Note: This article is updated at Program Management Books.
"No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra." — H.E. Luccock
Being an effective program manager at Microsoft means knowing how to make things happen. While being a program manager requires a lot more than project management, project management is still at the core.
Project management is the backbone of execution.
And execution is tough. But execution is also the breeding ground of results. Execution is what separates many teams and individuals from the people who have good ideas, and the people that actually ship them. Great ideas die on the vine every day from lack of execution. (Lack of execution is the same way great strategies die, too.)
If you want to learn the art and science of execution, here is a handful of books that have served me well:
- Agile Management for Software Engineering, by David Anderson. David turns the Theory of Constraints into pragmatic insights for driving projects, making progress where it counts, and producing great results. The book provides a great lens for thinking in terms of business value and how to flow value throughout the project cycle.
- Agile Project Management with Kanban, by Eric Brechner. This is the ultimate guide for doing Kanban. Rather than get bogged down in theory, it’s a fast-paced, action guide to transitioning from Scrum to Kanban, while carrying the good forward. Eric helps you navigate the tough choices and adapt Kanban to your environment, whether it’s a small team, or a large org. If you want to lead great projects in today’s world, and if you want to master project management, Kanban is a fundamental part of the formula and this is the book.
- Flawless Execution, by James D. Murphy. James shares deep insight from how fighter pilots fly and lead successful missions, and how those same practices apply to leading teams and driving projects. It’s among the best books at connecting strategy to execution, and showing how to get everybody’s head in the game, and how to keep learning and improving throughout the project. This book also has a great way to set the outcomes for the week and to help people avoid getting overloaded and overwhelmed, so they can do their best work, every day.
- Get Them On Your Side, by Samuel B. Bacharach. Stakeholder management is one of the secret keys to effective project management. So many great ideas and otherwise great projects die because of poor stakeholder management. If you don’t get people on your side, the project loses support and funding. If you win support, everything get easier. This is probably the ultimate engineer’s guide to understanding politics and treating politics as a “system” so you can play the game effectively without getting swept up into it.
- How to Run Successful Projects III: The Silver Bullet, by Fergus O'Connell. While “The Silver Bullet” is a bold title, the book lives up to its name. It cuts through all the noise of what it takes to do project management with skill. It carves out the essential core and the high-value activities with amazing clarity so you can focus on what counts. Whether you are a lazy project manager that just wants to focus on doing the minimum and still driving great projects, or you are a high-achiever that wants to take your project management game to the next level, this is the guide to do so.
- Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management, by Scott Berkun. The is the book that really frames out how to drive high-impact projects in the real-world. It’s a book for program managers and project managers, by a real Microsoft program manager. It’s hard to do projects well, if you don’t understand project management end-to-end. This is that end-to-end guide, and it dives deep into all the middle. If you want to get a taste of what it takes to ship blockbuster projects, this is the guide.
- Managing the Design Factory, by Donald G. Reinertsen. This is an oldie, but goodie. One of my former colleagues recommended this to me, early in my career. It taught me how to think very differently and much more systematically in how to truly design a system of people that can consistently design better products. It’s the kind of book that you can keep going back to after a life-time to truly master the art of building systems and ecosystems for shipping great things. While it might sound like a philosophy book, Donald does a great job of turning ideas and insight into action. You will find yourself re-thinking and re-imagining how you build products and lead projects.
- Requirements-Led Project Management: Discovering David's Slingshot, by Susanne Robertson and James Robertson. This book will add a bunch of new tools to your toolbox for depicting the problem space and better organizing the solution space. It’s one of the best books I know for dealing with massive amounts of information and using it in meaningful ways in terms of driving projects and driving better product design.
- Secrets to Mastering the WBS in Real-World Projects, by Liliana Buchtik. If ultimate tool that project managers have, that other disciplines don’t, is the Work Breakdown Structure. The problem is, too many project managers still create activity-based Work Breakdown Structures, when they should be creating outcome-based Work Breakdown Structures. This is the first book that I found that provided real breadth and depth in building better Work Breakdown Structures. I also like how Liliana applies Work Breakdown Structures to Agile projects. This is hands down the best book I’ve read on the art and science of doing Work Breakdown Structures in the real world.
- Strategic Project Management Made Simple: Practices Tools for Leaders and Teams, by Terry Schmidt. This book helps you build the skills to handle really big, high-impact projects. But it scales down to very simple projects as well. What it does is help you really paint a vivid picture of the challenge and the solution, so that your project efforts will be worth it. It’s an “outcome” focused approach, while a lot of project management books tend to be “activity” focused. This is actually the book that I wish I had found out about earlier in my career – it would have helped me fast path a lot of skills and techniques that I learned the hard way through the school of hard knocks. The strategic aspect of the book also makes this super relevant for program managers that want to change the world. This book shows you how to drive projects that can change the world.
Well, there you have it. That’s my short-list of project management books that really have made a difference and that can really help you be a more effective program manager or project manager (or simply build better project management skills.)
Too many people are still working on ineffective projects, getting lackluster results, slogging away, and doing too much “push” and not addressing nearly enough of the existing “pull” that’s already there.
These are the project management books that build real competence.
And where competence grows, confidence flows.