a new model for training project managers
Many project management courses teach things that project managers don't really need to learn—or that they already know. Real project management education would address the thorny problems of everyday practice.
I take issue with the conventional way most project management courses are designed and taught. I believe radical changes are needed in the objectives, content and teaching of project management training courses. Change is needed for two reasons: First, the world of project management and the subsequent demands placed on project managers have changed dramatically in the last several decades. Project managers need new skills to be effective in this different environment. Second, project management training is too narrowly focused on tools and techniques—basically the mechanics of project management. These are the least important aspects of the project manager's training needs.
Fortunately, some changes are already under way. It is encouraging to see that PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge includes Human Resources and Communications Management topics. This creates a demand for inclusion of these topics in future courses. Project management books such as The New Project Management (J.D. Frame, 1994, Jossey-Bass) focus more on customers and include topics such as team building and developing power and influence. While these are steps in the right direction, much more change is needed.
Evidence of the Need for Change. Several years ago, I asked members of a local PMI chapter to list three major “tough project management problems” and then to list the three topics receiving the most attention in project management courses. I've since asked a number of project managers to participate in similar experiments. I then compared their “tough project management problems” with the content of the typical project management course. Guess what? The correspondence between what project managers say they need to manage their tough problems and what is in most project management programs is always below 50 percent and generally ranges between 15–25 percent! You might want to try the same experiment. How many of your three toughest problems appear on this list?
- Project planning
- Work breakdown structure
- Project scheduling techniques (PERT/CPM)
- Resource loading methods
- Cost estimating and budgeting
- Project control techniques (e.g., earned value)
- Project organization
- Authority and responsibility of the project manager.
If you are like most project managers, your tough problems bear little correspondence to this list; yet the items on the list are at the heart of most project management programs. Admittedly, my experiment is most unscientific, but it does correspond fairly well with research on project management. Let's now sample some of the better quality research on the success and failure of projects.
What studies reveal is that success and failure of projects is heavily dependent on factors that are generally not included in typical project management courses. In their book Determinants of Project Success (1974, Management Institute, Boston College), David Murphy and his colleagues explored the causes of project failure through a major study involving over 600 project managers, team members and managers of project managers. Note the mix of items and identify how many are topics in the typical project management courses. In order of importance, they are:
- Absence of planning and control
- Poor client relations
How often have you seen a project fail because the project manager didn't know how to do a work breakdown schedule or an earned value analysis of the project? Yet the typical project management course focuses more on tools and techniques, not on why planning and control are absolutely vital to project success.
- Poor overall coordination
- Inherent project complexity
- Absence of project team participation
- Insufficient project manager influence and authority
- Ill-defined success criteria
- External bureaucratic/political difficulties
- Buy-in strategy
- Poor public relations.
I'd like to make two points about this list. First, while several of the topics are included in the typical project management course, many are not. Second, and more important, the typical course focuses more on the tools and techniques, not on developing an understanding of, for example, why planning and control are absolutely vital to project success. To put it another way: How often have you seen a project fail because the project manager didn't know how to do a work breakdown schedule or an earned value analysis of the project? I'll bet the answer is “never!”
In a 1979 article on “Defining and Measuring Success” (Research Management, 22 (1), 17–22), Tom DeCotis and Lee Dyer at Cornell identified through interviews 12 factors related to project success. They then had experienced project personnel rate the factors as contributing to several different measures of project success. They found the following (in order of importance):
- Predictors of technical performance: project members' skill and cooperation; management support; planning and stability of specifications and designs; inter-organizational relations
- Predictors of project efficiency: transfer management across organization groups; planning and stability of specifications and designs; project members' skill and cooperation
- Predictors of manufacturability and business performance: transfer management across organization groups; planning and scheduling; inter-organizational relations; clarity of project leader's role.
What both these studies demonstrate is that project management success is more complex and multifaceted than recognized in most training programs.
Facing Reality. The evidence indicates that a number of subjects normally included in project management courses are important. But many, if not most, of the important contributors to project success/failure are absent. The important realities or issues neglected or receiving too little attention in most courses include the following:
- Projects are incredibly dynamic, making accurate real-time information the project manager's greatest need.
- Project managers never have authority to match their responsibility.
