The Art of Project Management

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“Examining all ideas—even bad ones—is essential to creativity. Design is about exploration.”

Project management involves more than just what a project manager does. All team members engage in some level of project management, whether meeting deadlines, communicating with others, or estimating task durations. Ultimately, everyone on a project contributes to its success.

Scott Berkun’s book, The Art of Project Management, is not about any one specific project management methodology, but about fundamental aspects of all projects. This makes it engaging to project managers and non-project managers alike. The author recounts personal experiences while managing projects at Microsoft to provide insight into the not-so-transparent aspects of project management-the art of project management. If you don’t care for the standard, dry project management textbooks on the market, then this is for you.

The book is divided into three large sections: “Plans,” “Skills,” and “Management.” This organization provides a logical flow overall and lets topics to build on another. However, the chapters are relatively self-contained, allowing for random access, as the author recommends.

To begin, a brief history of project management exposes elements common to all projects: processes, design, constraints, dilemmas, and roles. The point here is to learn from the past and avoid repeating common errors.

Berkun then moves quickly to the basics of project management with topics such as project plans, requirements, and creating a vision. In the chapter “Figuring Out What To Do,” Berkun outlines three basic perspectives to approaching plans: The business perspective, the technology perspective and the customer perspective. About the latter, he states, “This is the most important of all three perspectives,” but also recognizes that “sadly, the customer perspective is the weakest in many organizations” (p. 63). Berkun’s insight into bringing users into the design process is comprehensive and genuine: he gets it.

Of particular interest to IAs and designers are discussions about creativity. For instance, in the chapter “Where Ideas Come From,” Berkun offers this sobering perspective on thinking outside of the box:

“Do whatever you want with the box. Think in the box, out of the box, on the box under the box, tear apart and make a fire out of the box, whatever, as long as you manage to solve the problems identified as the goals for the projects.”

He also suggests that examining all ideas—even bad ones—is essential to creativity. Design is about exploration.

In “What To Do with Ideas Once You Have Them,” Berkun recognizes a key issue in creative work: making ideas actionable. The author advocates such tactics as formally tracking ideas, using affinity diagrams to consolidate ideas, and employing iterative prototyping. Regarding prototyping he says, “Because there are so many details and perspectives, it’s impossible to predict which paths will work and which ones won’t. And that’s precisely what prototypes and iterations are for: making mistakes, learning, revising, and moving forward” (p. 157). How true.

Given the author’s active involvement in HCI communities, it is not surprising that he supports usability and design so strongly. It is unique, however, to see heavy doses of design-related topics and user-oriented thought in a book on project management.

The middle section of the book, “Skills,” gives hard advice on a range of practical topics: from how to write good specifications to making decisions to writing appropriate emails. The chapter “How Not To Annoy People: Process, Email, and Meeting” offers down-to-earth recommendations through witty anecdotes. Berkun sees five key annoying behaviors– when others:

  • when others assume you’re an idiot,
  • don’t trust you,
  • waste you time,
  • manage you without respect, and
  • make you listen to or read stupid things.
“Leaders must develop enough trust that people will bring issues to them during crises instead of hiding them. Trust, then, is at the core of leadership.”The final section of the book deals with more general, overarching issues of management. With such chapters as “Why Leadership Is Based On Trust” the author once again touches on the softer side of project management. Trust is built through commitment but lost through inconsistent behavior, he believes. Leaders must develop enough trust that people will bring issues to them during crises instead of hiding them. Trust, then, is at the core of leadership.

Another chapter interest is “Power and Politics.” Here, the author dissects that ever-frustrating political game underlying many projects. He puts the abuse of power in plain words: “The misuse of power occurs when an individual is working toward his own interests … Much of his energy will be spent doing what is best for him, instead of what is best for the project as a whole” (p. 427). Berkun also details various strategies to navigate political problems. This involves knowing the political playing field: who has the power, how is it obtained and applied, and how can individuals get what then need for the project. Ultimately, the amount and type of politics in a given project comes from the top down.

