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Avoiding the Project Management Obstacle Course

avoidingobstacleLet’s get straight to the point; project management by form filling is not an effective way of managing projects. These days many organizations’ and individuals’ 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. So why is it that so many organizations think introducing a methodology will solve all 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 organizations 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 organizations 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 why.

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 organization, discard what doesn’t and modify what’s left to better fulfill 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 the Project Management Offices. Setting up a Project Management Office seems to be very fashionable at the moment. Many organizations 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 straight and narrow. In the best cases they assist Project Managers and teams by organizing 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 assist 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 the 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, organizations should ensure that project managers aren’t overburdened with process that doesn’t add value, just for the sake of adhering to a certain 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 organization from becoming an effective project focused enterprise.

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Duncan Haughey, PMP is the editor of Project Smart, the project management resource that helps managers at all levels to improve their performance. We provide an important knowledge base for those involved in managing projects of all kinds. With regular updates it keeps you in touch with the latest project management thinking.

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