Project Management Institute

Software packages don’t manage projects--people do!

Curtis W. Clark, Consultant, Kepner-Tregoe, Inc.


The perception that better software leads to better project management is becoming more common with the proliferation of “new and improved” IT solutions. These packages are more complex than ever and are often touted as silver bullets by their makers. This paper examines a four-dimensional approach to installing a high performance project delivery system—using software you already have!

Software is always a hot topic of conversation among professionals in project management. We are seeing new and improved versions of the old standby products, as well as a proliferation in new packages. One only needs to walk the exhibit aisles of any project management conference to observe the large variety of software vendors with their many offerings. This is dangerous because many of us are technically oriented and are naturally drawn to cool new technology, often simply because of novelty. And admittedly, it is exciting to watch the demonstration of the many new bells and whistles. We are wowed to learn that we can download schedules into our PalmPilots or see Monte Carlo simulation performed on our project plans. However, as project managers we have to understand that software solutions are just that—solutions. They are solutions to specific project management information management needs. Those needs come from the way an organization has structured its project management processes in relation to its other systems. A disconnect often arises when an organization tries to structure an architecture or process approach around a particular software product, which is akin to the decision-making fallacy of having alternatives in search of objectives. In other words, it’s backwards. The framework and support for project management in the organization must come before any software tool selection.

Our experience with client organizations that are successful in project management indicates that they have achieved that success independent of specific software selection in many, if not all cases. The truth is that all of these organizations use various types of software extensively, and some of them do have the latest and greatest packages. However, the software did not come first. These organizations would likely continue to be good at project management should they choose to remove or replace their software packages tomorrow. What is it that sets them apart? Why are they effective in their approach to managing projects no matter how sophisticated (or simple) the software? Can an organization really be successful in managing large or complex projects without a large and complex program to “help?” Read on.

A recent survey of project managers from the membership of the Project Management Institute indicates that out of the top ten most frequently used project management software tools, four are common desktop PC programs (MS Word, Excel, Access, and Visio) that are not even traditionally categorized as project management software (Fox, 2000). Members of the Project Management Institute certainly rank high in terms of both project management success and enthusiasm, right? Why then are so many using everyday Microsoft Office tools instead of the high-octane and more glamorous PM software packages? Perhaps those folks know something that’s worth sharing.

The Four Dimensions of Project Management Success

An organization can achieve success in project management by utilizing a four-dimensional approach to design and install a project management architecture that supports and encourages world-class performance. The four dimensions are:

1. Master Project Planning

2. Project Portfolio Management

3. Project Management Competencies

4. Human Performance Environment

Master Project Planning

The Master Project Plan flows directly from the organization’s strategy. In other words, this plan includes all of the initiatives that the organization must undertake to achieve its strategic objectives. This assumes of course, that there is a valid strategy. Senior executives must test this assumption before any Master Project Planning effort is undertaken.

At the highest-level, we can break an organization’s overall direction into two pieces: The “what” and the “why.” The organization’s strategy is the “what.” What business are we in? What products and/or services will we provide? What markets will we serve, etc.? The “why” stems from the basic beliefs of the organization, and provides the glue that holds the organization together. An example of a basic belief from our organization is that we will “Produce practical, useful results for each client.” These beliefs are the reasons why the business does whatever it has chosen to do.

Where does Master Project Planning fit? In keeping with our model above, following the “what” and the “why,” the next logical question is “how?” The Master Project Plan is the how. The organization needs a map that leads it to its destination. Assuming that an organization has defined and articulated its strategy well, the destination should be clear. The Master Project Planning effort asks, “How do we get there from here?”

The goal is to identify everything that must happen in order to get us to our destination. Some of the questions used to drive the Master Project Planning process are:

What products must be developed, modified, or acquired?

How do we become more responsive to our customers?

How do we achieve better market penetration?

The results of the exercise will typically produce a few major initiatives that will likely require the commissioning and/or decommissioning of many projects. Each project in the Master Project Plan must be chartered with specific and measurable objectives. The overall Master Project Plan must be assigned to a senior executive who becomes the implementation officer. The overall plan also needs to be reviewed frequently to ensure that it continues to guide the organization towards its desired destination.

Without a Master Project Plan, There Is no Reason to Expect That the Strategy Will Get Implemented

Software Required for Master Project Planning? None.

