Project Management Institute

Hard-won lessons

Those who live through
grow stronger, but
that's no reason to seek it out.
Effective executives understand
that project management
minimizes problems altogether.


In trying to beat the competition to market while facing economic pressures, many companies make the mistake of managing too many—or worse, the wrong—projects. By implementing project management processes that align with the tasks at hand, companies are able to accomplish seemingly insurmountable projects, control market changes and handle daunting risks.

The principal challenges facing executives in managing projects are developing a consistent approach (23.9 percent) and allocating resources (19.7 percent), according to a survey by the Center for Business Practices, the research division of Havertown, Pa., USA-based PM Solutions. The most commonly implemented solutions were software tools, methodology development and staff training—essentially implementing a consistent project approach with knowledgeable project leaders.


When confronted with problems, these four executives focused on the solution, which was enabled and implemented by project managers. In the end, they made the necessary corrections to overcome their situations and used what they learned to alter the course of future projects.

Keith Walters,

People often think of project management as unnecessary overhead. I believe, however, it keeps projects from going astray and helps with understanding risks ahead of time. In the end, it always pays off. Because Keane is an IT service firm, project management is a core competency.

In the 1960s, project management practices in the fledgling IT (or data processing as we called it then) business consisted primarily of the commitment of the project manager and the willingness of the team to get the job done. For a while this method worked well, but after a few over-budget projects put Keane at risk financially, the company adopted six principal guidelines to help avoid similar projects down the road:

  1. Define the job in detail
  2. Get the right people involved
  3. Estimate the time and costs
  4. Break the job down
  5. Establish a change procedure
  6. Agree on acceptance criteria.

In 2000, Keane opened a domestic development center in Dallas, Texas, USA. In the beginning, we failed to instill a deep project management discipline into the office, and as a result, most of our projects were running late and over budget. Although projects’ on-time delivery rate of 35 percent was better than industry average, according to Standish Group's CHAOS report, the extra time was costing money that wasn't being covered by the customer. By using a combination of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and the Capability Maturity Model, we began addressing change control and acceptance criteria. As a result, we were able to raise the on-time delivery rate to more than 90 percent in only six months.

Tony Jeff,

The Mississippi Technology Alliance strives to provide Mississippi, USA, with strong, fully integrated technology, education and industrial sectors. Many of its projects involve subcontractors, and project management is essential to keeping people on top of the tasks they are assigned. Over the years, project management has also become important to our company by providing goals and milestones along the way that make large projects seem achievable.


In January 2002, we kicked off the Mississippi Alternative Energy Enterprise (MAEE), an alternative energy project funded by the state. MAEE’s mission was to coordinate the efforts of industry, research universities and government into a cohesive energy strategy for the state, to assess the applicability of existing alternative energy technologies and to apply these technologies to Mississippi's resources. Initially, those involved were excited about the project. However, we failed in the beginning to break down the plan and illustrate the stakeholders’ roles and how they would contribute to the end result. A month into the project, many lost their energy because we hadn't made the plan actionable.

The project wrapped up three years later, and due to the experience, we learned it was necessary to take large, seemingly impossible tasks and break them down. Projects with a two- or three-year scope have a tendency to become daunting. If we can divide the job into pieces upfront, it usually is less scary.

Mark Ives,

One of the great things about project management is that it provides a framework that you can overlay in a given situation that is broad enough to apply to almost any circumstance while maintaining a strong focus on outcome. The power of this combination is tremendous.

In times of adversity, the very foundation assumptions that we rely on often are challenged, making it hard to know which direction to take. During these times, we can find ourselves most uncomfortable and unsure of what to do next, and this can be when project management offers some of the greatest value. From my own experience, I can recall a time when a major career change was thrust upon me, and I wasn't sure which way to go. Looking through a project management lens enabled me to accept the discomfort and uncertainty of the changing environment and to focus on re-establishing the scope and plan a way forward.


The key learning from this has been to take a step back and seek to understand where you are on the journey before pushing ahead. This is, of course, the classic project management challenge of being able to be in the project and yet, at the same time, to be able to view the project from the outside and understand where you really are.

Dale Knutson,


Argonne National Laboratory emerged from the transition of the Manhattan Project to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946. Today, the National Laboratory system is a modern element of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and a majority of the work conducted at Argonne is performed via projects. Our project practices have grown to include modern systems that use the PMI and ANSI (American National Standards Institute) project management standards and DOE project management orders as the benchmarks for our clients.

Project management practices are the stabilizing methods we use to deal with change in a national mission that demands over-the-horizon innovation. In 2004, the DOE determined that a new National Laboratory consolidating several existing operations in Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA would be established. This new laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, was to be dedicated to the mission of nuclear energy. The Idaho transition represented a 30-day project to transition 900 people, about a million square feet of facilities and nuclear-related inventory and infrastructure, and $85 million per year in operating revenue from Chicago, Ill., USA, to Idaho Falls.

The cultural issues to be addressed by the project were more substantial. The nuclear energy mission has been a cornerstone of the relationship between Argonne and the University of Chicago, the laboratory operating contractor. Implementing this project meant re-establishing individuals, some of whom were linked to the University of Chicago for more than 40 years, with the new operating contractor in Idaho. The tools of scope management, project communication and risk management were critical to minimize financial and personal impact.

The transition has now been completed, and Argonne continues to use its outstanding laboratorywide portfolio management methodology to help address issues of overhead management, integration of technical resources and communication.

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