The curse of project management
Principle Consultant, Honorable Leadership
Curses have been blamed as the cause for unexplainable mishaps from stubbing a toe to a tragic death. Over 4,300 years ago, legends were born when the Great Pyramids of Egypt were constructed, giving rise to King Imhotep’s Curse of the Mummy, and the Curse of King Tut’s Pyramid. We may be tempted to think that modern man has risen above such superstitious hoopla, but, even today, well educated men and women believe in curses such as the one placed on the Hope Diamond.
As disciplined thinkers, most project managers relegate curses to the superstitious realm. Yet at times (when no one is looking) they succumb to the thought that their organization’s projects just seem to be cursed. Despite careful planning and gallant efforts, nothing seems to move their projects forward. They’ve followed all of the recommendations espoused by the project management industry and in some cases they’ve established large Project Management Offices (PMOs), but to no avail. The Curse of Project Management seems to have taken a hold of them and nothing seems to rid the organization of its poor track record in managing its projects.
When we can’t explain something we often end up shrugging our shoulders in bewilderment. However, the Curse of Project Management does have a rational explanation. The rationale behind the curse is often overlooked because it exists outside the Project Management discipline and lies within the realm of Organizational Development. Exhibit 1 illustrates the environment that projects operate within. Projects are managed under the guiding principles of the organizations project management methodology that in turn functions within the organization’s culture, all of which support the organization’s strategy.
Exhibit 1 - Project Operating Framework
When projects fail, most organizations look at the project, the project team and the project methodology, but don’t look at the organization in a broader context where the Curse of Project Management originates. This paper will discuss the impact of Culture and Strategy on project success.
Project Management – Panacea or Snake Oil
Setting the Stage
In hope of ridding itself of the Curse of Project Management some organizations implement a myriad of best practices that include implementing a PMO or adopting formal project management. In certain circumstances consultants are brought in to do some training or manage the projects directly. Yet after all of this, projects are still not being completed on-time, within scope or on-budget.
Curse #1 – Unrealistic Expectations
When we consider project management as a discipline, it is an easy argument to make that project management makes sense. The general premise that going about work in an organized manner will increase your project success rate seems hard to dismiss. Most of us have jumped to the conclusion that utilizing project management techniques or adopting best practices will ensure that our projects get completed successfully. Is this a realistic expectation, that project management will ensure an improvement in your organization’s project success rates?
To answer this question, let’s consider some research performed by The Standish Group. Their research is significant in that they have statistics that cover a period of 10 years (1994 though 2004) that correspond well with the rise and popularity of project management as a formal discipline. They surveyed a large population of IT Managers about the success rates of their projects and the results from 1994 and 2004 are summarized in Exhibit 2.
Exhibit 2 - CHAOS Reports published by the Standish Group
After 10 years, project success rates have almost doubled from 16% to 29%, the number of failed projects decreased from 31 % to 18% but the percentage of challenged projects remained the same at 53%. While these statistics are for IT projects other studies, mostly informal, tend to indicate the same trend in other industries (The Standish Group, 2004).
Based on these numbers, it is clear that adopting project management can increase your project success rates, but you should not have the expectation that in and of itself project management will be the panacea to your problems. If you have been sold on the idea that putting in a PMO, or just throwing in some process and procedures was going to improve your bottom line, you were sold a bunch of snake-oil. The first curse of project management is unrealistic expectations at the executive level.
There are two typical methods by which project management gets introduced into an organization. These include a top down approach from senior management, and the grassroots effort that starts from within the organization. Both can be problematic if not managed correctly. The top down approach often starts with “the great idea” when an executive or business owner returns from a seminar. At the seminar, project management (snake oil) was promoted as the answer to all their problems. More structure equates to better execution which leads to an improved bottom line. The executive then comes back to the organization and assigns someone to get project management into the organization. An executive returning from a seminar is a very dangerous thing!
The executive has the expectation that starting a PMO or putting together a project management methodology is the answer to all of their problems. Little time is spent looking at the context in which project management is brought into the organization and the Curse of Project Management takes hold. Processes and procedures are put in place, PMOs established and project managers hired, but the bottom line never improves.
