An empirical investigation of the sources of major project problems

a project manager's perspective

Alan L. Brumagim, Ph.D., PMP, Kania School of Management, University of Scranton

”…The old middle managers are dinosaurs; a new class of managerial mammal is evolving to fill the niche they once ruled: project managers. Like his biological counterpart, the project manager is more agile and adaptable than the beast he's replacing, more likely to live by his wits than by throwing his weight around.

…Now, like quality, project management is evolving from a specialty to the central task of middle managers…. Project management is going to be huge in the next decade” (Stewart, 1995, p. 179).

Thomas Stewart's prediction seems to be coming true. Interest in project management, as a tool for managing change and implementing business strategies, is growing exponentially. One has only to look at the increase in membership of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) over the last 10 years to see this trend. Interest in project management is penetrating a wider variety of United States businesses including many industries that have traditionally not employed project management techniques. Many organizations in the nonprofit sector, in search of greater efficiencies and customer responsiveness, are seeking out project management training. International interest in project management is also growing, as evidenced by the widespread representation from various countries at the PMI® Research Conference 2000.

With this exploding interest comes a responsibility for the profession to understand and address the needs of a wider variety of new project managers as they strive to learn the art and science of more formalized project-based techniques. Many business organizations are looking to our profession in an effort to empower their people to be more effective and efficient. The fact that some large corporations are requiring PMP® certification of their middle managers is further evidence of this responsibility. The increasing speed of technological innovation and globalization, which continues to intensify competition and change in the marketplace, will most likely cause even more businesses to seek out the project management profession for help.

The continuous evaluation and improvement of project management standards and theory by many dedicated professionals throughout the world is but one indication that this challenge is being met. But there also seems to be a need to understand the perspective of the “new” project manager, the middle manager who is suddenly (and with increasing frequency) thrust into to project world without formal training in project management techniques.

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the perceptions of project managers from a variety of different industries and backgrounds. What areas do they see as being the source of most of their major project problems? What areas do they tend to focus upon in their day-to-day project activities? How can formalized project training help them to improve project performance? How can the profession help them to become better project managers? How can the profession learn from their experiences? As our profession continues to grow, understanding the perceptions, problems, opportunities, and skills of the increasing number of project team members can only help us in assuring that our standards are not only relevant, but widely understood.

Literature Review and the Conceptual Model of this Study

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide, 1996) is a tremendously useful source of information regarding widely accepted standards for project management. The PMBOK® Guide examines project management in terms of phases, processes, and knowledge areas. Although there has been a shift in emphasis toward the importance of conceptualizing project management processes (e.g., initiation, planning, control, executing, and closing), it is interesting to note that many undergraduate students find it easier to learn project management techniques by focusing upon knowledge areas. Certainly a wide variety of books have been written about managing the knowledge areas of quality, scope, time, cost, risk, human resources, communications, and procurement.

Exhibit 1. Important Areas of Project Management Focus

Important Areas of Project Management Focus

Since processes and knowledge areas are merely different ways to conceptualize what goes on within the project life-cycle, most formal project management training addresses and reconciles both frameworks. However, many textbooks go significantly beyond these basic conceptualizations. For examples, see Kerzner (1998) or Meredith and Mantel (1995).

Frame (1995) supplements his discussion of the project lifecycle with a different conceptual framework that highlights three common pitfalls that the project manager faces. According to Frame:“There are many ways in which projects can go awry. Generally, though, there are three principle sources of project failure: (1) organizational factors, (2) poorly identified customer needs and inadequately specified project requirements, and (3) poor planning and control” (Frame, 1995, p. 19).

Organizational factors involve the broader dynamics of the environment surrounding the project whether it is an internal project (i.e., for the project team's organization) or an external project (i.e., for the project team's customer or client). Frame's conceptualization helps to highlight problems that project managers face in ways that are not always obvious when using the standard project lifecycle conceptualization. There is a need not only to understand how to run projects using an appropriate methodology, but also to understand and anticipate the various kinds of problems and issues that emerge throughout all projects.

