A "state of the union" address on project management

an examination of a profession in crisis

President, Management Solutions Group, Inc.

Abstract

Project management has tremendous potential to improve any organization or type of business that embraces its application. But sadly, there are indications that it's a profession in crisis. Respect for project management—as a discipline and as a valued organizational function—has significantly diminished over the past two decades. This is evidenced by the failure (reluctance?) of corporate managers to elevate project management to a meaningful position in the organizational hierarchy and by the difficult and challenging existences led by many of today's project management practitioners. The crisis is unrelated to tools and techniques, despite the emphasis on those things today. It is related to authority figures—those who determine how project management is deployed and practiced. Curiously, the actions of project managers also contribute to their own desperate situation. Others, such as consultants and even professional societies have contributed to this dilemma. The crisis of respect facing project management has become the “800-pound gorilla” that we all know is with us, but seldom confront through meaningful and productive discussion. This paper takes a no-holds-barred look at the “dark side” of the project management profession, drawing upon interviews with practicing project managers and sage advice from some of today's most prominent project management experts, including Dr. Harold Kerzner, Neal Whitten, and Dr. Janice Thomas. Although our profession may be viewed as being “in crisis,” all is not lost, as the paper offers suggestions on what can be done to return a measure of effectiveness—and ultimately respect—to our positions and our profession.

About This Paper: Laying the Groundwork for a Controversial Discussion

A Loss of Respect

In my view, project management (and project managers) have suffered a gradual, but sustained loss in respect over the past two decades or so. There, I said it!

I thought I was alone in this view, until I started initiating conversations with various people whose paths I have crossed over the past few years. The level of agreement among those I spoke with was astounding. Nearly everyone seemed to agree that there was a problem. According to the perspective of some (including me), a crisis is looming on the near horizon. So why isn't anyone talking about this—exposing this crisis? That's actually part of the problem, as we will discover a bit later.

Don't Look for Scientific Surveys Here

This paper is likely to be quite different from nearly all others you've read. While most papers published in professional society proceedings are intended to educate or inform, this one is intended to make you think—and to reflect on the current state of our chosen profession: project management. Actually, the current state of affairs is so confounding some do not even believe project management to be a profession at all.

Reader be warned: the following content is not based on a scientific study or a comprehensive survey. The thoughts expressed herein are largely opinion. The supporting argumentation is anecdotal in nature. Much of what you're about to read is based upon my personal experiences and countless conversations I've had with practitioners and organizational managers. The rest in borne from frank and open conversations I've had over the years with several colleagues for whom I have great respect, and with well-known project management experts—a few of whom have agreed to openly share their perspective in support of this paper.

You may or may not agree with everything presented and expressed in this paper. That's OK. For me, the primary objective is to stimulate thought, reflection, and discussion on what you are about to read.

Why Me, Why Now?

The loss of respect previously mentioned has been occupying my subconscious for a long time—in fact, I've been watching this phenomenon unfold for nearly 20 years. Add to this the fact that the project management profession has been a significant part of my life for more than 30 years, and it's something that I care about—a lot. So as I enter the twilight of my project management career, I feel the urge to give something back. I also feel that the time has come to timing is right to uncover this “800-pound gorilla” that exists within many organizations, but seems to attract very little public attention and discourse. The concept behind this paper is simple: if we expose this situation and use it as a trigger to promote honest and open discussion among the many players, we will all end up in a better place.

About the Crisis Brewing Within the Project Management Profession

Momentarily Accentuating the Positive

To be “fair and balanced”… do we see:

…successful projects and project managers out there? YES!

…project managers who lead a satisfying and rewarding professional existence? ABSOLUTELY!

…project managers who garner a high degree of respect from their management? CERTAINLY!

Our profession is replete with project managers who lead a great life. Based on my own personal experience, these tend to be the ones that work in some of the very large corporations that many of us are familiar with. I've also found many others within the ranks of some the more entrepreneurial small-and medium-sized companies.

But what about the “dark side” of the profession … we also see:

…a significant proportion project managers who are leading a very challenging existence.