The other typical scenario that plays itself out is the grassroots effort. The specifics will vary across organizations but the basic scenario remains the same. Someone within the organization believes that project management will benefit the organization (VP, Manager or Supervisor) and has sold executive management on the concept. This part of the organization then becomes the project management champion and the executives again have the expectation that project management, in and of itself, will bring about order out of chaos.
Invariably, the grassroots effort rarely produces the expected increase in project success because the project management concept originated in the depth of the organization. As Directors, Managers, and Supervisors are mostly tactical thinkers, the focus will be at the tactical level. In the Project Management Framework discussed earlier, this would correlate with the project, project team and the methodology. Very little time and effort is spent on the organization’s strategy or culture.
We can say with surety that, given its indirect roll in introducing project management, executive management has unrealistic expectations about what it will take to implement it. A downstream effect of the grassroots effort is that the other areas of the organization won’t see project management as being important as the initiative didn’t come directly from the executive level. It is somewhat ironic that the introduction of project management into an organization can fail because of lack of sponsorship and leadership at the executive level.
Unrealistic expectations can be a root cause that explains why project management principles may not produce improved project outcomes. Introducing project management into any organization is a very complex undertaking. If the executive staff doesn’t understand the necessity of looking at culture and strategy as part of introducing project management into the organization, the organization will never move past a very low level of project management maturity and its success rate will not change.
As a bona fide PM Witch Doctor you have the anecdote to this first curse in S-M-I or Set – Monitor – Influence. After learning the impact of not considering strategy and culture discussed later in this paper, you can set the expectations of the executive staff and the organization. This can be accomplished in countless ways, but the critical point to remember is that you must set their expectations. In the event you do not have the relationships, power or authority to properly set executive level expectations you should enlist the help of someone who can. Once expectations are set they must be monitored and, if needed, influenced. Failure to manage expectations will ensure that this first Curse of Project Management - Unrealistic Expectations, will live on for quite some time.
What’s Culture Have to Do With It?
Setting the Stage
Jim’s recently acquired Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification opened some doors for him and he recently accepted a new position as the Director of Project Management working for the VP of Operations at ABC Tech, a young but rapidly growing technology company. His main objective was to introduce and implement project management into the organization. As a certified PMP he knows the recipe for project success. Process, process, and more process. Start first with a project charter, followed by a dash of scope statement and a smidgen of WBS. Then throw in your planning, stir up some execution, control the mess and then close up shop. Viola! How much simpler could it get?
Over the next few months he met with various department heads and was fortunate enough to get a few minutes with the CEO. Everyone agreed that project management seemed like the answer to improving execution. His budget allowed him to hire two PMs and an administrative assistant who helped him develop the project framework. They developed workflows and business processes supported by templates that would be available on the company intranet. Meetings were held, information disseminated and training sessions completed. It was time to implement the process.
One of the first things Jim did was ensure that there was a way to control how projects got started. The process called for a charter to be completed by the requesting department, utilizing a template located on the intranet. Soon after the PM process was kicked off, he received a call from June, the VP of Marketing. Apparently, some work needed to be done to customize one of ABC’s products for a valued client. The work needed to start tomorrow to meet the customer’s expectations and June wanted to know if one of the PMs was available. Jim gently reminded her that she needed to fill out a charter and then submit the form. She politely, but adamantly, told him she didn’t have time and that this project had the attention of the CEO before hanging up. Five minutes later, Jim’s phone rang.
It was the CEO who told him to get one of the PMs started on June’s project tomorrow. Over the next few months, the project turns out to be a nightmare. No charter. No scope statement or WBS. Yes, there was a smidgen of requirements, some planning, little control, and a definite mess. The project came in late, over budget and did not meet the customer’s expectations. What went wrong?
Given the scenario described above, it seems that lack of commitment to the process is the key factor in the failed project. That may be true if you look at the project, project team and project methodology. However, could it be that the project was the victim of the Curse of Project Management?
Curse #2 – Failure to Account for Culture
As you thumb through A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), it seems pretty straightforward. The processes we have all come to know and love seem to make perfect sense. If we consider what Jim put together, few of us would fault him for the processes he developed and put in place. In fact, his game plan is repeated every day throughout Corporate America. Yet, in reality, he made a very critical mistake that many of us overlook in our own projects. He didn’t consider culture.
