Project Management Institute

Professional project management

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Concerns of Project Managers

Special Topics—Telecommunications

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Competitive survival in today's environment will depend to a large degree on an organization's ability to manage projects, effectively and efficiently….All of the components of the overall project management process need to be complimentary of each other and implemented as an integrated program.

Competitive survival in today's environment will depend to a large degree on an organization's ability to manage projects, effectively and efficiently. Today's business imperatives require high quality, low cost, and ahead-of-schedule delivery of projects. Since projects have been around for centuries, i.e., the Pyramids, the Suez Canal, the development of the Polaris submarines, etc., managing projects is not a new management challenge. The ability to deliver the project without the traditional problems associated with scope, quality, costs, and duration are the challenge. In the past, overruns induration and costs and the lack of delivery of total scope at high quality levels were tolerated and accepted as being part of the business-as-usual mentalities. In the current environment, the best companies are breaking the business-as-usual mentality, eliminating cost overruns and deficient product delivery by implementing sound project management practices.

It has become very widely recognized that project management skills are needed for successful existence in the future. Tom Peters in his recent book, Liberation Management, goes as far as saying that all business should be conducted in a project approach with temporary project teams focused on a defined deliverable over a specific period of time. Many organizations are in the midst of creating and implementing a formal project management process.

Unfortunately, these organizations are making many common mistakes in their attempts at creating these project management processes. Common among the many Information Management and Movement (IM&M) organizations with which I have had the opportunity to interface, is the inability of management to recognize the fact that there are different levels of project management skills and processes required for different types of projects. Fundamentally, the skill required is the ability to recognize the difference between the requirement for classical project management and the requirement for sophisticated process management. The key to this ability resides in the classical definition of a project, i.e., a unique undertaking with a defined scope, a specific duration, at a defined cost, and a defined start and finish date.

The best companies are breaking the business-as-usual mentality, eliminating cost overruns and deficient product delivery by implementing sound project management practices.

This definition is occasionally ignored when another industry-common problem occurs. This compounding problem relates to the way-various levels of management address project assignments. Inevitably, the closer the management decision gets to the local organization, the greater the tendency for the local management to make a decision for their peeple to take on projects that are larger and more complex than they or their processes have been designed to handle. Although, clearly less qualified than a dedicated and specialized project management organization, the local management philosophy is basically that these larger projects offer their people an opportunity to improve their skills, which they do, but at a very high risk of not meeting all of the project objectives. The local management, also, does not fully recognize the significant negative ramification that when a mega-project goes bad, it is not possible to recover without significant unbudgeted cost and loss of prestige in the local and national marketplace.

Management exposes itself to significant risk by taking on megaprojects when neither the project managers nor the processes they use are designed to handle the complexity inherent in such projects. While the desire to improve project managers’ skills is understandable, that must be weighed against the added risk of cost overruns and possible loss of prestige in the event that the effort fails.

The next issue to address is defining whether you have a process problem or a project management problem, or both. This article provides clues that will tip you off if a project management problem exists. It provides a high-level model to create professional project managers who will solve the project management problems as well as create the professional project management environment to ensure continued project success.

THE CLUES

The following list of questions about project results will generate answers that will reveal typical problems caused by a poor management process:

  • Have your projects been inconsistent in one or more of the fundamental aspects of project performance such as budget, schedule, scope or quality?
  • Do you wonder why sometimes your projects are raving successes and sometimes they are outright disasters? Not to mention all the projects that have produced results in between.
  • Do you wonder why some of your project managers succeed and others fail?
  • Do you feel too involved in your projects?
  • Do you wish you were involved more and earlier with the projects that end up as disasters?
  • Have you pondered why your project managers seem to encounter the same problems over and over again?
  • Do you wonder why your project managers cannot produce the desired results by doing it right the first time?
  • Are you tired of hearing about how successful a project was, then having to listen to a long list of qualifications to the term “successful”?
  • Are your financial results on your projects unattractive or even dismal?
  • Does Tom Peters’ prognostication of “If you do something well seven people hear about it, if you do something poorly twenty-two people hear about it” apply to your organization?
  • Is your reputation or the reputation of your organization suffering from Tom Peters’ observation?

If any of the above apply to your organization, don't feel bad. These are all common problems associated with a project-type environment.

This article looks at today's business problems from an organizational leader's perspective, a leadership position that is responsible for an organization that delivers products and/or services as its organizational function in life.

THE PATHOLOGY OF THE PROJECT'S PROBLEMS

Typically, tie above mentioned problems stem from a lack of defined processes that have been proven through trial and error in the real world. You need to reduce the number of errors that your company, business unit, or organization has to go through to develop a process or set of processes that provide consistent, high performance. These errors are very costly in both dollars and client satisfaction.

Many times I have seen major projects won, and after the required celebration, the winning company's management looks around for someone to label as a “project manager.” Once this lucky person is found, the management equips the person with not much more than blue-line pad of paper and a pencil, sometimes even a computer, and instructs the person to “project manage” the project.