Project Portfolio Management

All projects, those that directly implement strategy as well as those that are more operational in nature, need to be managed adeptly by using the principles from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). A Project Portfolio Management approach goes one step further by providing a system for prioritizing and managing projects across the entire organization.

Despite being well funded and managed by intelligent, experienced individuals, many projects exceed their schedules, bust their budgets and fail to deliver desired results. This is sometimes caused by a lack of fundamental project management skills among project management professionals. In other cases it is caused by unfocused priorities and/or inadequate approaches to managing multiple projects. Project Portfolio Management addresses the latter.

Effective Project Portfolio Management means knowing the relative value and risk associated with every project that has been proposed or is already under way. It means continually knowing how resources are deployed across projects and how many project resources are available for new projects. Most of all, it means making tough decisions about which projects will be done when—if at all—based on a shared understanding of each project’s potential for adding value to the organization.

The process steps in Project Portfolio Management are:

Establish objectives for the overall portfolio. These objectives must be in alignment with the Master Project Plan and agreed to by the senior management team.

Establish clear measures for each objective. For example, if an objective states “System must be user-friendly,” then we must ask, “as measured by what?” Is it the number of keystroke errors, or is it the number of user complaints?

Analyze the organization’s resource capacity to do projects (above and beyond regular, ongoing activities) by department.

Gather and organize pertinent data on each project (objectives, major deliverables, schedules, resource requirements, risks, etc.).

Evaluate each project against the portfolio objectives in order to assign priority. The organization must see how each project “measures up.”

Assign resources across all projects, in priority order.

Make decisions on projects that should not be or cannot be accomplished.

The result is a portfolio of projects that are aligned with organization’s Master Project Plan. Remember that the Master Project Plan normally includes a few large initiatives that are broken down into projects. The Project Portfolio includes all of those projects as well as those that are more operational. The benefit to the organization is the ability to see the status of all significant projects and identify potential problems—things like resource constraints that may become roadblocks along the route to the final destination. The portfolio also provides management teams with better information to make critical decisions. For example, in many cases the resource loading shows that the organization is attempting far too many projects and hence, the management team must decide what sacrifices must be made. We know that if we chase two rabbits, then they will both get away. Project Portfolio Management keeps us from chasing too many rabbits with too few resources.

Project Portfolio Management is separate from the management of a single project. It is also much more than just reviewing a rolled-up or summary Gantt chart for many projects. A portfolio database will be developed by gathering common project information from each individual project. The data must allow the objective evaluation of the project against the portfolio objectives. For example, a portfolio objective may be “Project Net Present Value must be greater than or equal to $1 million.” In this case, NPV must be calculated for each project in the portfolio so that the individual projects can be assigned a priority against all the other initiatives. Note that if this objective is truly a “must,” then it will require the cancellation of any project that has less that $1 million in NPV.

Project Portfolio Management must be set up and supported as an ongoing process. Organizations that manage project portfolios effectively recognize the need and have installed the architecture to ensure the programs perseverance. Examples include a project office with a full-time project portfolio manager assigned and an executive steering committee that reviews the portfolio at least quarterly.

Software Required? A common desktop database (e.g., MS Access) is preferred for its flexibility in viewing projects in priority order, with resource loading across the organization.

Project Management Competencies

Project Management Competencies fall into three primary categories. First, there’s the required content expertise. It’s hard to imagine a successful project manager in aircraft manufacturing who has never heard the word aileron. Second, a project manager must have project management technical skills. This includes things like CPM or PERT methodology, resource leveling, quality management, etc. Finally, a good project manager must be competent in dealing with human beings. And in the words of Stephen Covey, “This is sometimes referred to as the soft side of project management, but in reality, it’s the hard side.” In our experience, it’s the human side of project management that will most likely cause a project to be unsuccessful. Perhaps it’s labeled the soft skills because it does not require four, six, or eight years of higher education, or even any specific amount of experience, yet it is still the downfall of many projects. A thorough understanding of the human performance system is mandatory. World-class project management organizations ensure that their project managers have a balance of all three types of competencies.