The tone of this book is personal and from the heart, with tough and direct statements. The unfortunate side effect of his chatty writing style, however, is a long book. Weighing in at 488 pages, it is long-winded. Berkun could have covered the same ground in half the space. Ironically, the author stresses concise writing in project documentation (see p. 99). Luckily his causal presentation is fast-paced and the reading goes quickly.

The excellent annotated bibliography not only shows that Berkun has done his homework, it also provides a very helpful guide to identifying additional key sources on the topic. The index at the back of the book is also quite good and allows the book to function as a quasi-reference book.

This is a comprehensive, how-to book devoid of jargon and theory. The author gives direct advice from his own experience. The real value of this book, though, is that it is not about a single methodology for project management, nor is it just for project managers. Instead, Berkun is able to speak about project management at its highest-level without filtering it through a given approach. It is deep enough to keep seasoned project managers reading, but also appealing to non-project managers. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking to improve general project skills.

Random, yet selected, quotations of interest

“Note that because design skill is distributed in the universe independent of political power, people granted design authority might not be people with much design talent” (p. 55)

“There are many different ways to abuse information about customers. Simply claiming that customers are important doesn’t signify much” (p. 75)

“When ideas aren’t accessible or kept in the light, the fade away” (p. 107)

“I do not know where the phrase ‘there are no bad ideas’ came from, but I’m certain it’s wrong…I have incontrovertible evidence that there are an infinite number of awful, horrible, useless, comically stupid, and embarrassingly bad ideas” (pp. 119-120)

“The most common mistake is to treat the design process as if it were a big light switch – you can just turn it on and off whenever you like” (p. 144)

“Don’t fall in love with Visio or flowcharts. Maintain platonic relationships with all tools. Usually, diagrams are interesting only to the person who made them, and they are often not as effective in helping the project as their creator things. Sometimes, a good paragraph or a sloppy, hand-drawn sketch is better than a 500-element UML diagram. (Just because a diagram is the only way for the author to understand something doesn’t guarantee it’s the best way to explain it to someone else).” (p. 179)

“When you spend hours pounding away at the same issues, you eventually lose perspective. When all the choices start looking the same, it’s time to get away.” (p. 210)

“The funny thing about childhood development is that we all get hand-me-down belief and emotional systems. Most of the behaviors we follow are by and large learned from our parents…Until someone stops and examines the value of their behaviors and emotional responses, independent of where they learned them from, it’s difficult to grow in emotional maturity – or even to know how emotionally mature and healthy we are.” (p. 298)

“Calling ‘bullshit’ makes things happen. If people expect you will ask them tough questions, and not hesitate to push them hard until you get answers, they will prepare for them before they meet with you. They will not waste your or your teams’ time.” (p. 343)

About the book

The Art of Project Management, Scott Berkun
O’Reilly Media Inc.
ISBN 0-596-007868

View book site, including a sample chapter

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • A brief history of project management
  • Part I: Plans
    • The truth about schedules
    • How to figure out what to do
    • Writing the good vision
    • Where ideas come from
    • What to do with ideas once you have them
  • Part II: Skills
    • Writing good specifications
    • How to make good decisions
    • Communication and relationships
    • How not to annoy people: process, email, and meetings
    • What to do when things go wrong
  • Part III: Management
    • Why leadership is based on trust
    • How to make things happen
    • Middle-game strategy
    • End-game strategy
    • Power and politics
  • Notes
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Acknowledgements
  • Photo credits
  • Index
    James Kalbach, assistant editor for Boxes and Arrows, holds a degree in library science from Rutgers University, as well as a masters in music theory and composition. He is currently a Human Factors Engineer with LexisNexis and previously served as head of information architecture with Razorfish Germany. He is an active speaker and author on information architecture and usability in Germany, where he helped cofound an IA community.


  1. Thanks for the thorough review. (Well, I *think* it’s thorough, but of course you never know unless you’ve read the book, don’t you? )

    It definitely sounds like the kind of book I should – and want to – read. And even more important than that, the kind of book I want to pass on to my project-manager colleagues.

  2. It definitely sounds like the kind of book I should – and want to – read. And even more important than that, the kind of book I want to pass on to my project-manager colleagues.

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