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Is Project Management Being Devalued By Non-Project Managers?

As Project Managers, most of us have experienced someone that works in our organisation slapping a on a PM badge and joining the party.  This party is one with an endless bar tab, the end time doesn’t matter drinks are spilled over glossaries containing project buzz words and generic document templates found on Google.

Only us actual PMs are at the party next door.  Having sensible conversations.  With the right people.  About the right things.  And we brought our own coffee.

Project management is changing where we are seeing more people adopt the role of PM in addition to their day job.  This is due to a number of reasons such as the recruitment of a PM will take too long, project management courses are inexpensive so upskilling is easy and staff know the business better than anyone so it can’t not be a success.

Why is this a problem?

Project management requires a specific skillset, ability to quickly assess and understand the corporate landscape and appreciation of how a project fits into the bigger picture.  PMs are trained to expertly balance the science of budgeting, scheduling, resource planning and estimating with the art of confidently managing risks, issues, dependencies, stakeholders and fluctuations in any aspect of the project.

Where a business function problem exists, there is often a tendency to purchase a new piece of software and bend the internal processes to fit.  Someone is selected as the PM, usually someone who is familiar with the team and processes.  They are chosen over Dan the IT guy as he has no capacity at the moment to manage this project.  So an SME is now also a PM.  Let’s call this PM Chris.

After Chris is given the PM role, they Google sales reporting software and finds a supplier.  Chris liaises with the supplier, who guides says they will get the new software implemented within the quoted 3 months and within budget.  Contracts are signed and everyone is happy.

Chris sends some requirements to the supplier, who can deliver 75% of them but the rest is chargeable. There is some contingency in the budget (nice Googling!). Chris says yes as they’re all must haves anyway.

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Chris returns to the project after spending 2 weeks on some priority work at the point of data import.  A sales data spreadsheet is sent to the supplier, which is sent back as some columns need renaming and there’s some data misspelled and missing.  Chris doesn’t have the time to do this so forwards it to a colleague.  When Chris gets it back, it’s forwarded to the supplier, who has more questions.  This 3-way game of data file tennis goes on for 3 weeks.  Chris is now really busy and is feeling the strain.

Testing is overdue so Chris asks a colleague to help but it’s going to take a little longer than expected as the colleague has booked a week off.  The go-live date is no longer achievable and Chris sends an update to their bosses saying go-live is delayed by 4 weeks.  The bosses ask yet again for an update on project spend and a list of deliverables.  Chris forwards a supplier email and reminds them they have a copy of the contract, which should give them everything they need.  It doesn’t.

Go-live day arrives and a short email is sent to the whole company saying the system is live and the project was a success. The broken sales spreadsheet and dodgy monthly report are replaced with a shiny new system. Yaayyy!  However, the budget of £23,000 was exceeded by £5,500 and the project was delivered 8 weeks late and there are no metrics to show what value was delivered.

After a few weeks, it is found that the sales data that was missing from the spreadsheet is missing from the system and the dodgy monthly report looks nicer but is missing the same information.  There are 3 teams who used the spreadsheets and didn’t know they wouldn’t have access to them.  They don’t have another solution so need emergency training on the system.  Most people are asking why they got rid of the spreadsheets.  If the missing information was added to them, this wouldn’t be happening.  People aren’t happy.  Chris’s reputation has taken a battering.  Chris is exhausted and depressed.

We can see that although Chris is knowledgeable about the business area receiving the new system, they are not as experienced at supplier and contract management, requirements gathering and prioritisation, scheduling, stakeholder and role management, testing and communication in a project environment.  Even with experience in some or all of these areas, that experience still needs to be within the project domain or the business will see someone applying generic experience to a complex and sensitive practice, often with disastrous results.

It’s clear that hiring a PM or BA would have meant this project would have prevented damage to a number of areas.  What’s more, that PM or BA could have saved the business from doing the project at all.  The issue was broken processes, which could be fixed with service review, redesign, workshops and training.  Instead, the wrong decision was made, one which probably scared Chris away from project management forever.

Allowing an SME to run a project sends a message that anyone can be a PM.  That doesn’t mean anyone should.  If there are PMs in the organisation that aren’t selected to run the project for whatever reason, it only reinforces this message.  It can massively impact morale, risk the PM’s reputation and affect the organisation’s perception of the value their role delivers.  Having business leaders not understand business analysis and project management can lead to poor strategic decision making.

How do we fix this?

Do we preach defamation of our profession?  Do we mentor the SME/PM through the treacherous journey that lies ahead of them?  Or do we step back and watch the circus that often ensues and hope they won’t do it again?  It’s a delicate balance as we want to help others but we also don’t want to facilitate the erosion of value of our profession.

You can see it’s not just about reading a textbook and applying the techniques.  It’s about rich experience in understanding the purpose of the project and its place within the business.  However, it’s also not just about projects.  It’s about influencing the adoption of project management principles to help the organisation breed a widespread culture of collaboration, accountability and value delivery.  Just like how the Finance department advise us to be cost-efficient or HR advise us to be conscious of how we conduct ourselves at work, we want to broadcast a message to this affect but we can’t do this on our own.

Unfortunately, the company culture is one of acceptance or even worse, encouragement of non-project professionals managing projects. Our leaders must help us raise the profile of project management in our organisations so people appreciate what it means, the value it delivers and just how god damn difficult it is to get right.  Only then will the organisation see that when there is a project that needs doing – only a proper PM will do.

Stacey O'Connor

When I’m not tidying up Lego, I’m an Analyst Project Manager who has worked and consulted with a number of businesses. I’ve also written for an aviation blog. Now I want to shine a light on and help with the painful points of project management and business analysis. Stacey O’Connor 07412 027 473 [email protected]