Project Management is not a “one size fits all” discipline, although given the nature of project management it is often portrayed that way. Let’s consider the project charter. According to the PMBOK® Guide , a charter should be initiated by someone external to the project organization. It should authorize the project, describe what needs to be done, name the project manager and authorize applying resources to project activities. Every organization tweaks this to a certain extent but most fit a certain mold in that the charter is probably a Microsoft Word document stored on the LAN and/or intranet and completed through some formal process. Will this general framework fit the culture of all organizations?
Defining Organizational Culture
Organizational Culture can be defined in many ways but basically it is the DNA of an organization and is comprised of the norms and behaviors that define the context of an organization’s actions. Culture can be generally classified into four distinct groups as depicted in Exhibit 3: Mission, Clan, Bureaucratic, and Entrepreneurial (Daft, 2001, p. 319).
Exhibit 3: Organization Cultures
- Entrepreneurial: Externally (customer) focused and very flexible environment. Examples are the original Apple, Intel and Hewlett-Packard
- Mission: Focused on an external mission in a very stable environment. NASA during the 1960s when the mission was to land a man on the moon,
- Clan: Internally focused in a flexible environment. Most commonly found in the Mom & Pop shop, or a small to mid-sized organization.
- Bureaucratic: Internally focused in a stable environment. Typical examples include government agencies and heavily regulated industries such as nuclear power.
When Project Management Clashes with Culture
The typical project charter described earlier will work great in a bureaucratic or mission culture, but could cause problems in a clan or entrepreneurial organization. An entrepreneurial organization focuses on speed in responding to outside influences. In our scenario, ABC Tech is entrepreneurial and the CEO and Marketing VP obviously thought that speed trumped process.
If Jim had stopped to consider culture he would have realized that the process his team created was too cumbersome to succeed and that something more flexible needed to be implemented. With the technology available today, there are numerous solutions available he could have used to meet the requirements of a project charter, but the point to remember is that flexibility, speed – and the willingness to be open minded about the solution – should have driven his solution. Would you consider using an email or voice message (if developed as part of a methodology) as an acceptable format for the charter? Although unconventional, a process could be developed where the purpose of a charter is fulfilled without clashing with the organizations culture.
While training project managers over the years, I have come to learn that the cultures that project managers operate within vary greatly. Some come from Fortune 500 companies with international ambitions, others from small family-run businesses that serve a local market. There are those that produce products and others that deliver services. Budgets range from billions of dollars, to perhaps a few thousand. Some project managers even work for a boss who still believes in the hand shake as way of doing business and to tell them that they have to fill out a charter is the same as insulting their integrity. While we may be tempted to put in a PMO or a standard set of templates, the best practice here is to develop a process that works within the culture of your organization. By trying to force the organization into using a methodology that doesn’t support its culture or strategy, the Curse of Project Management will continue to live on.
Guiding Principles in Dealing with Culture
These are some very general principles in dealing with culture. Keep in mind that the recommendations would change depending upon the size and complexity of the projects being undertaken. As an example, if the projected costs for a specific project are large for your organization, regardless of the culture a more formal approach to project management would be recommended.
Exhibit 4 – Project Management and Culture
Strategic Execution – Aligning Projects with Strategy
Setting the Stage
Let’s suppose that you work with an extremely talented organization, that expectations have been properly set and your organization has moved beyond the first level of project management maturity (people are using the process and procedures on a somewhat regular basis). Yet, despite the increased level of project management activity, projects are still late, over-budget or being cancelled.
Curse #3 – Poor Strategic Execution
Project management is a tool to help an organization achieve its strategic objectives. If there is no process to ensure that projects undertaken by an organization support its strategic objectives a culture is established that allows the Curse of Project Management to thrive. Projects are started then put on hold when something else takes on a higher priority, are cancelled when someone realizes the lack of benefit in the project, or, in the worst scenario, are completed at great cost with little to no benefit in assisting the organization in reaching its strategic goals.
In a study of 1854 large corporations from 1988-1998, Robert Kaplan and David Norton (2005)found that 88% failed to reach profitable growth (above 5.5% annual real growth) despite the fact that 90% of them had strategic plans in place with much higher goals. They concluded that poor strategic execution was the cause for the poor results.