…people who are called project managers, yet they are less than fully competent in terms of managing projects.

…an alarming number of project managers who are working 60–70 hours—and that still doesn't seem to be enough.

…project managers who receive very little respect from their management.

…project managers who simply want to “get out.”

I believe it is that last item that inspired me to take action. Since the dawn of time, project managers have whined and moaned about their existence. I actually think it's part of our nature. But in the past few years, I have begun to witness something that I had not seen before. From time-to-time, project managers pull me aside—at conferences, during training programs, and at other times—to initiate a conversation. The pattern of these discussions is quite similar: they relate one or more “horror stories” about their organization. They tell me that they're fed up with life as a project manager and wish to change careers, and then they ask me what they should do. This is sad. It's not yet commonplace, but it is growing.

A Brief Tutorial on “The Way It Used To Be”

I often encounter young folks who are literally unaware of what I affably refer to as “the good old days.” While it makes me appear even older than I am, I tell stories about the way things used to be, and I contrast it with the current state of affairs. In a nutshell, here's what I tell them:

15–20 yrs ago (or longer) …

Project management was viewed as a complex and challenging competency … something that not everyone could do.

Project management was generally regarded as a profession, a legitimate job, a career path.

Project managers were polished, professional, and assertive—a commanding presence in the workforce.

Project managers were—by and large—a well-respected group of people.

Today…

The prevailing attitude is that just about anybody can “do project management.”

Project management is often regarded as an ancillary, side activity that people do in addition to their “real job.”

Many project managers lack backbone—they readily comply with anything thrown at them.

Many project managers are directly or indirectly treated with a certain measure of disrespect.

A Sampling of the Anecdotal “Evidence”

A claim has been made regarding a lack of respect for project managers and project management. But how do we know there are problems? How can we be sure that this lack of respect exists? What tells us that project managers lead challenging existences? And what are some of the signs that the profession lacks professionalism?

Keeping in mind that our discussion is not based on extensive surveys and scientific studies, but is, instead, based upon anecdotes (stories from the field), consider the following. While the names of the organizations and the individuals have been withheld to protect privacy, each one of these is a true story:

Case 1

There is a well-known company that conducts regular gate reviews of the many product development projects they undertake. Each of these projects has a formally assigned project manager … however:

  • Project managers are not only not permitted to be the primary reporter of status at these gate reviews—they're not even invited to attend!
  • Their management systematically imposes an arbitrary deadline on all projects (often unrealistic); when queried about the rationale behind this practice, their response was the following: If we don't give “these people” an aggressive deadline, the projects will never get done.

Case 2

A few years ago, an individual was enrolled in my basic project management training program who had just been put in charge of a $9 million project. This struck me as a pretty risky strategy for her company to pursue, and I struck up a tactful conversation with her to that effect. Somewhere in that conversation, she offered a stunning revelation: prior to sending her off to attend my class, her management told her that they were quite confident that she could learn everything she needed to know about project management in one, three-day training program.

Case 3

This “good news/bad news” story comes from yet another company:

  • The good news? This particular company has developed a career progression ladder that formally and explicitly incorporates the role of project manager.
  • The bad news? The project manager role is positioned one step above the role of “administrative assistant” (these are the people who set up luncheons and make travel plans).

Case 4

A project manager for a well-known government agency was given a project and told to produce a “reasonable” project schedule. The planning effort suggested that 380 days would be needed. This timeline was based on the defined scope of all the work packages and the availability of funds throughout the project. The project manager was told that this was unacceptable, and that he must maintain the cost and scope yet reduce the timeline to 180 days. In an effort to please their management, the team regrouped and produced an extremely high-risk, lower duration schedule. Once again, the project manager was told by the director of the agency that the project was to be completed in 180 days … period. Same scope, same funding. The project manager was then directed to use more federal staff because they are not a part of the cost [which, of course, is incorrect!]. The problem was—as this project manager related—they really had no idea what the true cost of the project was, having been instructed to bury the federal employees' salary and expenses.

