Resolving four key issues facing the project management community


The key issues facing today's project management community revolve around: 1) Ensuring Project Success, 2) Preventing Project Failures, 3) Enhancing Project Competencies and 4) Cultivating Effective Project Managers. This paper addresses 11 crucial questions relating to both the project as well as the project manager.


This session is going to be conducted as a Forum; in other words, a discussion hosted by a facilitator who guides the discussion around a particular topic. Unlike a Lecture, the learning will come from the interchange amongst your colleagues attending the session. Therefore, the following will not be presented in a PowerPoint slide presentation. Below are the facilitator's thoughts on the subject, which will only be shared at the topic level. The real insights will come from the dialogue amongst the group.

Ensuring Project Success

Question 1: How can we build a culture, which will accommodate successful projects?

*** Accept that organizations have transitioned from transaction-driven to project-driven enterprises. The focus is not processing insurance claims or boxing and selling cereal boxes. Processing transactions is a necessity that keeps organizations alive. These organizations have been doing the basic processing of transactions for so long that it is not a challenge. But every time a new process is implemented, or a new system is installed, or a new product or service is introduced, a project is initiated. New projects keep organizations growing and competitive in the marketplace.

*** Ensure that management champions project management All executives within an organization have accountability for seeing that the discipline of project management is successful. They must prioritize to the Triple Constraint. They must monitor progress in an efficient and effective manner. They must require that an appropriate infrastructure be in place, which will support the project and the project management discipline. These management champions must take seriously their oversight and governance role.

*** Define metrics upon which projects will be graded. In many projects, metrics are the data collected after the project is completed in order to be used to plan the next, similar project. We can't wait until the end of the project. Management wants metrics throughout the evolution of the project. Review every report we produce. If we are collecting the data and producing the report then we must be expecting some result. These expected results become the criteria upon which success will be measured during the project as well as at the end of the project. If a status report is being produced and you see no reason to make that data a success metric, then don't waste time collecting the data and producing the report.

Question 2: What ensures effective communication, the primary key to project success?

*** Implement a communication plan. Elegance can be seen in simplicity. A communication plan appears to be so simple. It contains who (the name of the person with whom to communicate), what (the type of information to be disseminated), why (what is the objective of the communication), when (how frequently) and via what communication mechanism (the most effective mode for that unique type of communication). The mere act of creating and following a communication plan will solve many of the problems caused by poor communications.

*** Position communication as a two-way street One-way communication from the project manager to the various constituencies is self-defeating. It does not provide the information that the project manager needs in order to make good business decisions. Also one-way communication does not guarantee the buy-in of the people involved in the project management community. Answer these two questions: What does the project manager do to give to each constituency and what in return does the project manager need to get from each constituency.

*** Consider various communication intake styles. All people do not ‘accept’ information the same way. Some people are visual (right brained) and prefer graphics while others are linear (left brained) and prefer lists. Some people love email while others would rather have a telephone conversation. Broadcasting the correct information, but presenting in an incorrect format or mode can cause communication to fail.

Preventing Project Failures

Question 3: How can we be sure that active projects map to the organizational strategy.

*** Integrate Strategic Management with Project Management. This takes the Portfolio Management system and brings it up a notch. Decisions from the strategic planning process become the directive from which projects are initiated. The various constituencies need to recognize the connection between the Strategic Plan and the project. Strategic Planning converted into an ongoing Strategic Management process reviews strategic objectives and filters down any changes in organizational direction so that the project manager can redirect his/her efforts appropriately.

Question 4: What can be done to proactively avoid project failure?

*** Don't bite off more than you can chew. Today's projects are more complex, more visible and more pervasive. In reality, many of these mammoth efforts are not projects, they are programs. A program needs to be sub-divided into smaller projects which are then sub-divided into smaller and smaller pieces of work until they are of a size which produces one deliverable, can be managed by one coordinator, and is defined using only one active verb.