This person is generally trained in one of the functional aspects of the project, but not as a project manager. As a consequence, the project manager begins digging in-depth into the functional area of their own expertise. It is only human nature for people to spend their time in their comfort zone. Unfortunately, this often results in an inordinate amount of time being spent in the project manager's own comfort zone at the expense of the overall project.

Management exposes itself to significant risk by taking on megaprojects when neither the project managers nor the processes they use are designed to handle the complexity inherent in such projects.

After using as much creative avoidance as possible, the “project manager” begins to manage the project, asking around about the best way to start, or intuitively figuring out that there better be a meeting to get the project going.

This meeting generally tends to be a get-acquainted meeting with pretty loose agenda, if it has an agenda at all. Many of these newly-dubbed project managers understand from their general management training that they should review the objectives of the project with their team. Unfortunately, the idea of scope is not clear in their minds and is generally mixed into the objectives. Consequently, the differentiation between scope and objectives is misunderstood, which in turn will confuse the team. Although the project manager may want to define the scope of the project and the respective responsibilities of each of the project team members as well as getting some definition of schedule, many of these novice PMs do not know the tools and techniques that would make this a relatively easy activity. Therefore, these meetings often result in partial completion of all the above objectives without any fully completed deliverables. This typically will start the initial frustrations of the functional team members with the project manager, which is exactly the wrong thing to happen at the beginning of a project.

From this point on, it generally gets worse. These neophyte project managers are often times guessing and looking for solutions throughout their project opportunity. Most of their time is spent putting out the proverbial fires that occur on their projects. I can always tell the poorer project managers, they are the ones constantly on the phone and always getting interrupted during conferences, training sessions, and meetings. These project managers are always in a firefighter mode because they lack the tools, knowledge, and expertise to make their projects run effectively through proper planning, clear understanding of each team member's responsibilities, expectations and processes for handling unplanned occurrences.

The most common reason for this situation—which I view as the project running the project team instead of the reverse—is the project manager's attempts to become the sole integration point of the whole project. For example, if one functional unit runs into an unexpected event involving another functional unit, the leader of the complaining functional unit turns to the project manager rather than the other functional unit to solve the problem. If allowed to continue for the life of the project, it often becomes a contest on whether the life of the project will be longer than the life of the project manager. With good lines of communication established between functional units the project manager can expect the two functional leaders to solve the problem and avoid lots of emergency interruptions and midnight calls.

Unfortunately, it seems that all project managers have to go through some degree of getting their fingers burned by functional task leaders. Whether intentional or not, the functional leaders will provide inaccurate or incomplete information. They may provide erroneous start and finish dates or leave out relevant information in their status reports, such as starting on the correct date but with only half of the resources that were planned. Their productivity assumptions involved in the task may be too high or they may forget to tell you that the resources had to be imported from a remote location resulting in half of the planned productive time being used for travel.

Without the proper monitoring/controlling processes in place, the project manager will become a frequent victim of fire fighting, which will feed on itself throughout the project life cycle.

Once the project manager is into fire fighting mode, time will be consumed by today's fires and nothing will be done to reduce tomorrow's fires. When tomorrow comes, since nothing was done via planning to minimize tomorrow's problems, the cycle continues to repeat itself. Not only is this a problem for the current project, but it also has a tendency to change the fundamental perception of what a project manager is supposed to contribute to the project.

The high-level solution is to create a defined, written-down, detailed, and professional project management process.

When fire fighting becomes the norm, the organization begins to think that the best firefighters are the best project managers. These firefighters will get maximum visibility, since their fire fighting often requires higher level management intervention before something is corrected. In reality, the best project managers will minimize the need for fire fighting and have a very dull project that consistently meets schedule dates, runs under budget, delivers the required scope, and makes the client happy. When fire fighting is required on these well-run projects, most of the problems are solved at a low level by the people best qualified to solve them, the functional teams doing the work. In today's world of highly political environments, pressed-for-time managers, and general lack of time for detailed information, only the squeaky wheels get higher level attention. This contributes to the firefighter perceptions from upper management.

Client acceptance/project close out is always a thrill on poorly managed projects. Typically the acceptance criteria and procedures are not clearly defined, understood, or written down in advance of the acceptance period. This leads to changes in the acceptance criteria as the acceptance is taking place. The proverbial moving target analogy becomes appropriate and the acceptance period begins to take on the characteristics of the never ending project.

SOME OF THE SOLUTIONS

Although space does not permit defining all the solutions to the identified problems, this article can point a supervising manager in the right direction.

The high-level solution is to create a defined, written-down, detailed, and professional project management process.

The path to a professional process has been blazed and recorded in many places. The Project Management Institute has a body of knowledge, built over the last 24 years. This body of knowledge is constantly being refined and updated. The body of knowledge serves as a good starting point for developing a project management process. The process then needs to be professionally refined and adapted to reflect the characteristics and unique requirements of the particular businesses and technologies.

This project management process needs to incorporate the following components:

Personnel

The most important component in a successful project management process is the people. They must be recruited, provided a meaningful career path, and compensated adequately.

Recruiting. Recruit highly-motivated people with the ability to deal with very steep learning curves. These people must recognize that becoming a professional project manager takes years of education, training, and successful experience and are willing to accept the time requirement to become proficient at project management. They need to have good interpersonal and communication skills, since a great deal of their success depends upon these particular skill sets.

The common corporate expectation of spending a few years in project management and then moving on to something else should not apply to the project management group except in three cases.

  • The first case is the project management group is being created for some short-term duration and, consequently, does not need to invest in the training and career pathing to develop professionals.
  • The second exception is the senior or middle management of the company does not recognize or value the benefits produced by professional project managers versus general management personnel coordinating projects.
  • The third exception, which I believe to be the only valid reason for not expecting people to spend careers becoming professional project managers, relates to those individuals who are upwardly mobile and are expected to rise to middle or senior management.

I believe that the project manager position is one of the absolute best management experiences for a rising manager to include in their career path. The responsibility set is very similar to that of the general manager, since the project manager is expected to manage across multiple disciplines and generate an integrated product or service relying on the functional unit's specific technical expertise.

Career path. In order to retain these project management professionals, an attractive career path needs to be established within the project management organization.

This career path is equally important for the organization as well as the individuals. The career path offers the opportunity for management to minimize the risks involved with their projects, at least in one sense. The one common thread among the project disasters that I have seen in my experience is where a new project manager, or a partially trained project manager, is given a major project at his/her first opportunity. Career pathing offers the organization the ability to ensure that a major project is given to a project manager who has had training and an opportunity to successfully manage smaller projects, or at least portions of larger projects, before being given a major opportunity.

Compensation. If people are going to be enticed into spending their careers in a professional project management position, their compensation needs to reflect the employee's willingness to give up some potential technical or general management promotional opportunities. A compensation plan based on some percentage of salary at risk dependent upon performance on a project with the ability to earn above the salary norm for the management level in which the project manager resides appears to be the most appropriate compensation method.

Education

Format project management education must include the generic methods and principles of project management. Educational recognition such as a certificate or Master's degree from an accredited school serves as an additional motivation for the project management student to complete the curriculum. It also improves the project manager's resumé when competing for a project or even another project management position.

Training

Training should take the generic project management methods and principles learned in the educational program and adapt them to the specific applications for which they will be used. This format is consistent with the way most project managers were educated by the school system in the United States, i.e., from the general to the specific.

Standardized Project Management Process

This includes standardized professional methodologies using standardized tools and measuring performance by standardized criteria. Critical to this process is the inclusion of a continuous improvement sub-process, one designed specifically to find ways of improving the process over time.

Another useful tool is a publicized and maintained qualifications measurement process that provides additional qualification credit for education, training, demonstrated use of the standardized tools, and successful project management experience. This serves as a very strong directional device for your project managers relative to what the organization considers important and what personal improvement activities they should be planning for themselves.

This area of the overall project management process is by far the most complex and takes the greatest amount of expertise and time to develop. This is the area where professional project management input is critical in developing a successful program.

All of the components of the overall project management process need to be complimentary of each other and implemented as an integrated program.

CONCLUSION

Many people and organizations have recognized the value of a project management process, which is the primary reason “project management” is currently enjoying the status of a corporate buzzword.

Unfortunately, I have seen a number of organizations attempt to create an in-house project management process, using internal and/or external resources, that are not familiar with professional project management methods, principles, and practices. Most of these attempts end up with some modified version of the old processes disguised with new terminology and different packaging, or a whole new set of processes with the same fundamental weaknesses of the old process as it relates to project management.

For a permanent solution to be put into place, dedicated attention as well as funding has to be directed at not only the logical and more obvious aspects of developing true professionals, but also the less tangible but equally important aspects of creating a professional organization. As with other professionals such as lawyers, doctors, etc., this means management must give attention to training, education and successful experience, as well as the intangibles such as building a cohesive network of peers and a career path.

One other aspect needs to be addressed. As in any political environment attention needs to be given to the widespread publication of recognition of achievement by the project manager, the project team, and the project's business organization. Without continual attention being drawn towards the project manager, especially one that is not a member of the local organization, when funding time comes around again, people will develop very short memories about the contributions of the project manager.

If all of the above mentioned factors can be addressed a process will be created that will guarantee a continuing succession of effective and successful project managers.

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Daniel P. Ono has been involved with project management within AT&T for the past 20 years. He is currently project management director for the Global Business Communications Systems of AT&T.

An active member of the Project Management Institute and a certified Project Management Professional, he has served as vice president of the Los Angeles PMI Chapter, and is on the Advisory Board of the Northern California PMI Chapter. He is also the marketing director for the 1993 Asilomar Annual Conference, and a track chair at the 1993 PMI Seminar/Symposium in San Diego.

He holds a B.S. in personnel and industrial relations from San Francisco State University and is a graduate of the Executive Development Program at the Golden Gate University.

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.

AUGUST 1993

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