Case 5

At a PMI Global Congress in the not-too-distant past, a colleague and I decided to observe a consultant who had a reputation as a popular speaker. This particular speaker is a very well-known training provider to PMI members. What we observed was both disgusting and disappointing. A full 20 minutes into her 50-minute presentation, she had yet to cover a single, legitimate learning point. While I wholeheartedly believe that humor can spice up a potentially boring presentation, the reality is that her presentation was more of a silly, irrelevant vaudeville act than an educational session. This was the disgusting part, considering that she was presenting to a gathering of project management professionals at an educational conference. The disappointment came as my colleague and I patiently waited for some of these “project management professionals” to leave the room—yet almost no one did.

Case 6

A subsidiary of a well-known pharmaceutical company has to deal with a considerable amount of government bureaucracy as part of doing business. This requires someone to fill out a considerable amount of routine forms on a regular basis. While it's true that the paperwork relates to the product of the project, the reality is that the paperwork: (a) adds no value to the project, per se; (b) is not required to execute the project; (c) does not require extensive knowledge about project specifics [i.e., could be filled out by just about any clerical employee]; and (d) consumes a substantial amount of time every week. The project manager was directed to perform this task.

So there you have it—six distinct, true stories from six different companies. Now, consider the fact that these six cases do not simply represent a few isolated circumstances or fringe behavior. Along with many of my colleagues, I hear stories similar to the ones above with alarming frequency. And so—while they may exist as individual stories, collectively they form a distinct pattern.

Who Is To Blame?

While this may seem like an inflammatory comment, I think it's a fair one. It's also a necessary one. If we are to both recognize and deal with the dark side of the project management profession and try to make improvements, we need to explore how cases such as the ones just described can come into existence.

To answer the question of cause—and to eliminate the appearance of being a lone crusader—I decided to seek expert opinion. I contacted some of the most noted project management figures in the industry today and presented my thoughts. Each of these experts readily supported me in agreeing that serious issues exist in and around the project management profession today as I have just described. And although each expert had a somewhat different opinion on how we got here, there was also considerable overlap in his or her perspective. I found this both interesting and, in a way, reassuring that I was on to something worth pursuing. Here's what the experts had to say.

Dr. Harold Kerzner is perhaps the best-known project management guru of our time. He believes that executives and other high-ranking organizational managers are among the key contributors to the loss of respect for project management and project managers today. In supporting his contention, Dr. Kerzner points out that one of the characteristics of good decision-makers is that they are open-minded and gather the pertinent facts before arriving at a conclusion. But Dr. Kerzner also notes that as managers progress up the chain of command, they begin to believe that—simply out of positional power alone—they are imminently more qualified than project managers to make project decisions. While many would argue that making decisions is their right, Dr. Kerzner's point is that—irrespective of position—an individual must have good knowledge and good information to make the best possible decision. Now combine this point with one of Dr. Kerzner's other key contentions—that most senior managers today have neither managed projects nor fully understand project management—and you have a lethal combination. You have a combination that leads to behaviors such as setting arbitrary deadlines prior to project planning and refusing to accept the project manager's belief that the imposed budget and schedule are unrealistic.

We can clearly see some of Dr. Kerzner's perspective within Cases 1, 2, and 4.

Neal Whitten is among the most popular educators and speakers today. His training programs and his presentations are almost always packed to capacity. Mr. Whitten agrees with Dr. Kerzner about the difficult existence that some project managers lead at the hands of senior executives. But he is also quick to point out that many of today's project managers have put themselves in a bad place due to their own behavior. Specifically, he believes that many of today's project managers are simply not assertive enough for the job. In fact, one of his key messages is remarkably straightforward: The #1 reason project managers fail today is because they are “too soft.” Mr. Whitten has a unique perspective on this topic, having held project manager positions as well as serving more than 10 years in a variety of management positions at IBM. He promotes a number of key principles which he calls “power snippets.” Some of the more relevant snippets are listed below. They are actually behaviors that Mr. Whitten observes in some of today's project managers:

