As my gray hair clearly suggests, I've been around project management for a long time. I began leading projects more than 35 years ago, and I've noticed many changes in my work and in the profession. Some of the biggest changes involve how project timelines and budgets are developed: These responsibilities seem to have drifted away from the project manager's role.
Years ago, project managers were given problems to solve based on the needs of the business. They would work with their teams to investigate those problems, and then recommend a preferred solution to senior management. They would also provide an estimated budget and timeline. And while there may have been some give-and-take between project teams and senior management, it was common to be granted the requested amount of time and funding (after a proper costs-versus-benefits analysis). The payoff for all parties was an exceptionally high percentage of on-time and on-budget project deliveries. Project outcomes were reasonably predictable.
Over the past decade or two, there has been a slow and steady shift in senior management behavior. Many executives now appear to believe that a legitimate part of their role is to tell the project manager what the best solution is, when the project is to be completed and how much to spend. The reality for many of today's project managers is that they are no longer asked to generate authentic, bottom-up schedule and cost estimates. They're instead given those values as targets and then have to force-fit their plans to suit the situation.
It is crucial to note that in many cases these targets are not derived from carefully developed plans. They are not based in reality; they are based in desire. The most damaging of these imposed targets are the unrealistic ones. According to a majority of project managers I meet these days (and I meet a large number through my training activities), unrealistic targets are disturbingly common. This creates an environment of high stress and frustration for project managers who are often well aware that they are heading down a dark path of project performance.
From a business perspective, the impact is noteworthy. When imposed deadlines are unachievable, projects are delivered late, which triggers a delay in the realization of financial returns. In situations where both the delay and the estimated financial return are sizable, the result can be an enormous overall reduction in realized economic gain.
When imposed budgets are not achievable, the result is turmoil as money must be acquired elsewhere, which can affect the timing and funding of other projects.
When project managers spend the majority of their time trying to achieve the unachievable, the result is frustration and potential burnout.
But there's also a human cost to this situation. When project managers spend the majority of their time trying to achieve the unachievable, the result is frustration and potential burnout.
The core lesson is simple: Organizational managers who want an environment of predictability and fiscal responsibility will avoid imposing unrealistic solutions, deadlines and budgets. PM
Gary R. Heerkens, MBA, CBM, PMP, president of Management Solutions Group Inc., is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author and has 25 years of project management experience. His latest book is The Business-Savvy Project Manager.