Exploring trends and developments in project management today

Avoiding the Project Management Obstacle Course

Duncan Haughey

Businessman hurdling on an athletics track

Let's get straight to the point, project management by form filling is not an effective way of managing projects. These days many organisations and individual's whole project management strategy revolves around becoming slaves to a methodology. Don't get me wrong, there are many very good methodologies out there and they all have their part to play, but it's not the be-all and end-all of project management.

If you give a complete novice a set of project management templates and ask him to complete them does he suddenly become a fully-fledged project manager? Of course not, he would lack the people and interpersonal skills required to succeed for a start. Why is it that so many organisations think introducing a methodology will solve their problems? In my experience there is no silver bullet solution, just solutions that help the project manager to do his job better.

My worst experiences have been with organisations that stick blindly to the methodology regardless of whether it adds value. It says you fill in this form at this stage and we're jolly well going to fill it in. Then the form invariably gets filed away and never looked at again.

This leads to many methodologies being perceived as needlessly bureaucratic, which, when used appropriately they're not. I'm a great advocate of starting projects well, spending time on the planning phase, defining the scope, assessing the risks and getting stakeholder buy-in. Here the typical project brief adds a great deal of value in terms of establishing clarity in the stakeholders minds as to what the project will and won't deliver. There lies the important issue; can you demonstrate a clear benefit of having a particular document or process.

For organisations to move away from this needlessly bureaucratic project management obstacle course, they must first trust their project managers and make them fully accountable for the project outcome. The project manager must use his discretion, deciding on a project by project basis, what is and isn't appropriate from any methodology they use. If any element of the methodology has no value, then don't do it, but be prepared to backup your decision with a well thought out reason.

Methodologies are a framework in which to work, not a solution to project management. Spend time to find out what works for you and your organisation, discard what doesn't and modify what's left to better fulfil your needs. That way, you will avoid adding unnecessary overhead to projects and having your preferred methodology dismissed as needlessly bureaucratic.

Here are some of the signs that may indicate your current methodology isn't working:

  • Customers complain about form filling.
  • Project managers do not follow the process.
  • Project management cost is disproportionate compared with the total cost of the project.
  • Completing all the documents and steps in the methodology is a key measure of success.
  • Following process is valued more highly than project success.

This brings me to Project Management Offices. Setting up a Project Management Office seems to be very fashionable at the moment. Many organisations are struggling to define exactly what it is this office will do. In the worst cases I've seen, the Project Management Office is an autocratic policeman, whose only role seems to be to lie in wait for unsuspecting project managers and jump on them when they deviate from the straight and narrow. In the best cases, they support Project Managers and teams by organising project data, providing statistical information and reducing the admin overhead.

Use your Project Management Office as a policeman and resentment will soon build up. Use it to proactively support project managers and their teams and it will become a valuable and essential asset.

Here are some of the activities that should be undertaken by a Project Management Office:

  • Compiling and publishing statistical information.
  • Providing decision support information for senior management.
  • Communicating policies and procedures.
  • Updating and maintaining templates.
  • Initial project set-up.
  • Project filing.
  • Maintaining best practice.
  • Training.
  • Quality assurance.
  • Recruiting staff.
  • Maintaining a skills inventory.
  • Timesheet administration.

To return to the title of this article "avoiding the project management obstacle course," organisations should ensure that project managers aren't overburdened with process that doesn't add value, just for the sake of adhering to a particular methodology. If your project managers are required to fill in forms, get them signed in triplicate and wait a month for approval to start a project, then you're putting them through the project management obstacle course and preventing your organisation from becoming an effective project focussed enterprise.

Slaughter Development expand upon my article with their Slaves to Methodology.