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Project Managers vs. Project Witnesses

Oct 24, 2023

Tyler Nottberg

In the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s series of plays, Back to Methuselah, the Serpent tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden by declaring, “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” There is an appeal to floating ambitious ideas. It frees the mind and inspires individuals to think beyond themselves. 

However, the road to success is littered with good ideas languishing in the gutters. Ideas need implementation. “Dreaming things that never were” makes for great rhetoric, but what happens when those dreams are over budget, not fully planned, or simply fail to work. 

Detailed execution is what gives ideas real value. There is no such thing as overnight success. Far more effort goes into generating results than the media suggests when it profiles blockbuster inventions and instant celebrities. Apple was not built in a day, and Pelé did not just dream his way to soccer greatness. 

The same principle applies to successful businesses, and especially businesses in our industry. As FMI Corporation once pointed out, successful companies depend on individuals who can drive results, regardless of the circumstances. Those who can do it are project managers; those who cannot are project witnesses.  

At U.S. Engineering, a “project” can be any sort of focused effort inside or outside of the organization. For example, it could be a job we are performing, or it could be work on a strategic initiative. It could be an effort to re-organize back-office processes or a complex project pursuit. Therefore, we are all responsible for “management” of projects at one time or another.

Project management is as much a mindset as it is an activity. Good project managers take ideas, organize them into plans, and then execute well. They understand how mundane details and paperwork are part of the risk/reward game.  

Project managers are proactive and relish any chance to engage in the chaos of a project’s lifecycle. They see obstacles as opportunities to accomplish critical goals in new ways. They set clear expectations, ask creative questions, and know when to delegate or take the work on themselves. They deflect credit, create value, and win over internal and external customers as diehard proponents of the U.S. Engineering brand.  

By contrast, project witnesses talk about big goals but fail to execute. Even if they appear to be working hard, they do not plan properly or motivate their teams. They easily get discouraged and are always putting out fires. They lack the confidence to make decisions, complain about the perceived shortcomings of others, and fail to fulfill their own responsibilities. Project witnesses do not understand why details and strategy matter. They merely stand by and observe outcomes—good and bad. 

At U.S. Engineering, we value project managers, because they generate solutions instead of excuses, bring energy to our strategic initiatives, build customer relationships, and drive operational excellence. Investing in team members who are committed to being project managers is what excites me about our future. Working alongside them is what makes our business fun.

Project managers do not perform miracles. For them, miracles are unnecessary. It is project witnesses who find themselves scrambling to perform routine work in a miraculous manner. So, while we will continue to think big and set ambitious goals, our team must remain focused on the process of disciplined project management. Otherwise, our dreams become nothing more than interesting ideas.

Tyler Nottberg, U.S. Engineering CEO and Chief Optimist

“Investing in team members who are committed to being project managers is what excites me about our future. Working alongside them is what makes our business fun.”

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