- An effective project team is the project manager's best device for communication, coordination and decision-making.
- Coordination across organizational units is always problematic.
- Criteria for important project decisions are often more political than rational.
- Client relations and communications are highly important.
- Top management support is both valuable and normally insufficient.
- In spite of all efforts to clarify objectives, roles and responsibilities, ambiguity always remains.
Some may argue that many of these factors are beyond the project manager's authority and responsibility and therefore aren't appropriate content. I emphatically disagree! The point is that the project manager can and should understand the determinants of success and failure. While he or she cannot fully control some of these factors, he or she can and should exert influence on actions and decisions of others that will help the project succeed. The need for project managers to understand these issues and develop the knowledge and skills to deal with them is even more important when we consider the changing world in which project managers operate.
The World is Changing
When the present model for project management courses was developed, largely in the ’50s and ’60s, project managers lived in a simpler world and simpler training was appropriate. Consider how the following changes of the last several decades complicate the life of today's project manager:
Global competition. The emergence of global markets and strong competitors in other countries increases the demand for effective project management.
Time as a competitive weapon. Getting the plant built or the new model to market first has become a more important strategic weapon—thus increasing the pressures for rapid project completion.
Organizational downsizing. Many organizations have reduced human talent on board—thus increasing the need for effective use of limited human resources.
The development of sophisticated project management software. Software now exists that automates virtually all project management tools—thus reducing the need for teaching the detailed mechanics of these tools.
Increasing specialization of disciplines. Technical professionals are increasingly trained in particular aspects of a discipline or in subdisciplines. On complex projects this increases the size and diversity of project teams.
Increasing bureaucratic hurdles. The number of rules, requirements, reviews and controls in most government organizations (and many private ones) has reached epic proportions—thus making getting things done more difficult than ever before.
These factors indicate that the project manager's role has become much more difficult and demanding than at any time in the past. Clearly, a new philosophy and approach for training project managers is needed.
A New Model for Project Management Training. What should be done to modify training for project managers? Here's one possibility. A training course should help project managers to:
Recognize the realities of the project manager's job. The real-time, constantly changing, dynamic nature of project work creates extraordinary needs for current information. And current information must be derived from a wide variety of sources, the best, and most current of which are usually informal, frequently ad hoc, and often accidental. No MIS system, no tools, no formal reporting system is sufficient.
Manage the power gap. The nature of the project manager's job is such that there is never enough authority. The successful project manager must make up for the gap by being incredibly proactive and by developing and using networking skills to develop power and influence.
Develop and use interpersonal skills. Because of the project manager's need to get others, who frequently report to someone else, to work enthusiastically on his or her project, communication, negotiation and conflict management skills must be learned.
Understand organizational alternatives for projects. Functional, project and matrix organizational models need to be described and discussed. However, just as important as the structure itself is the behavior and culture needed to make any of the organizational alternatives work.
Embrace project planning but understand it is not sufficient. The critical need for planning as the basis for project control should be emphasized. The proper role of project managers in the planning process should be explored. But project managers also need to understand that Dwight Eisenhower was right when he said: “Planning is everything, plans are nothing.”
Proactively exercise project control. Less emphasis is needed on tools and more on a project manager's need to take initiative, based on the information generated by the control system, to keep the project on track.
Manage the project team. Project managers must understand the start-up and development problems of teams and how to “jump start” a team so it becomes effective quickly. They need to learn how to build a cohesive team with positive norms for teamwork.
Manage client/customer relationships. Providing customer value and developing good lines of communication and using them often is the key.
Manage their bosses. Successful project managers must be able to influence bosses to get the resources, attention and help they need to complete the project successfully, on time and within the budget. The ability to do that begins by building an open, high-trust, two-way relationship with the boss.
I'm convinced that training project managers based on this proposed model of training would substantially improve project performance. The reality is that project management is more difficult and more complex than ever before. Changes in the environment have resulted in tougher demands for superior quality, lower costs and faster completion. We need to better prepare project managers for the challenges they must overcome if they are to be successful. ■
H. Dudley Dewhirst, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Management at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, learned his first PM lessons as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a remote air base in Alaska. He later managed projects for Exxon.
PM Network • November 1996