Our responses to runaway projects are typical. We rely on the magical power of quick-fixes in the middle of a crisis. Typically, we reorganize the project team, seek a change in the design, bring in a new management tool, or fire the project manager and hope for the best.
We tackle the challenge looking for a "silver bullet" and rely on it with a false sense of confidence, only to find that the cycle repeats itself. Faced with problem projects, management soon realizes that controlling them becomes the primary focus of their efforts, instead of running the business itself.
Implementing quick-fixes in lieu of formal project management is like sending a novice pilot on a flying mission. With little training and experience, the pilot is expected to learn the fundamentals the hard way, in the midst of a crisis, and to fix the problems while the plane is still up in the air! Surely, we cannot succeed with this approach, be it with flying or project management.
In both cases, to be successful, it is imperative that there is a clear definition of the mission, roles, responsibilities, plans, contingencies, and rules of engagement. More important, the actions and responses of the participants to ever-changing situations must occur intuitively and confidently. This can happen only with sustained training, comprehensive methodology, rigorous discipline, and growing experience which are the foundations for building professionalism in any discipline.
Despite the vast body of research and awareness of project management, the gap between the theory and practice of project management continues to exist - resulting in a significant number of failed projects. The gap starts with a lack of understanding about project management.
What does a Project Manager do?
"So, you are a project manager! What do you exactly do, by the way?" is a comment I have often encountered from my family, friends, professionals and managers. That's easy, isn't it? We plan, coordinate, schedule, control and execute projects. That's all there is to it, you say.
If that is the case, then why do many organizations and professionals continue to struggle with project management? Why do so many projects fail while relatively few succeed? What caused the Challenger disaster and what made it possible to land a man on the Moon and bring him back safely to earth? Why did we have the disappointing results of the Concorde in spite of a winning technology, and how did we achieve the impressive success of the British-French Chunnel project? Why are we continually faced with a pattern of failures in IT projects in light of unprecedented progress in hardware and software technologies? The list goes on.
The answers to these questions are varied and complex. However, there is a common thread that weaves them together. That thread is project management and it is the basis for success or failure of such undertakings. Project management is an art as well as a science. It is one of the least understood and least appreciated aspect of management by most organizations.
It is not surprising that, even today, many organizations think of Project Management as just another overhead, full of meetings, administration and paperwork that they can ill afford. It is only in the last 20 years that project anagement has gained recognition as a management discipline and embraced by professionals and academics as a core competency for managing projects.
The Nature of Projects
Let's understand the nature of projects. They are full of uncertainties and risks. If everything happened the way we had planned, if the material arrived on time, if all the resources were available when needed, if the requirements were defined clearly, if the team worked well, if only we didn't have politics in the organization ..... if only!
If everything always happened according to plan, then, of course, there is no need for a project manager. But it is in the nature of all undertakings that they are full of surprises, constraints and uncertainties. One of the primary causes of project failure is our ignorance and lack of understanding of what constitutes a project. We seldom worry about the client who wanted the project in the first place. Quite often, we don't even know who the client is!
What is a Project?
Every project has the following ten characteristics:
- Satisfies a need that a business or an organization has
- Has a customer who will benefit from the need
- Has a sponsor who represents management's commitment to the project
- Has a well-defined objective that is directly related to the need
- Consists of a series of interdependent tasks
- Utilizes various resources consisting of men, machines and material
- Has a specific time frame defined with a start date and a completion date
- Involves a degree of risk and uncertainty
- Has an end point or completion criteria that defines when the project is done
- Has the constraints of scope, cost, time and quality
These characteristics are also pre-requisites for a project. The failure of many projects can be traced back to the absence of one or more of the above. Such undertakings are hastily started and poorly executed without a proper foundation, a business need, a sponsor, a customer, a risk assessment or completion criteria. It is no wonder that they are headed for the rat hole right when they started.
Unfortunately, the situation gets more complex as many project managers don't clearly understand what they are supposed to do. Some think the title itself, "Project Manager", is self-explanatory ..... We manage, we control and we execute.
While many have risen in the organization through the school of hard knocks, some find themselves there as "accidental" project managers. Many have theoretical knowledge but lack the experiential base that is so critical to develop as project managers. So, what does a project manager do exactly?
The Project Manager's Responsibilities
A Project manager is responsible for managing a wide range of functions, commonly known as "Knowledge Areas" as defined by the Project Management Institute. These consist of the following as illustrated in Figure 1.
- Control Work Content (Scope Management)
Project managers are responsible for managing the scope or work content of the project. Scope Management includes Project Selection, Project Authorization, Project Scoping, Requirements Definition, Project Objectives, Aligning the project with business objectives, and Change Control.