  • Is unwilling to passionately defend the right project plan to the project sponsor, executives, or client
  • Avoids escalating project-related problems to higher levels of management that are at an apparent impasse
  • Is reluctant to clearly state what support is needed from management to execute projects and solve problems
  • Behaves as if there is little or no authority to support their responsibility
  • Avoids “necessary confrontation”
  • Puts off insisting on and driving good project management practices throughout the project
  • Requires the personal approval of others to function
  • Tries to please everyone

I also see many of the characteristics that Mr. Whitten describes in the project managers that I encounter in training programs and at conferences. I have also seen the proportion of project managers who exhibit such behaviors grow over the past two decades. And when these behaviors reach a critical mass within a specific population (such as project managers), the discipline of project management and the stature of project management begins to suffer. I believe that this is, in part, what has happened to our profession.

Dr. Janice Thomas is an internationally respected leader in the area of project management and currently leads the academic development of all project management courses at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. She has 10 years experience as an IT and Organizational Change project manager, and has been recognized as one of the 25 most influential women in project management. I sought out Dr. Thomas for her extensive background in project management-related research on crucial, relevant topics such as the value of project management and the professionalism of project management. Dr. Thomas' varied responses to the topic of waning respect for project management supplied me with an abundance of insights that went well beyond my own thoughts. In fact, Dr. Thomas implicates a broad array of players in addition to project managers and senior executives, including the following:

Professional Associations

The move by some professional associations—Project Management Institute (PMI®) in particular—to broaden the market for project management tools and techniques and to propagate the concept of certifications that have diluted the perceived professionalism of project management. Prior to the mid-2000s, the tagline and stated mission of PMI was “building the profession.” Sociology of professions would suggest that there are six key strategies that need to be undertaken to build a profession. None of these strategies have been evident for some time in PMI's operations. Sometime prior to that (mid-1990s), the association had become caught up in the fervor of building the world's largest professional association and growing the membership; they lost the emphasis on growing the profession. Since the mid-2000s, the tagline and stated mission has been “making project management indispensible…” to organizations. This is quite a different thing from building a profession.

Standards Setters

This category is tied to the rapid and frenetic growth of project management over the past two decades. Specifically, it refers to those who seek to try to boil project management down to a set of standards. This group includes professional associations (such as PMI and APM) trying to be all things to all people, as well as consulting firms wishing to turn a “quick buck” by selling canned solutions to companies. It also refers to some of the target companies who believe they can address the “project management thing” by purchasing a quick-fix solution at pre-packaged, commodity pricing.

Clearly it is easier to make standards out of what is unambiguously common about project management. Thus, this is what is captured as standards. Equally clearly, this is not what the professional, senior project manager needs to manage a project. Ignoring the complexity and ambiguity inherent in project management when making standards has allowed a situation where the project management discipline appears to be entirely captured as a purely technical set of tools, and also appears to have no use at higher levels in organizations. This has led to the widespread interpretation of project management as a “trench tool.”

Training Companies

To sell large volumes of training, the best approach is a simple and straightforward curriculum that can be delivered in two or three days. This kind of packaging of education tends to promote the perception that the entire discipline can entirely encapsulated within the confines of a two-or three-day training course. Involving the people who develop these kinds of courses as volunteers in the standard-setting and certification process ensures that the standards will become simple enough to be taught and examined easily. Building a certification exam provides a motivator for people to take the short courses.

Authors and Textbook Writers

To increase the market for commercial book sales and academic texts, you need to increase the general applicability of project management. It must be promoted as a needed skill set by just about anyone, not just for senior level engineers and other high-level professionals who migrate into project management. This means that textbooks needed to be simplified to be easily absorbed by those with no experience.

Dr. Paul Giammalvo has a distinguished reputation across the global project management community, serving as an advocate for and on behalf of the global project management practitioner. His professional experience spans dozens of countries and companies. His exposure to the global stage serves to affirm the broad reach of this crisis of respect within project management. And on this topic, he describes his viewpoint as being “on the long tail,” even referring to himself as a “radical thinker,” or “heretic.” For example, Dr. Giammalvo envisions a world with a project management code of ethics, wherein a project manager may refuse (or even resign) on principle, if senior management or clients assigns them to bear responsibility for hopeless projects or refuse to follow their professional advice.