A similar, but somewhat different conceptualization of the sources of project pitfalls or opportunities, developed by the author, is shown as Exhibit 1.

The framework shown in Exhibit 1 is based upon two dimensions. The first dimension evaluates whether the potential pitfall or opportunity is internal to or external to the project. The second dimension evaluates whether the potential pitfall or opportunity relates to business systems/processes or to people issues. Although many project problems have multiple and sometimes seemingly overlapping sources, analysis of several projects and case studies suggests that the decomposition advocated in Exhibit 1 can be quite useful. For example, requirements are always determined by and come through people. One could argue that separating the people issues from the more objective business process/systems issues is often problematic. This author would argue, however, that attempting to determine if the problem is more of a people issue or a systems issue could significantly aid the project manager in developing appropriate tactics to properly management the situation. Another example of this possible overlap is the fact that team members are ultimately assigned by stakeholders outside (external to) the project. According to this conceptualization the creation of the team and the acquisition of other resources would involve influencing external stakeholders. Once the team is in place, then managing team dynamics becomes primarily a team leadership issue. Again, although this basic conceptualization seems logical, it is made more complex as team membership changes over time, sometimes in response to individual personalities and team dynamics. Yet, team dynamic issues remain internal to the project.

The basic premise being made here is that a particular problem or opportunity can be usefully decomposed into its people versus business systems/process components. In most situations, one of the components can be identified as the primary source of the problem.

As indicated in the framework shown as Exhibit 1, the context of organizational activities can never be ignored. Yet, four separate areas of focus emerge. First, project requirements determination relates to business needs external to the project. Frame's (1994, 1996) discussions of needs assessment and requirements documentation would be pertinent to this area. Project scope management would clearly fall under this area, as would some parts of quality planning.

Second, project planning and control suggests the need for an appropriate methodology of managing projects. It appears that a great amount of project management training (including significant parts of the PMBOK® Guide) focuses on creating proper planning and control mechanisms throughout the project lifecycle. Issues such as proper time, cost, and schedule management would be pertinent here. Some aspects of risk and quality management would also apply.

Third, the management or influence of external stakeholders suggests that the project manager must continuously deal with people external to the project. Certainly, communications issues and stakeholder analysis are identified as important elements within the PMBOK® Guide. However, it will be argued here that embedding these issues within the project lifecycle does not give them the visibility needed to fully and most accurately assess project problems and opportunities.

Finally, project team leadership addresses people issues internal to the team. This would naturally include such areas as team building, motivation, communication, and human resources management in general. It would also involve recognizing the effects of the broader organization (including structure) and understanding how to protect team members from adverse external influences of the larger organization.

The next section will describe the study intended to identify how practicing project managers perceive the importance of these four factors in their day-to-day project work.

Description of the Study

Project managers who had enrolled in a continuing education project management certification program (150 hours of study) explored the framework shown in Exhibit 1 during the first 10-hour course of the program. After a brief explanation, students were asked to rank order the importance of each of the four factors. They were also asked to rate each of the four factors as important or unimportant to their job as a project manager.

Respondent's came from two geographic areas, a large northeastern United States city and a smaller more rural area also in the northeastern United States. Respondents had experience levels ranging from one year to 10-plus years with a median of just over eight years. Industry backgrounds included health care, insurance, construction, traditional manufacturing, electronics, nonprofit community services, transportation, information technology, and consulting. Information technology was slightly more heavily represented than the other areas.

Exhibit 2. Average Ranking of Perceived Source of Project Problems or Opportunities

Average Ranking of Perceived Source of Project Problems or Opportunities

Based upon the prevalence of project lifecycle concepts in the literature, it was assumed that planning and control issues would be most important. This was further supported by the author's perception that some of the project managers were surprised by was the amount of formal planning and control documentation advocated by the PMBOK® Guide. Formally stated:

Hypothesis 1: Project managers will be more likely to see project planning and control as being the most important of the four areas.

