Project Management is “Broke”

You might know the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, it’s definitely broke, but no one is fixing it. Just look around. Overall, most organizations have a terrible track record of delivering their strategic initiatives successfully (on time, on budget and within scope). But even when it is delivered successfully, that doesn’t guarantee success. Success includes getting the organization to adapt and adopt the new results. How can you legitimately deem a completed project a success without those two things? The fact of the matter is that the practice of project management as it currently stands fails to meet the objectives of an organization. SO … what are we going to do to fix it? Executives should be clamoring for a change.

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When I first started in this field, project management was not a common title in the business world (other than engineering and construction) so we made it up as we went along. We had a broader role. The role of delivery focused on the big picture. We asked questions to figure out objectives, map out a roadmap and execute it. But we didn’t stop there. We built the training, communication and change management right into the plan. It was not treated as separate entities but as part of the outcome. We broke down the strategy and saw it through.

Fast forward 25 years … project management has been commoditized. Project manager titles are everywhere and are in big demand. A career path has become “project management for a job well done.” Even when the job “well done” didn’t require any project management skills.

And even though there is a proliferation of discussion around project management, there is still a lousy track record of successful project conclusions. The Standish Group has been reporting on project management since 1992 in its Chaos report. Back then, project management only succeeded 28% of the time. We are now up to a measly 36%. Long timeframe … poor progress.

There is plenty of need for good project managers but the process of using this title as a catch-all has diminished the perceived value and commoditized the discipline. Project management is now perceived as procuring someone to check off boxes on a plan, create issue logs and take meeting minutes. Following direction has become the key focus of this title.

I don’t know … maybe too many people diluted the role by using it as a certification vehicle. But honestly certification does not let me know that a project manager knows how to deal with people, manage stakeholders with their own agendas, “herd cats.” We seem to have lost the purpose of project management … the reason we are managing something in the first place.

All this leads to the fact that project management (in its commonly held understanding) fails more often than it succeeds. So, until corporations pay attention and set higher expectations, nothing will change. Here are the biggest myths to overcome:

  • The correct gauge for Project Management success is delivering on time and on budget. Do you consider yourself successful when you finish the project or when you reach your objectives? When the only focus is finishing the plan without focusing on where you want to be, there is a problem. The medical field understands this well. For example, curing cancer doesn’t stop at surgery. You may need radiation or chemotherapy. Following all of that, you may need physical therapy or additional medication. Getting to a desired outcome in project management should include a similar thought process. Completing a project (meeting timeline, budget, scope) does not mean that everyone has adopted the new process or system or even that they understand what’s expected. We have not completed the project until we have gauged our effect on the organization impacted. The more meaningful measure considers the achievement of the desired outcome.
  • Quarterly results will drive the project budget. At Peritius we are expanding into the public sector. A vendor asked me why I would want to get into government work. He said that government agencies are not held to following a specific strategy as they are in corporate America. He pointed out that priorities change frequently and going over budget is not an issue. I told him that, unfortunately, the private sector acts in a similar fashion. Companies often make their decisions based on quarterly results. Often resource decisions are based on price alone. Procurement departments are measured on procuring the lowest priced resources. As a result, staff augmentation firms have been able to drive resource price down in the market to secure the business, often with less qualified contractors. Shouldn’t company procurement departments be reviewed for the overall success of an effort? If a more senior level resource costs more but delivers the effort in less time than a junior level resource, is anyone evaluating that dynamic? The more expensive senior resource may in fact cost less over the life of the effort, yet by focusing on short term quarterly results, organizations are leaving long term savings on the table.
  • Project Management is a commodity skill. If it were a commodity, two-thirds of projects wouldn’t fail. The difference between the project managers delivering the two-thirds of failing projects and the one-third successful is soft skills. Average to poor project managers manage plans. Good project managers and program managers manage teams to a plan. Strong project managers are leaders. They know how to interact with people … people with all different styles, culture and personalities. In my experience, projects rarely fail due to the tactics required in creating a plan. They fail because of people related issues.
  • The right project management methodology can resolve our corporate issues around delivery. Most PMOs in different organizations are designed around process and reporting. In the 25-plus years that I’ve been in this field, I’ve seen more versions of methodology than I can count. Yet, projects still fail. It’s not the methodology that makes a difference. It’s the discipline around it. Half of it is the squishy, soft skills that people feel funny talking about. PMOs need to stop making their mission to report on the projects in a tactical manner but proactively work with the project managers to help programs go from “red” to “green.”
  • It’s normal for projects to get delayed or go over budget. This one confuses me. I find that when I’m talking to executive management, many build into their thought process that things will go poorly the first time around. Why should that be acceptable? Executive management has become so accustomed to failures that they view it as part of the norm. It is amazing that executive management isn’t in an uproar about two-thirds of their initiatives failing of which most can be prevented. Would you get in an airplane that has two-thirds of a chance of failing?
  • Failure of delivery can often be a self-contained problem. Failure begets failure. If something is delayed, is anyone tracking the lost opportunities that can no longer be funded because the other project ran over budget or the project timeline ran over? Or is the project delayed long enough that the ROI of the project itself is in question? Companies continue to put good money after bad by adding additional budget or time to “fix” a troubled project. The hardest thing for most organizations to do is to stop a project. It can be a career-limiting move in some organizations. Yet it is a practice that should be used as needed. When you get past the issue of dealing with failure, you will often see that it frees up the organization to do what’s right and end the continued cycle of poor project spend.

My biggest angst with this topic is that even with all of the discussion around improving project management practices over the last 20-plus years, there have not been enough consistent improvements. In fact, I think that with the “commoditizing” of project management, it’s actually gotten worse. If you’ve read this far and have been able to get past the poor grammar in my title, I want to leave this final thought: Organizations must start thinking of project and program managers as subject matter experts in knowing how to manage teams toward a plan. There are specific skills in knowing how to successfully manage people towards a specific goal. Until we change expectations and perceptions, we will continue to throw good money after bad.

Laura

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