within the U.S. Department of Defense.

Now, as a management consultant and author, and as adjunct assistant professor for USC Bovard College’s MS in Project Management program, Brown is looking to take project management to the next phase of improvements and critical thinking.

Brown, who received his MS in Systems Management from the University of Southern California and holds a PhD in Policy Analysis from The American University in Washington D.C., teaches the Principles of Project Management course.

He’s also working on his next book, a continuation of his Let it Simmer series, with this one addressing risk management. His books address various principles of project and program management, and how to create change in an organization without imploding the already-existing framework.

When he’s not at work or stationed in front of his computer, Brown can be found enjoying live theater and boating on the waters near his D.C.-area home.

Brown shares his experience and why people — not practices and procedures — define a project’s success.

How did you get started in project management as a career?

I think, like 99 percent of everybody else, it was an accident.

I did some projects when I was in the military. I was in field artillery units when I was in the Army. One of the big projects we did was switching our units over to get all these cool new nuclear missiles and get everybody trained on them. That was fun. And that was a big project.

When I got to the think tank that I worked for in D.C. for many years, I worked with projects, they just didn’t recognize them as such. They just saw them as engagements to be completed. In the middle of that we had somebody who decided to run an engagement like a project and it was kind of cool.

So I thought there might be something to this. I started learning about [project management] and got certified as a project manager and went from there.

What are the key ingredients of successful project management today?

Part of what I tell people is that project management hasn’t changed much for about 6,000 years. The basic muscle movements are the same. Somehow, the Egyptians got the pyramids built and I’m sure that they figured out some kind of resource plan, some sort of a schedule, how to get the materials from A to B, and the design, and all that. The solutions are a little different now but the methods are the same.

It’s a very interesting question as to how to define success. The successful project is the one that’s delivered on schedule, on budget, to the customer’s satisfaction. Many project managers have succeeded in doing that, but have not succeeded as project managers because halfway though, or at the end of the deal, everyone involved is unhappy so they themselves may not progress as fast as they would like in their careers. Or they may feel like something’s not working right even though they delivered everything successfully. There’s a whole lot of managing of expectations and managing of relationships that have to happen for things to be perceived a success.

Why is the people side of project management so important?

Projects fail because people don’t agree with one another, or sometimes they just fail to do their part. There is a soft side to project management beyond just resource scheduling, which basically treats people as labor units. That’s how the problem comes up, when you start making that assumption [that people are just resources]. Because unlike computers or bricks or things like that, [people] have a habit of thinking for themselves and they wander off in different directions. It’s sort of like Alice in Wonderland where they have all those cards that they keep trying to keep in line and they all wander off when you’re not looking.

The truly difficult part of project management is not coming up with a schedule or coming up with a status report, it is about the whole people aspect of the culture within which all of this operates, and working with the people.

What makes you excited to teach the next generation at Bovard College?

It’s always interesting and rewarding to interact with people that are coming up through the ranks. They’re telling me what things are going on in their world, and particularly at USC, it’s a broader span. As a management consultant, I’m always challenging people, especially as an author, to give me the success stories, because as a management consultant all I ever see is the trouble cases. Nobody calls in a consultant to fix something that’s not broken.

One of the good features of this graduate program is you get to interact with people who are seeking a little bit more depth into ways to do things that actually the organization may be doing pretty well already. That’s always a pleasure to hear about how the practices we teach are still useful ideas for the folks that do have things going well. For me, to see the other half of the world that’s not broken, but is just trying to do things better — that’s uplifting.

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