• It is not uncommon for project managers to emerge from technical positions, such as engineering or computer science, rather than from more general managerial positions. Because of this, the author speculated that business systems/process issues would generally be perceived as being more important than people issues. Formally stated:

Hypothesis 2: Project managers will be more likely to see project planning/control and project requirements definition issues as being more important than people-related issues.

Empirical Results

Exhibit 2 shows the results of the surveys. Interestingly, the rankings did not appear to vary by industry, location (city versus rural), years of experience, gender, or PMI® membership.

Project requirements definition, project team leadership, and project planning/control were rated as important considerations by the large majority of respondents. Only the management/ influence of external stakeholders was rated differently. Only about one half of the respondents rated this function as important to their project management jobs. The majority of respondents suggested that they have very little real ability to influence external stakeholders. Consistent with the large number of respondents that rated it as unimportant, managing or influencing external stakeholder was consistently ranked fourth, substantially lower than the other three factors. This is an important finding, which will be discussed in more detail in the next section of this paper.

As can be seen, project requirements definition emerged as the most important consideration (based upon the rankings) for the project managers. Properly formulated, clearly documented, reasonable requirements were perceived as being the most important factor affecting the job of the project manager. This finding would be consistent with such research as that performed by The Standish Group, which suggests the importance of user involvement and the need for clearly articulated requirements (www.standishgroup.com).

Project team leadership was ranked second, on average, and only slightly ahead of project planning and control, which was ranked third. Since the average ranking of these two factors was so close, future study might explore various project situations to determine under which circumstances project team leadership is more important than project planning and control. One could speculate that within any project, in general, the area that is the least developed would be the area of greatest importance. If this speculation were to hold up to empirical investigation, it could inform specific types of training that could benefit project teams. Let us now review the formal hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1 was not supported. Project planning and control, although rated important, was ranked third behind requirement issues and team leadership issues. This is an interesting finding. Could the “relative” lack of specific PMBOK® guidance in the areas of needs assessment and requirements determination, as they evolve into a scope statement, be an opportunity for the profession? Differences in the methods and needs for requirements determination across industries might limit the creation of specific yet widely applicable standards. The collective experience of this survey group suggests the importance of this area in successful project management practices.

Hypothesis 2 was partially supported. Business systems issues were ranked 1 and 3. Technical aspects of projects (both internal and external) were seen as very important. Surprisingly, team leadership issues were ranked as the second most important factor. Apparently, it doesn't take long for even technically oriented managers to realize the importance of people issues. This suggests to this author that the balance in the PMBOK® Guide between process issues (e.g., time management, cost management, and risk management) and people issues (e.g., human resource management and communications management) is appropriate.

Discussion

Perhaps the most interesting finding of this study was the lack of perceived ability of project managers to influence external stakeholders. Subsequent discussions with the groups led to frequent comments suggesting that project requirements were generally handed down with little room for discussion, enhancement, or revision by either the project team or the project manager. Comments suggesting how stakeholders could be influenced in even minor ways were rare. The most common area of influence mentioned had to do with attempts (often failed attempts) to increase or pad project budgets, in order to provide for project contingencies. These efforts were presented as defensive moves where project managers and project sponsors fought over possible project resource cutbacks. Furthermore, the increasingly competitive business environment was cited as causing change control boards to be less open to project scope or budget modifications.

This finding raises several implications. First, the use of project management to implement meaningful bottom-up organizational change might be quite limited. Over the long run project management as a profession will suffer if it is seen only as a mechanism for enhancing organizational productivity. One of the major findings of management contingency theory (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967) suggests that businesses facing dynamic and turbulent environments benefit most from organic bottom-up decision-making. Given the increasingly turbulent nature of many industries, the implications for improving project management practices are obvious.

