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Author: Duncan Haughey

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.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

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.

Successful Projects; It’s not Rocket Science

successful-projects1There is no worse person to be than the project manager at the end of a failed project. As an IT project manager, I have experienced that feeling and I can tell you it’s not nice. IT projects are particularly difficult to manage. In fact there really aren’t any IT projects, just projects that have elements of IT in them.

The trouble with these projects is that often you are doing something that hasn’t been done before, is unproven or cutting edge. Customers expect a good result not excuses, even though these projects are frequently a journey into the unknown. If we take the construction industry, building a new bridge for instance, we have been building bridges for hundreds of years and know how to do it. We understand how things are going to happen, in what order and the expected result. This is rarely the case with IT projects.

Avoiding the common pitfalls of IT project management is not rocket science; it is simply a case of taking some sensible measures. Identified here are five killer mistakes of project management:

Who Owns the Project?

The Mistake:

The nature of projects is change and change often encounters resistance. People don’t like change so they need to know it is necessary and what benefits it will bring. In order for a project to deliver change it needs the backing of senior management. Without it the project will proceed very slowly. The sponsor (senior management) is the person that drives the change forward and the project is the mechanism for change. A project without support from senior management will struggle.

The Solution:

Make sure you have the top down backing from senior management. There must be direct communication from the sponsor to the stakeholders. The message must be, “we are serious, this thing is going to happen so you are either with us or you are not” and beware those that are not.

Be careful as project manager to make sure the sponsor does not take the project over and become the de-facto project manager.

Getting Users Involved

The Mistake:

Lack of user input and involvement is the recipe for a bad project. This can either be because of the “we know what you want” mentality from the IT department or lack of interest from the customer. Either way it must be avoided.

The Solution:

The IT department must take time to understand the customer’s requirements before proposing any technical solution. Often IT is blinded by the latest, newest thing available and try to shoehorn the requirements into it. On the other hand, customers must devote the time and effort necessary to ensure a successful project by interacting with the IT department and making sure all requirements have been fully defined. Ensure you have spoken to all stakeholders to gather their requirements and that they continue to work with you for the duration of the project.

Stopping Scope Creep

The Mistake:

Scope creep is the cause of more project failures than anything else. Not knowing exactly what a project is aiming to deliver or setting off in a fit of enthusiasm, but little else, is a recipe for failure.

The Solution:

Ensure that the business case, requirements and scope are clearly defined and documented. Make sure the stakeholders understand them and sign them off. Stick rigidly to the scope and if changes are required then put them through a change management process where they are documented, justified and then agreed upon.

Managing Expectations

The Mistake:

Often there is an expectation that IT is like a magic wand you wave and suddenly a miracle occurs. During a technology project, expectations can inflate to a ridiculous degree. It is the role of the project manager to manage expectations to a sensible level.

The Solution:

One way to avoid this is to break a project into smaller pieces or phases. I equate this to a sausage machine, where you feed in the raw material at one end and out it comes as small, perfectly formed, packages or sausages at the other end. The same can happen with IT projects where you take small packages of requirements and push them through the machine, producing several deliverables over the life of a project. This way you manage expectations by making frequent deliveries to demonstrate what the technology can really deliver. This approach ensures the project delivers to the customer’s expectations by giving them early visibility of what you are building.

Understanding the Lingo

The Mistake:

Have you ever stood next to a group of IT professionals and wondered what on earth they were talking about. It is like a whole new language and to non-IT people it often is. The pitfall comes when the customer and IT think they are talking the same language when in fact they are not. This leads to a problem when the IT department delivers what they understood the customer wanted and it turns out to be something different.

The Solution:

Communication problems are the hardest to resolve as often it is only by looking back that the problem is identified. Regular communication and a close working relationship with the customer will help. What you really need is a person with a foot in both camps, who understands the business and the IT equally well. If you can identify this person make sure you keep hold of them, they are hugely valuable. If you are unable to find this person, the next best option is to have two people, one from the business and one from IT. By working closely together and sharing information they can minimize any communication problems.


In 1995 The Standish Group surveyed IT executive managers for their opinions about why projects succeed. The three major reasons given that a project will succeed are user involvement, executive management support, and a clear statement of requirements. Concentrating on these three aspects alone will give your project a good chance of success.

Don’t become the victim of a failed project, put measures in place that will ensure your success.

After all it’s not rocket science!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

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.