*** Don't plan to a detailed level until you have the information. The Phased or Rolling Wave approach of planning and estimating applies here. Plan down to a detailed level for a short planning horizon. Make high-level approximations for the rest of the project. Using the new information and decisions made while completing the first planning horizon, plan in detail for the next planning horizon and re-evaluate the approximations for the work that remains in the project and for the final targets. This Rolling Wave theory sets attainable expectations, prevents embarrassing reforecasting and saves a lot of time and frustration reworking plans.

*** Don't leave accountability undefined. Accountability is the designation of one person to coordinate every “chunk” of work. The accountable person sees to it that the effort is completed on time, within budget, and of the quality promised. And if this is not possible, that person is accountable for communicating with the appropriate individuals and working to resolve the hurdle which might cause project failure.

Question 5: What does one do to bring a project back on track?

*** Don't take the job unless you believe you can succeed. If the powers-that-be want to give you a project that is in bad shape, don't say yes until you have found out why it is trouble and if it is feasible to bring it out of trouble and ultimately make the customer(s) happy. If the project appears not to be recoverable, don't take the job without negotiating total management support (both with resources and political clout).

*** Call a very large time-out. Stop the project until you have a chance to isolate the crux of the problem. Get everyone involved in the analysis of the trouble and keep everyone informed. Do not make it a witch hunt for the people who did something wrong. Just focus on what needs to be accomplished in order to move forward.

*** Check internally first. The plan may have been incorrect from the beginning, the team members are not contributing as promised, and/or the money has not been spent wisely, etc. Check externally next. Enterprise project priorities may have changed, technology was different than anticipated, and/or economic conditions have reversed - only to name a few.

*** Concentrate on solving only the major problems. In order words, follow Pareto's Law. Don't try to solve everything or the project will never get back on track. Just address the biggest hurdles. Assign the team to fix what they can. It is everyone's job, not just yours. Allow the rest of the project to move on slowly while the major hurdles are rectified.

Enhancing Project Competencies

Question 6: What skills should a project manager possess?

*** Rethink the skill mix. Today the skills most in demand are critical thinking, innovation, and people management - everything that has to do with taking accountability for this unique venture called a project. Least in demand are skills showing that the project manager is the best Gantt-chart-maker on the planet or can decorate their office in early PERT network. Yes, employers are looking for a highly competent project professional. However, that is no longer enough. Business acumen is being sought in order to take the project enterprise to a successful conclusion ensuring promised revenue or cost containment, thus contributing to the well-being and future of the organization.

*** Promote leadership. Effective projects managers are effective leaders. Effective leaders follow three basic tenets; he/ she 1) sets direction, 2) provides support and 3) removes obstacles.

Question 7: What are the various training needs of the project community?

*** Address the need-to-know competencies first. Project managers need to know how to produce and to use the tools of the project management trade. The project manager needs to know how to best manage and motivate the project team members. On the other hand, the team members need to understand conceptually the tools and specifically how to provide the correct data/information needed by the project manager, how to use the reports to better manage their microcosm of the project and what their role is within the project environment. Each of the project constituencies, including project sponsors, functional (resource managers), vendors, top management, to name a few, all have unique project management training needs.

*** Provide hands-on skill practice opportunities. Cognitive understanding a skill by attending a class or by reading a book is only the first step. For a skill to become a competency, it must be practiced over and over again. This repetitive reinforcement can be accomplished in a variety of ways. A work session can be scheduled with the express purpose of practicing a newly learned skill. Various on-line learning tutorials can be offered requiring the repetition of the skill until it becomes habit. The most effective way to translate a skill into a competency is on-the-job learning. The learner, with their manager's support, can orchestrate opportunities to practice the skill in a real-world, yet non-threatening, environment.

Question 8: What are the possible learning options to enhance project competencies?

*** Attend seminars and symposia. A seminar gathers together a subject matter expert and a group of colleagues to address a specific topic. Project Management Institute (PMI®) conducts a series of seminars. A symposium is more expansive. For example, PMI puts on an annual symposium (or congress), which consists of both pre and post seminars as well as classic track speeches.

*** Participate in an on-line learning event These are typically interactive, computer-based training modules. Students follow a curriculum of instruction that may include reading text, answering questions, and performing exercises. Often tests follow each module to measure the student's learning. PMI has an excellent and expanding eSeminars inventory of high quality on-line learning events.