- Ensure Timely Performance (Time Management)
Projects are driven by target dates and schedules, and project managers are responsible for completing them on schedule. They achieve this by managing the work for defining, sequencing, estimating, scheduling and controlling the required tasks and activities along with establishing milestones, dependencies and critical path for the project.
- Maintain Financial Control (Cost Management)
Project managers are expected to complete their projects within an agreed budget. They accomplish this through Cost Management that includes resource planning, cost estimating, cost budgeting, cost forecasting and cost control throughout the life of the project.
- Utilize Work Force (Human Resources Management)
Projects consist of teams and individuals with different backgrounds, skills and expertise. Human resources management includes establishing the project organization, defining roles and responsibilities, identifying skills, negotiating for resources, staffing the project, developing internal and external teams and keeping them motivated.
- Manage Project Risk (Risk Management)
Nothing ever goes as planned on projects. Project managers are responsible for managing risks. Risk management includes identifying risks, doing an assessment of the risks, developing alternative mitigation strategies, getting management approvals, and managing risks as the project progresses.
- Collect & Disseminate Information (Communications Management)
Project management is communications! It's the only way a project manager gets the necessary work done. Communications management includes selling the project, managing deliverables, dealing with stakeholders, keeping everyone informed, managing the customer's expectations and getting everyone to achieve the desired outcome.
- Manage Contracted Goods & Services (Contract Management)
Projects depend on vendors, suppliers and sub-contractors for goods and services that are purchased from outside. The project manager is responsible for planning procurement activities, conducting negotiations with suppliers, administrating project contracts, developing and maintaining contractor relationships, testing and accepting contractor goods and deliverables, and approving payments as work is delivered.
- Manage Project and Process Quality (Quality Management)
Quality and everything associated with it influences customer satisfaction. The project manager is responsible for managing quality, both with respect to the project deliverables and the project management process itself. Quality Management includes work related to Quality Planning, Quality Assurance and Quality Control for the project. It also includes continuous improvement of processes for managing projects.
- Project Integration Management
A project manager delivers successful projects by integrating all of the above-mentioned areas of responsibility. Not one of them can be ignored. Integration mnagement includes the optimization and integration of all of the above to achieve the intended project outcome and overall client satisfaction.
Who is Managing Your Project?
When you accept responsibility as a project manager, you are implicitly responsible for managing all aspects of project management. Understand that you cannot cherry pick your responsibilities and blame the rest on someone else like your management, sub-contractors or team members. As a project manager, you are the focal point for the project, and you are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the project.
Is Your Project Headed for a Rat Hole?
Ask a simple question, "Whose butt is on the line for this project?" If there is a prolonged silence in the room or an ambiguous response, then rest assured that the project is in trouble. You want a clear, confident and unambiguous response associated with an individual's name, not some department, agency or function in the organization.
Responsibilities ultimately boil down to one individual who is considered to be in sole charge of the situation - whether it be building a house, managing an emergency response, organizing the Olympics, launching a rocket, or even running the office of the President.
This is the first window of project management. It challenges you to hold a mirror to yourself as a project manager and understand your roles and responsibilities. Project management is about ensuring that you have a valid project that meets all of the criteria, and understanding your role and responsibilities as a project manager.
The project manager is implicitly responsible for managing all of the nine aspects of project management while focusing on "Getting the job done". The lack of understanding regarding the "How and What" of project management, both at the management and the individual level, is a major contributor towards project failure. The universe is hostile to your projects. What are you doing about it?
Avoid the Rat Hole - Warning Signs
- 1. Senior Management doesn't believe in Project Management
- 2. Project Management is on the back burner in the organization
- 3. "Just do it" is the normal or accepted practice for doing projects
- 4. There is no distinction between projects and operational or ongoing work
- 5. No one knows who is responsible for the project
Catch the "Pot of Gold" - Best Practices
- 1. Understand the ten characteristics of a project
- 2. Validate that your project satisfies the criteria for each characteristic
- 3. Understand and internalize the functions of Project Management
- 4. Establish the Project Manager role as the single point of responsibility for the project
- 5. Promote and adopt formal Project Management practices
Dhanu Kothari (Kothari@D2i.Ca) is President of D2i Consulting. He worked with major organizations including HP, DEC, Honeywell, Nortel, Scotiabank, Univac and the Norwegian Computing Center. He holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Production Engg, from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Dhanu is a past President of the PMI, Southern Ontario Chapter and he is the author of two books titled, Rainbows & Ratholes: Best Practices for Managing Successful Projects and From Ratholes to Rainbows: Managing Project Recovery which are available on Amazon.