Managing with blinders on

Most managers today have blinders on when it comes to solving the problems of complex projects: They are lost among the trees, and can’t see the forest for what it really is. In a recent discussion in the popular Project Management forum of LinkedIn, one moderator posted the question, “what is the most common mistakes of project managers?”

During the ensuing discourse respondents from around the world posted not less than 18 different answers to this question.

Among the responses were answers such as “having poor stakeholder involvement,” “not enough project planning,” “poorly documented requirements,” “the budget being too small or poorly estimated,” and “the [project] goal is not consistent.” To be sure, many of these 18 answers are highly relevant to the success of a project — and yet, every single answer was wrong. None of the 18 responses identified the single, most common mistake of project managers.

In fact, each answer emphasizes the root of the problem: Too many project managers are focused on the day-to-day problems of the project and have lost sight of their overall strategy. They are thinking tactically, putting out fires, rather than strategically — making sure the fires never happen in the first place.

Take, for example, a few of the more common issues raised in this discussion:

  1. Poor stakeholder involvement. Let’s assume for a minute that we have a solution to this problem — perhaps, for example, a project manager has correctly identified all the stakeholders, put together a great communication plan to keep the stakeholders informed, and succeeds in building a collaborative environment with the stakeholders “at the table” on a regular basis. If this solves the problem of stakeholder involvement, does it actually save most of the projects that go off the rails?
  2. The budget was too small. Again, let’s assume that the right process was used to estimate the project from the start, and that the project manager uses a solid method for measuring performance, cost, and schedule (say, Performance Based Earned Value). Certainly, budget overrun is a common problem, but would this actually solve most project problems?
  3. Poorly documented requirements. In my experience, every requirement is poorly documented to start with — so, let’s assume that the right approach is taken to turn poor requirements into great requirements. Quality assurance is involved early, a full-circle approach ties requirements to work product to acceptance, excellent change management is used, and stakeholders provide a final consensus. Will producing great requirements really save more projects than any other strategy?

The list, of course, goes on quite a long ways — and that’s the point. The list is long, and every single item raised is a valid concern for project managers. But with 18 different root causes on the table, could any one of them really make that much difference is the overall landscape?

These are all tactical solutions to specific project problems. So what’s the big picture? What is the one thing that would actually make the biggest difference, that would actually address many, perhaps even most of these 18 different issues?

Let’s take another look at KPMG’s survey of 252 organizations, and their subsequent findings. According to the study, inadequate project management implementation constitutes 32% of project failures, lack of communication constitutes 20%, and unfamiliarity with scope and complexity constitutes 17%. Taken together, 69% of project failures ultimately trace back to poorly implemented project management practices. What this means is simple: Project managers need to step back from the tactical, day-to-day fire fighting, and take a more strategic view. Adopting the right project management strategy will address most of the problems at hand.

How so? Let’s reconsider those first three project issues above.

  1. Poor stakeholder involvement. A thorough project plan, adopted out of an appropriate project management methodology that is fit for the purpose, will place the right emphasis on stakeholder involvement. It will also provide the right tactical tools make sure stakeholders are involved, and appropriate measures should stakeholder involvement begin to fail.
  2. Budget problems. A correctly selected project management methodology will put the right emphasis on budget analysis, and will provide the right tools to stay on top of the budget. The project manager may need to look outside his or her own skill set to manage to those requirements — but the methodology will establish the goals, the tools, and the metrics from which deviation triggers a red flag.
  3. Poor requirements. The right project management plan will include appropriate methods, probably mandated as part of a technical requirements standard, for developing strong requirements. The plans will include adequate validation and verification of requirements — possibly through strong quality assurance measures. Again, all of these tactical solutions will become part of the project and solve the overarching problem.

So, the root cause of project failure — in fact, of 69% of project failures, according to KPMG’s study — is failing at the strategic level to identify and implement appropriate project management practices.

This means choosing the right standards and methodologies for the project. For instance, if tight quality and budget is a concern, more rigorous controls in this regard are needed. That probably means shunning simple methodologies such as lightweight, agile methods in favor of something that uses more ceremony and process (such as that defined in the PMBOK® and other classical project management approaches). It also means sticking to your guns and making sure the methodology is applied. Showing the methodology to the team and putting it on a bookshelf won’t cut it. Application is the key, and that means recognizing that the standards, practices, and procedures are there for a reason — don’t take shortcuts, because doing so means introducing risks to your project’s health.

2 thoughts on “Managing with blinders on

  1. What’s the one thing that’s going to make the most difference? …How about wholly dismantling the fraudulent philosophy that holds that so long as you generate persuasive looking “burndown charts” for whatever gaggle of fragmentary, disjointed, fractional and unrelated singular items of work – with no conception or mere understanding whatsoever of the final integrated whole – you’re somehow demonstrating “progress”?

    $crum holds that building software is fundamentally no different than building a brick wall. In actuality, the most appropriate and apt metaphor, for every successful software team I’ve ever been a part of, would be that of a band collaborating seamlessly to write a song. As this would be anathema to the entire value proposition offered by the Cult of $crum, however – that those with no training or slightest understanding of what software actually Is or Does or How It’s Written can somehow become empowered to effectively manage its development (thereby obviating the illicit power of those pesky knowledge-hoarding engineers) – it is obviously heretical and therefore doesn’t even warrant the slightest consideration as mere theory.

    I personally watched the Cult of $crum destroy a billion-dollar enterprise that had taken more than a decade to have built up from the ashes of the dotcom bust, over the course of only 16 weeks – all because it was impossible for them to understand that the only thing that they had actually produced had been Administrivia – all of which had signified exactly NOTHING.

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