*** Access a reference library. This library is typically a database of articles, proceedings papers, white papers, research works, and other educational materials. Ideally, this material is made available on-line with a thorough index. Users are able to enter key words to help locate the materials that best meet their needs. PMI has created just such a library called the Knowledge and Wisdom Center

Cultivating Effective Project Managers

Question 9: What are the characteristics (defined as “a distinguishing feature or quality”) that effective project managers must possess?

*** Raise the bar. The marketplace is looking for knowledge in financial, strategic planning, and product development to name a few. After business acumen, employers are searching for leadership attributes, which give the project manager the ability to manage teams from across the enterprise.

*** Differentiate the value-added from that which can be outsourced. Being just “another pair of hands” does not make one indispensable. The goal is to acquire the competencies to manage the endeavor around the clock and around the world.

*** Balance between technical and humanistic characteristics. A project manager needs a logical mind that is able to grasp concept as well as miniscule data, to dissect as well as to synthesize, to work with paper as well as with people, to follow directives while issuing directives to others always being professional, ethical and honest. And once he/she recognizes that they do not personally possess (nor does any human being) all these characteristics to surround themselves with a support team that does.

Question 10: What strategies will cultivate effective project managers?

*** Establish a Mentorship Program. Throughout history, formal mentorship programs have existed guiding the ‘apprentice’ to becoming a ‘journeyman’ and ultimately the journeyman to becoming a full-fledged practitioner who acts as a mentor to others. Cultures have survived by passing knowledge from the elders to the young. A mentor is neither the boss nor the trainer. The mentor can be described as the Guide on the Side; rather than the Sage on the Stage. Somehow our project management discipline has never institutionalized the concept of formal mentorship. It may be time that we consider it.

*** Emphasize productivity. The drive to do more with less money and fewer resources, to do it faster, and to produce the highest quality deliverable will never go away. In order to accomplish this mandate, the biggest bang for the buck comes from increasing productivity. Project leaders need to be given the tools and the training to facilitate greater productivity.

Question 11: What is the most difficult and consistent problem with which a project manager must deal? - The answer is Conflict

*** Encourage a culture of “appropriate” conflict. Attempting to stifle conflict will not be successful nor will it be productive. However, encouraging people to attack and embarrass others with whom they disagree is also damaging. The operative word is “appropriate”. This can be done when the project manager becomes a role model demonstrating how to handle conflict professionally.

*** Learn techniques to participate in “appropriate” conflict. Appropriate conflict means being able to approach disagreement in a tactful and diplomatic way. Speaking the correct words using a professional tone is one guideline. Active listening to what the other person is saying is a second guideline. Rather than responding immediately with your conflicting point of view, ask probing questions. This technique gives you time to prepare your ‘tactful’ response and will help you better understand the other person's perspective. Conflict resolution is a skill which can be learned.

*** Ask a competent facilitator to help. Sometimes having a third party who can facilitate the discussion avoids tempers flaring, hurting words being said and possibly a stalemate, which becomes almost impossible to break.

*** Establish an escalation process before the project begins. The conflict may not be resolved no matter how articulate and diplomatic the project manager is. Therefore, escalating to a mediator, or even to an arbitrator, may be necessary. Decide who that person will be and the process for escalation during the planning phase of the project.


The four key issues facing the project management community; 1) Ensuring Project Success, 2) Preventing Project Failures, 3) Enhancing Project Competencies and 4) Cultivating Effective Project Managers will remain constant this year, next year, and for years to come. However, the questions that will be asked and the answers that will resolve those questions will change each year as the business climate and as our personal goals and aspirations change. This paper presents you a challenge. Address each of these questions and their associated resolution. Make them “your own”; in other words, rework each to be a personal goal. Work toward that goal through the next year. Revise it, if and when necessary. Consider presenting this development plan to your manager or keep it to yourself - but work it. And mark on your calendar - September 13, 2006 (one year from today) to come back and revisit these four key issues replacing the old questions with new ones that are relevant to the new business climate and to the evolving vision of your future.

©2005, Joan Knutson
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada



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