Wednesday, 20 May 2009 00:00

Just Say No to Project Management Charlatans

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There is an interesting shift underway that has a profound impact for the project management community. Up until the past few years, the project management community has been focused on "basic training" and getting new PMs ready to write the PMP exam. While some industries such as engineering, procurement and construction have an overall higher project management maturity level, the fastest growth over the past couple of decades has been in the information technology industry, where a majority of organizations are small with a low level of PM maturity. PM publications and conferences have been mostly focused on serving these "new" IT PMs with novice (and a small amount of intermediate) training.

What has changed, however, is the emergence of more advanced topics such as critical chain scheduling (based on Eli Goldratt's Theory of Constraints) and agile management techniques. These advanced topics have captured the imaginations of project managers everywhere, who are frustrated with the all-too-common bureaucratic governance models that are slapped on to our typical projects. People are yearning for better ways of doing things. For most, this means less useless paperwork and needless bureaucracy.

Critical Chain Scheduling is now a hot topic in magazines, on the net, and at conferences, where innovative approaches towards estimating, scheduling, and control have helped many companies reduce their project durations and budgets without sacrificing quality. Early success stories have triggered a massive surge in demand for more information about this subject, creating a shortage of experts that has led to many under-qualified people being promoted as experts.

The growth of interest in agile methods has been even more pronounced than the interest in Critical Chain - at least an order of magnitude greater. Agile methods promise higher quality, lower risk, and better stakeholder relationships, especially in high-change or high-complexity projects. Yet, again, early successes have led to a surge in demand for expertise that was (and for certain specialties still is) in short supply. Too many people with book learning, but no practical experience, have been promoting themselves as experts, which is not helping the innovative ideas and excellent practices that are part of the agile methods.

Even though demand is very strong for information on Agile and Critical Chain, we need to examine carefully the source of our information; else, we risk getting incomplete or inaccurate information that may lead us astray, causing us to believe that the techniques don't work and shutting us off from an avenue of potential benefit for our projects. Personally, I have seen a few examples of this in recent months. In one case, a large, multinational corporation was undertaking a pilot initiative to test agile methods within their IT organization. The problem was that they hired a consultant who promoted himself as an "agile guru" but who had only implemented agile a few times in small organizations on low-complexity projects. To work smoothly in highly complex organizational environments, you need to layer additional governance structures on top of the standard agile methods. In one recent interview on the dangers of customizing Scrum (the leading agile management methodology), Ken Schwaber, one of the co-founders of Scrum, said that Scrum provides just a simple framework for a single project. To make Scrum work across a range of inter-related projects, or even an organization, requires additional practices to be layered on top of Scrum to address items that are outside of the scope of the Scrum method. To know what needs to be layered on top of a basic agile method, and to add it without unduly reducing the agility of the overall project takes expertise and finesse. These are qualities that need to be learned on the streets, through trial and error, and that you will only find in those with experience. Watch out for the army of newly-certified ScrumMasters who think they are now the experts in the agile methods after taking two to three days of training. They know enough to sound like experts, but may collapse under the pressures of a real, complex project.

The real need is for measures of competence not knowledge. In North America, the PM community is just starting to figure that out. The PMI is introducing its first competency-based certification for program managers (PgMP). The formation of two associations, the American Society for the Advancement of Project Management www.asapm.org and the Project Management Association of Canada www.pmac-ampc.ca are bringing to us the four-level competency-based certification model used around the world by national associations affiliated with the International Project Management Association [www.ipma.ch], the oldest professional association for project managers in the world. The IPMA certification model is not about passing a test (like the PMP) but rather focuses on assessing workplace performance. To get IPMA certified, you must demonstrate (with evidence) repeated, successful performance as a project manager on complex projects.

At one point, employers thought that a PMP was an indication of a superior project manager. Now that PMI has churned out hundreds of thousands of PMPs, employers have come to recognize that the presence of a PMP does not distinguish between poor and excellent PMs; rather, employers are seeking other measures of performance such as the IPMA competency-based certification model, or proprietary PM competency assessment systems developed for in-house use.

We need to demand evidence of competency from those we turn to for advice, whether it is PM basic training, or advanced training in topics like Critical Chain Scheduling and Agile Management. By listening only to those who can clearly show their competence, we will get much better advice and steer clear of the naïve recommendations of some so-called experts. The result will not only be better projects, but also increased trust in our profession.

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