However, he is not alone in his opinions, and his thoughts are certainly worthy of due consideration. His strong viewpoint and the level of his conviction on the subject underscore how far the lack of respect for project management has reached.

One of the more powerful evidential points that Dr. Giammalvo makes comes in drawing a distinction between firms who do project management for a living—such as contractors and construction management professional services companies—and firms that do not. Generally, companies who generate their revenues from operations or product development tend to treat project management as an element of matrix management and in doing so, experience many of the issues just described. It would therefore seem that this is where attention must be focused, if improvement is to occur. But Dr. Giammalvo is justifiably skeptical about the future of project management within such firms. He points out that companies that rely on project management as the primary source of revenues MUST develop it as a core competency or they will go out of business. In these firms, authority is matched to responsibility, resulting in accountability. There are clear links between sound decision-making, effective risk management, and financial gain or loss. But the main thrust of his argument is simple: firms who practice project management as a kind of sideline to operations or product development—where dictatorial line managers can force a culture of unquestioned compliance, where project managers feel compelled to agree to lead projects that they know are doomed to failure from the outset, and where budget overruns, strategic miscalculations, and other business atrocities can be buried within the vast complexities of organizations systems and processes—are unlikely to enable project management to earn the level of professional respect commensurate with those organizations who provide project management services on a for profit basis.

About the Path Forward

So, what needs to be done to return some measure of respect to the project management profession? Actually, much of that is self-evident by what you have just read. In my view, among the more notable (but admittedly general) things that have to happen are the following:

Senior managers must make a concerted effort to better understand project management, and how its complexities extend well beyond simply tools; they must appreciate that scheduling is, in fact, mathematical modeling and not a management decision to be imposed at will; they must appreciate the connection between projects and business, drawing project management personnel into higher level functions such as strategic planning; they must demonstrate trust and respect for the opinions, advice, and competency emanating from their project managers—and if the trust isn't there, they should find ways to build the required competency and trust, rather than to circumvent it through the use of a dictatorial micromanagement approach; and they must stop the practice of thrusting unqualified people into the role of project manager simply because supply exceeds demand.

Project managers must begin behaving in a much more professional manner; they must be willing to incur the wrath of their management by standing up for what is right and by refuting irresponsible decisions—even if it puts them at personal risk; they must challenge tradition, authority, and the status quo in a professional and mature manner; they must resist the growth of harmful practices such project overload, unrealistic project objectives, and the use of project managers as quasi-clerical support staff.

Professional societies must get back to helping build the profession; their professional credentialing and certification programs must become significantly more robust and designed in a way that develops and evaluates functional competency in a meaningful way, incorporating methods such as apprenticeships and peer reviews; they must discontinue the “Pollyanna” orientation of their member publications (magazines, journals, and newsletters)—where all projects go wonderfully—and begin using those communication tools as a vehicle for providing exposure to the challenges of project management, so that we may better understand those challenges and face them head-on.

Consulting firms must adopt more of a professional services orientation, and reduce their penchant for “tool-selling,” and promoting the concept that all project management can be addressed by following their 10-step process.

As is the case with most afflictions, the first step on the road to recovery is recognizing and admitting that a problem exists. That's a responsibility we all bear. You may not agree with everything put forth in this paper. You may agree, but not to the extent I have described the problem. However, if you do not agree with the premise of this paper altogether, you are either working in a wonderful organization, or you are in an unhealthy state of denial.

The next step is to get the issues out in the open—to discuss them, to problem-solve around them, and to remain committed to the mission of restoring the project management profession to a state of respect such that we can all be proud to say we belong.

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.

© 2009, Gary R. Heerkens, PMP, CPM, CBM, CIBA, PE, MBA
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings—Orlando, Florida

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