As such, recent advocacy of the creation of a project management support office high in the organization might be critical for empowering project managers. But even so, is it important that the project office personnel take as a primary responsibility the empowerment of project managers and to help them to learn how to appropriately influence external stakeholders. One project office manager from a large Fortune 500 company explained to me that it is her job to influence external stakeholders, not project managers. This approach seems contrary to the idea of pushing decision-making down to the lowest level where the expertise resides. It also suggests the potential for the project management office to become overly bureaucratic. More research needs to investigate the role of project management and the project management support office as potential change agents within organizations.

Another implication related to the lack of perceived power to influence external stakeholders has to do with the broader influence of organizations and organizational culture. The appropriate role of the project manager may vary significantly between more formal or bureaucratic organizations and more entrepreneurial or organic organizations. Again, according to management contingency theory, direct project manager involvement in project requirement determination and in the influence of external stakeholders might be particularly detrimental for organizations in very stable business environments. On the other hand, if a large bureaucratic organization attempts to use project management teams as a mechanism to instill a more entrepreneurial spirit within the organization, problems may also arise. The ability of the broader organization culture to stifle project managers should not be underestimated. This, and the potential for team member burnout were comments made by many of the project managers. There is a need for the project management literature to address these issues more fully.

Related to the role of organizational culture is the importance of organizational assessment of its project management maturity level following the methodology developed at Carnegie-Mellon. This would help to develop appropriate project support mechanisms that would transcend the project management office and involve the entire organization (Toney & Powers, 1997). These types of efforts seem to be spreading. For example, the PCI Group (an independent project management business consulting firm) partnered with the General Motors Powertrain Group to assess the project management maturity level of a key supplier (Couture & Russett, 1998). PCI developed a Project Management Maturity Assessment (PMMA) Tool using PMI‘s “PM squared Model” as a foundation. Some of the objectives of the PMMA were to help organizations assess their current project management capability, identify current project management strengths/weaknesses, and provide a measure of capability against a standard of industry best practices in project management. Future research should assess under what circumstances and to what degree project managers in more mature organizations are able to influence external stakeholders.

Finally, these findings suggest possible improvements to the way that the PMBOK® Guide is being used and understood. If a large number of project managers do not believe that it is important to influence stakeholders, then why perform stakeholder analysis or be concerned with stakeholder communications issues as the PMBOK® Guide suggests? More emphasis could be placed on the importance of these tools and techniques.

Further PMBOK® Guide efforts could also attempt to clarify the complicated functions of needs assessment and requirements determination within the project management lifecycle. Although the respondents identified project requirements definition as the number one ranking area of concern, many people felt that they had no significant input into the process. Many people are given a project charter and a project scope. Others are somehow more involved in needs assessment, feasibility study, project selection, and initial planning. More research is needed to understand the organizational characteristics that may lead to these differences in project management methodologies. Could it be that larger, more bureaucratic organizations prefer less project management input into requirements determination? Could it be that smaller, more entrepreneurial organizations prefer more project manager involvement? How will all of these issues affect the even more organic organizations with self-directed or leaderless teams? As project management attracts a larger following, understanding these issues will become increasingly important.

Couture, Denis, & Russett, Rose. (1998). Assessing project management maturity in a supplier environment. Proceedings of the 29th Annual Project Management Institute Seminars & Symposium. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Frame, J. Davidson. (1994). The new project management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Frame, J. Davidson. (1995.) Managing projects in organizations, revised edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kerzner, Harold. (1998). Project management, sixth edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Lawrence, Paul, & Lorsch, Jay. (1967.) Organization and environment. Homewood, IL: Irwin.

Meredith, Jack, & Mantel, Samuel, Jr. (1995). Project management, a managerial approach, third edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Standish Group papers on “Unfinished Voyages” and “Chaos,” www.standishgroup.com.

Stewart, Thomas. (1995, July). Fortune, 10, 179–180.

Toney, Frank, & Powers, Ray. (1997). Best practices of project management groups in large functional organizations. Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000

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