Going against the grain

VOICES | In the Trenches

by Steven Starke, PMP


IT'S EASY FOR PROJECT MANAGERS to get caught up in the momentum of work and forget to question whether the work is justified.

The project manager's focus often is to execute to the best of his or her ability according to the charter.

This role puts project managers in the best position to go against the grain and recommend a bad project be killed, even when it's not the most popular decision.

Whose Job Is It?

If the overall strategy behind the project is flawed, is it the project manager's job to stop the organization from making the investment mistake even if he or she can deliver the project on time, scope and budget?

As credentialed project managers governed by the PMI's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, we are charged with sometimes making tough recommendations to stakeholders:

  • Chapter four of the code states, “Fairness is our duty to make decisions and act impartially and objectively. Our conduct must be free from competing self-interest, prejudice and favoritism.”
  • Chapter five states, “We provide accurate information in a timely manner.”

Our code doesn't explicitly say, “Stop a project when it's bad,” but the aforementioned guidelines demand we take appropriate steps to ensure the information we base decisions upon or provide to others is accurate, reliable and timely. This includes having the courage to share bad news even when it may be poorly received.

The Stop/Go Disconnect

So why aren't more bad projects stopped? It has to do with the criteria project managers use to determine if the project is off the rails with no sign of recovery.

If the reason the project is “bad” can be attributed to tangible areas where the project will not meet stakeholder requirements (e.g. cost, time, scope), clearly the project manager's responsibility is to alert sponsors so scope or requirements can be changed or the project cancelled.

But the project manager also should be brutally honest when the viability of a project is in question because of concerns regarding its strategy. If the project, for example, no longer aligns with the strategic objectives of the organization, continuation will lead to wasted financial and human resources, thereby undermining the organization's credibility in the market.

In this case, project managers should look for alternatives that could leverage the investment already made and provide value through a different, better aligned project initiative.

Defining Success

Project success is not whether it's delivered on time and within budget, but whether it delivers value and meets the defined success criteria.

In product development projects, for example, the project manager typically collaborates with the product manager to construct success criteria that are clear and measurable, and focused around the areas of scope, schedule and cost. During the course of the project, the project manager forces the product manager to make decisions and tradeoffs against the three, but based on what? The answer should be value.

Project managers need to realize the balance of scope, schedule and cost is more of an equation based on deriving value, which I call the project management value equation:

Value = Scope ÷ (Schedule + Cost)

This equation ensures all project work is weighed against the overall value of the project. Said another way, it's an equation to quantify and assess the value of a project and identify whether the project should be stopped if value has decreased.

By understanding this concept and assigning a value to each of your success criteria, you can quantify the value of the project. PM


Steven Starke, PMP, is the author of S. T. O.P.—The Project Management Survival Plan. He is vice president of program management for Thomson Reuters and works with Actuation Consulting on training materials focused on product team collaboration. He can be reached at [email protected].