Project Management Is "Broke"
by Laura Dribin, PMP
President & CEO
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.