Monday, 14 April 2008 11:13

Unquestioned Assumptions: Costly Mistakes

Written by Don Wessels
Decisions about project management tend to follow a standard process. Senior management gives middle and/or upper management a project order, and mid-level people respond by quickly selecting a manager — perhaps too quickly!

It’s a process that can contain enormous consequences for any business entity. Yet all too often, upper management unwittingly falls into traps when choosing the manager and finds out much too late the wrong person is leading the charge. By that time, the project has either struggled or failed, and the company’s bottom line has taken a huge hit.

The traps here are those assumptions, the so-called standard business practices that go unquestioned during project manager selection. A better word to describe them is myths.

How Myths Become Acceptable Practices

To find the root cause of these myths, start with this supposition: project management is a paradox. On the one hand, you have senior or upper management, vowing to “think out of the box” and vehemently proclaiming “the same old ways of doing things don’t work anymore.” The paradox becomes evident when these same promises fall by the wayside as the company relies on business-as-usual methods for selecting the manager.

Consider the selection process, assuming that there is one. The focus usually falls on someone who has had previous project success or provided a strong contributing performance in a team role. However, if the company is so inundated with projects that preferred managers are unavailable, middle management may reach deeper into the mix, a choice comparable to a roll of the dice. All-stars at the team level do not always develop into capable managers, a truth constantly rediscovered by sports franchises and their counterparts in the business world.

So consider those previously unquestioned myths that have become the foundation of project management. It’s a foundation less than solid.

Myth #1: Technical Leads Are the Best Choice for Project Leadership

The origin of this precept is easily understood. Technical experts generally get the inside track for leadership of the next project because of their outstanding performance in the previous assignment, usually in a non-managerial role. After all, doesn’t it make sense to choose an analyst or technical engineer to handle a challenging and complex technical assignment? Well, yes and no. True, the manager should have the knowledge and expertise to make informed and creditable decisions, but there is still the issue of leadership, which takes more than numbers crunching or the weighing of variables.

An outstanding technician does not automatically become a top-flight project leader. That next big step depends on several objective factors, e.g. previous performance and people skills, and subjective ones such as an assessment of the candidate’s managerial potential. Such decisions take time. Unfortunately, time is rarely available in today’s overburdened corporate world. So, the decision becomes based solely on the tangible (technical) as opposed to the intangible (leadership qualities).

This is not to suggest that technical people cannot or should not be managers, but a stronger emphasis on leadership skills needs to be part of the selection evaluation if the project is to have its best chance for success.

Myth #2: The Tool Solves Everything

The tool in this case is a software program, such as Microsoft Project. There is nothing wrong with the tool when its usage conforms to its purpose, which is scheduling. This type of software is outstanding for setting and scheduling various components of a project.

Now the key: the tool is excellent as long as its use is confined to scheduling. It was never designed to cover other extremely important facets of project management, such as additional planning and modifications. When a project is modified, the changes may not conform to the tool’s structure. That doesn’t stop many managers and teams from trying to fit the wrong glass slipper on Cinderella.

“I’ve seen teams spend countless hours trying to get everything perfect in the tool and when there are changes, they spend even more time trying to make it fit,” said one frustrated consultant. “That’s not managing a project. That’s a disservice.”

Teams overly rely on the tool to the point of costly project delays. The fault is not with the tool; it’s with leadership.

Myth #3: A Training Workshop Will Produce a Successful Project Manager

Most companies understand the necessity of project manager training, but fail to realize that a three-day workshop is not the answer. Workshops are valuable, but limited. They provide the basics along with other helpful elements, but the rest is up to the individual and upper management. Unfortunately, the training rarely continues beyond this point.

Many acknowledge that classroom training isn’t all a manager needs yet companies, due to either budget or time limitations, do not provide an environment for ongoing training or learning, including real-world experience. Once again there are the usual suspects: limited funds for training, whether classroom or on-the-job; pressure from shareholders in publicly traded companies for short-term results; simultaneous projects limiting the number of quality managers available; and a management-by-objective business model that creates an environment less likely to produce experienced project managers.

Case Study: A Tiger by the Tail

Any one or more of the above myths can produce disastrous results. This was exemplified recently by the experience of an IT organization within a major health care corporation inundated with projects. Its best managers were unavailable, and the only option was to bring in consultants and less experienced staff members. To make matters worse, the IT group relied on the project tool to compensate for the absence of a skilled manager. All the elements for failure were there and the results were catastrophic. Shareholders could not have been pleased when the loss to the company was an astounding $300 million. The corporation’s stock took a huge loss, and the project was terminated as were a number of managers.

Contrast this nightmare with the experience of Scott Brown, director of an enterprise IT renewal program for a leading automotive remarketing company. His program, which is designed to replace all core operating applications, including standardized tools and processes, continuously evaluates and implements common tools for business and technology users. Despite the program’s successful start, Brown says considerations outside of the tool’s scope cannot be excluded if a project is to be successful.

“In a nutshell, a tool does not equal process, and without training and process re-engineering, all implementations fail,” Brown says.

Brown refers to his method for avoiding the pitfalls of the myths as “E3: establish process, educate and enforce.

“Very little thought has been given to understanding or documenting business process prior to initiating the next great idea,” Brown says, adding a caveat to managers who de-emphasize process over a company culture likely to accept the myths as gospel.

“Culture eats process for breakfast,” he says. “It’s the single biggest challenge to avoiding these pitfalls.”

Strategies to Overcome the Myths

Clearly, it’s important for management to re-evaluate all of those assumptions that tend to jeopardize rather than facilitate. Start with an emphasis on the process of developing plans and people long before anyone is sent to a workshop. Planning should include other important considerations including a mentoring program in which experienced project managers train future managers, who have completed workshops.

These strategies will be successful only if companies are willing to put the time and resources into development. The best managers will display knowledge, aptitude, reasoning and leadership skills, but these are not always innate. They require practice to mature.

They also require time.


Don Wessels is project management senior consultant for Management Concepts, Vienna, Virginia, a professional services company with training, consulting and publishing expertise. Management Concepts partners with individuals and organizations to improve performance through consulting, training programs and certificate courses. For more information, please call (703) 790-9595 or visit www.managementconcepts.com.

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