The Right People on the Bus
Organizations that find themselves in the position of having a good strategy and some level of project management maturity, but with projects still failing typically display “silos” within the organization. In project management, silos usually exist when there is no established project selection process, projects are not tied back to strategy, or project budgets are not linked to strategic objectives. Silos are caused by poor leadership within the organization where leaders place their own interests above that of the organization as a whole. An organization with silos is a Curse of Project Management. If your leaders cannot agree on how to select which projects to work on as team, the Curse of Project Management will continue and projects will fail regardless of the method or efforts put in place to manage them.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins (2001)stresses that an organization has to first get the right people on the bus before deciding where to drive it (pp. 41-62). If your organization wants to experience project success, it has to get the right people onboard to eliminate the silos within it. While backed up by statistics, this is not an easy task to accomplish. Many organizations are hesitant to change their leadership and even when they are willing to they are faced with the daunting challenge of changing the culture within the organization. Regardless of the difficulty in moving in this direction, getting the right people in place is a must.
While getting the right people on the bus lies in the realm of the Executive Team, there are some things you can do to increase your project success rate and include developing processes for selecting projects that are aligned with strategic objectives and prioritizing the projects that are selected.
Assuming you have the leaders in place that will support a project selection process, the obvious next step is to set up a process to accomplish this. Based on years of project management in many different organizations, I have come to the conclusion that there is no “one best way” to select projects. However, there is one method that will surely result in failure. This method is no method at all. While this is a bit tongue in cheek this scenario is played out today in many organizations, even large corporations worth billions of dollars.
Regardless of your organization’s culture you must have a method in place to select your projects that align them with strategic objectives. The methods can range from setting up a small team to meet with the owner, establishing an Office of Strategic Management (Kaplan & Norton, 2005), implementing a PMO, forming a Project Steering Committee or just adding this as a discussion at Executive Team Meetings. While the methods will differ across cultures, there are certain objectives that must be met when it comes to aligning projects with strategy:
- The organization’s strategy must be disseminated and understood by everyone in the organization
- Someone with executive level authority should be responsible for aligning projects with strategy
- A methodology should be put in place to align projects with strategy. Regardless of the method, the results should be reviewed regularly at the Executive level, and the project management team should be included in these discussions.
- Everyone in the organization should be encouraged to ask the question, does the project I’m working on support a strategic objective of the organization.
It is one thing to align your projects with strategy, it is quite another to prioritize them. In certain cultures another Curse of Project Management lurks in the form of the “can do” attitude. In an effort to be recognized, organizations, teams, or individuals will turn a blind eye to the reality of limited resources and attempt to work on too many projects at once. The results are projects that start and stop on a whim, projects consistently being delivered late, and a sense of chaos amongst the project team. Projects must be prioritized based on the fact that there are limited resources available to work on them. All managers are aware of this basic principle and yet somehow as they move up the corporate ladder it becomes more of a guideline than a hard reality.
To help communicate this to upper management, rely on the project management triangle to illustrate that, given a limited set of resources, a project can be completed with a certain scope and cost. If you line up a set of triangles for each project alongside each other, the illustration can be made that as resources are moved between projects, that both projects will be impacted. By moving a resource from a project, its time or scope must also change.
Exhibit 5 – Project Management Triangles
There are many ways to prioritize projects, but the important thing to remember is that it must be aligned with your culture and the organizations priorities. Some organizations prioritize them by size, cost or the impact to the bottom line. Cultures that are entrepreneurial may prioritize them by market presence or visibility. Ensure that the process you develop fits your culture.
The Curse of Project Management is the failure to account for culture and strategy when implementing project management within an organization. Many attempts are made to implement the “perfect” methodology, practice or team, without considering the larger context within which it must operate. Be a smart witch doctor and help your organization overcome this curse by looking at project management within a larger context.
Collins, J. (2001). Good To Great. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Daft, R. L. (2001). Organization Theory and Design, Seventh Edition. Cincinnati, Ohio: South-Western College Publishing.
Kaplan, R & Norton D. (2005, October). The Office of Strategy Management, Harvard Business Review83(10) 72- 80.
The Standish Group International. 2004 Chaos Report. Retrieved on July 21, 2006 from http://www.standishgroup.com/sample_research/PDFpages/q3-spotlight.pdf
The Standish Group International. 1994 Chaos Report. Retrieved on July 21, 2006 from http://www.standishgroup.com/sample_research/PDFpages/chaos1994.pdf
© 2006, John T Ikeda, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington