Myth busters

Laura Koenig, PMP, Cisco Systems, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Laura Koenig, PMP, Cisco Systems, Amsterdam, Netherlands


Budget, schedule and scope are only the beginning.

Project management is no static set of routines. It's a constantly evolving, open-to-innovation process.

“A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)–Fifth Edition, the captured and codified experience of thousands of project managers around the world, continues to grow. We project managers should not be dogmatic and rigid,” says Peter McBride, PMP, owner of project management advisory McBride Consulting Group, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. “We need to remain open and curious.”

Where there's change, there's the possibility for misconception. Only 54 percent of organizations fully understand the value of project management, according to PMI's Pulse of the Profession™ report. That might explain, in part, why project success rates are so low: Less than two-thirds meet their original business intents.

To set the record straight—and help organizations stay on track—we asked project managers to weigh in on five common project management myths.

Myth: Process Trumps People

Reality Check: “Process is meaningless without people,” says David Gardner, PMP, head of group marketing programs, Britvic Soft Drinks, Herts, England. This became painfully clear to him when the change of critical personnel contributed significantly to the failure of a long-term project. “The right people weren't engaging the right experts, so while many of the processes were being executed, good decision-making wasn't there,” he says.

Mr. Gardner is not alone in his experience. PMI's 2013 Pulse of the Profession™ In-Depth Talent Management report found that the scarcity of talent has impacted organizations' growth and profitability in the past year by: reducing quality (31 percent), inhibiting effective innovation (29 percent), canceling/delaying strategic initiatives (27 percent) and impeding the achievement of growth forecasts (25 percent).


“The right people weren't engaging the right experts, so while many of the processes were being executed, good decision-making wasn't there.”

—David Gardner, PMP, Britvic Soft Drinks, Herts, England

At military-vehicle services firm Tecmotiv Corp., a similar debacle occurred during a project's testing phase of a gas-leak detection system. A safety officer shut down a simulation because it required releasing nitrogen into the air, and asphyxiation was listed as one of the possible hazards of the task. “He was concerned that we could kill people nearby,” says Vaughan Callender, PMP, contract manager and researcher for the Toronto, Ontario, Canada-based firm. “The project was jeopardized because the safety officer didn't know that the air we breathe is approximately 78 percent nitrogen.”

Finding the right people is only the first step—they also need to be empowered to break from standard procedure when necessary. “I remember a statement from an early project management guide that said, ‘Apply as much of the process as is necessary,’” says Paul Maycock, PMP, business program manager in the London, England offices of telecommunications company Ericsson, a PMI Global Executive Council member. “This one sentence should be a mantra for project managers.”


Myth: Execution Is Everything

Reality Check: Organizations may be eager to get the job done, but pulling the trigger on a project without proper planning inevitably leads to “increased rework that creates frustration, hurdles in workflow, low efficiency and overruns in cost and time,” says M. Aslam Mirza, PMP, founder of Integrated Management Solutions, Karachi, Pakistan. The temptation to jump straight to execution is particularly strong when organizations use templates from past projects, he says.

Project managers must constantly battle the widely held belief that planning slows things down, says Mr. McBride. “Premature execution is a predictor of failure. We joke that all projects begin in execution, then move to planning—and finally to initiation. We all tend to just want to get started.” He remembers working with an executive who had a sign in his office that read, “We don't have any rules here. We are too busy trying to get things done.”

“The absence of planning only creates chaos and haphazard advancement on execution.”

—M. Aslam Mirza, PMP, Integrated Management Solutions, Karachi, Pakistan

It's funny—to everyone but a project manager. “The absence of planning only creates chaos and haphazard advancement on execution,” warns Mr. Mirza. “This leads to a shift from a proactive mode of controlling to firefighting.”

Myth: Once the Risk Register's Done, It's Full Speed Ahead

Reality Check: Many years ago, Laura Koenig, PMP, took over management of a call-center project that was 75 percent of the way to going live. While reviewing the plan, she asked why the risk of power outages in the project's life cycle had not been addressed.

Not two weeks later, the call center had to be evacuated for several hours when that risk was realized. The time away from desks and phones had a negative impact on customers. “It was a living example of the risk involved in not having a disaster-recovery plan in place,” says Ms. Koenig, program manager for global services supply chain based in the Amsterdam, Netherlands offices of networking equipment maker Cisco Systems. “And it was an important lesson learned to make sure all projects since then include a living risk management plan.”

Cheryl McIntyre-Hall, PMP, manager of the enterprise project management office of National Commercial Bank, Kingston, Jamaica, had a similar wake-up call when a network failure at the bank prevented some customers from accessing services during a high-usage period, necessitating a consistent review of risks that took into consideration the project's entire life cycle.


“Too often, it's not until a catastrophic event occurs and significantly impacts project progress that ongoing risk reviews are conducted.”

—Cheryl McIntyre-Hall, PMP, National Commercial Bank, Kingston, Jamaica

“Too often, risk management isn't included as an agenda item in project status meetings, and therefore the focus can get lost beyond the start of the project,” she says. “It's not until a catastrophic event occurs and significantly impacts project progress that ongoing risk reviews are conducted.” She advises project and program managers to convene separate risk-review meetings at regular intervals in the project or program “to ensure that risk management is always on the radar. This is critical especially for large and/or complex projects.”

“To have the business sense and strength to terminate a project that no longer fits the environment is to be praised, not punished.”

—Laura Koenig, PMP, Cisco Systems, Amsterdam, Netherlands


Myth: You Should Never Kill a Project

Reality Check: When the business landscape shifts, it may wipe out the very purpose upon which a project was built.

John Cable, PMP, director, Project Management Center for Excellence, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA, remembers a colleague's project that required developing smartphone tools and applications for recording and reporting information related to the project—right when smartphones started to gain popularity. “Then the whole technology in the phone changed fairly dramatically,” he says. Practically overnight, they were able to take photos, a capability that rendered moot the work the team had already done. “They had to completely shelve and redefine it,” he says.

Though it may sting to stop a project, sometimes that's the smartest move. Throughout Ms. Koenig's career with various companies, she has been on teams that, once the portfolio is set, get stuck in projects, sometimes for years, because so much work has already gone into them that no one is willing to pull the plug. “By the time the project is delivered, it is not always still relevant,” she says. “Sponsors and project managers alike are often afraid to kill a project midway through for fear that it may reflect badly on them. In my opinion the opposite is true: To have the business sense and strength to terminate a project that no longer fits the environment is to be praised, not punished.”

Emotional attachment by project owners may keep a project going even when it's no longer in line with the market needs, says Ms. McIntyre-Hall. “If the members of the portfolio governance structure get stuck in this mindset, then the organization risks not achieving its strategic objectives. This could have a more far-reaching effect, such as fall in market ranking, which may culminate in business downsizing if the situation persists.”

Myth: After Budgets Are Set, New Project Ideas Must Wait

Reality Check: Putting projects on hold can be a measured move in a fast-paced business environment. But ignoring an innovative idea because it doesn't align with budget cycles is a surefire way to miss big opportunities.

Michele Mills, PMP, noticed that each year, as soon as the annual budget allocation ended at the University of Utah Health Care, she would receive a large volume of project requests. “One day I had an epiphany,” says Ms. Mills, director of IT program management office, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. “As people thought about their operation's needs, they had projects that required capital funding. Most people didn't realize it would require capital dollars, so they submitted their projects as they thought of them.” Once she and her team recognized what was happening, they created a prioritization process that allowed them to respond to requests on a rolling basis.


“Ideas and innovation are not the problem, so stifling them is not the answer.”

—Michele Mills, PMP, University of Utah Health Care, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

“There will always be new ideas, innovation and project requests,” she says. “Ideas and innovation are not the problem, so stifling them is not the answer.” PM




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