Some of the basic skills required to support a high-performance project delivery system are:

Project management fundamental training based on PMBOK® Guide principles

Facilitation and meeting management skills

Team building

Management of agreement

The ability to clarify issues and set priority

Structured decision-making

Risk management

Opportunity management

Root cause analysis

Managing Involvement including an understanding of different leadership styles

Understanding the human performance environment and the factors that influence it.

This list is certainly not exhaustive and some items will apply more than others, depending on the nature of the organization.

Software RequiredNone.

That’s right! Project Management Competencies involve lots of things outside of software skills. The evidence is all the top-notch project managers out there who still use Franklin Planners and legal pads as their primary tools. Remember that four of the top 10 software tools are not even considered project management software!

In reality, many organizations are using software to capture Work Breakdown Structures, schedules, resource assignments, etc., and will need to train their project management teams in the use of those tools. In fact, it’s hard to imagine managing large projects without the aid of scheduling software, at a minimum. The point here is that those tools are secondary to the fundamental skills required to produce world-class project management.

Human Performance Environment

The work environment, not just people and projects, plays a pivotal role in getting results. This includes making sure people have the right expectations and resources, and that obstacles are removed. It includes people clearly understanding the “what’s in it for me” of achieving success. And it also includes making sure people know how, specifically, their work is advancing, or retarding, the project. Finally, it includes making an accurate assessment of the cross-impact of actions, so that what supports one person does not derail another. Some examples of human performance components that must be considered are:

Developing project-oriented job models

Implementing a performance review process that supports project-based work

Analyzing and improving reward systems

Assessing and updating communication and feedback methods

Analyzing and improving consequence systems.

An Overview of the Human Performance System

The technical performance of machines, processes, and systems is carefully engineered along with the operating conditions, parameters and expected outputs. But often, human performance expectations and the system in which employees are expected to perform are not clear. Understanding how the human performance system operates will allow an organization to design a performance system to meet its performance objectives.

In an effective performance system, people know what is expected of them. The need for performance is clearly communicated and standards exist with which to judge successful performance. There is minimal task interference—other tasks don’t interfere or create conflicting job demands. Feedback is frequent and relevant—the information provided enables the performer to maintain or modify his or her behavior over time consistent with the results the organization values. In addition, the performer knows how to carry out the task and is willing to perform it given the incentives available. The resources necessary to carry out the job are adequate and appropriate. The necessary equipment, budget, personnel, procedures, methods and other processes designed to support the work effort are in place and function as intended.

The human performance system consists of five components as explained below. All components must be sound for the performance system to be effective.

Situation (S)

The situation is the immediate environment in which people work—the actual conditions or physical location in which the work is performed—and the specific “signals” in this environment which call for the performer to respond. The situation also includes the performance expectations that define the response that we want the performer to make in a given situation.

The situation affects performance in several ways. (1) Sometimes a person may be called upon to perform two incompatible tasks that makes it impossible to do either. (2) Other times, the job procedures make it difficult for a person to perform. (3) In still other situations, the cues or signals to perform are so “weak” that a performer is unable to recognize that a response is necessary. (4) In addition, it may not be clear what the performer is expected to do—the roles and performance expectations are not clear. People must also be suited for the job. That is, selecting the right people for the job or team with the right attributes for the situation.

Exhibit 1

Performer (P)

The performer/employee gives the response. To give the correct response, the performer must have the requisite skills, knowledge and abilities. They must be free from physical, mental, or emotional impairments. Most times he or she is an individual employee. The performer may also be a team or a larger organization entity such as a function, department, or division.

Response (R)

Responses are actions taken after employees see or hear signals or cues in the environment. Responses are appropriate or inappropriate depending upon the signals performers receive from the situation. In this context, Response is synonymous with behavior.

Consequences (C±)

Consequences are events or conditions that follow a performer’s response. They are very useful in explaining why desired responses are maintained in a performance environment. There are two specific kinds of consequences that are important with regard to behavior. The first is known as a positive or encouraging consequence. This kind of consequence reinforces desired behavior in an ideal environment, and increases the probability that a particular response will occur again. The second is known as a negative or discouraging consequence. This kind of consequence has the opposite effect. It actually reduces the likelihood of seeing the same response or behavior. It’s important that performance system include a balance of consequences that consists of more encouraging than discouraging consequences for the desired behavior.

Feedback (Fb)

Feedback is information the performer receives about the appropriateness of his or her actions. Feedback guides performance, and as such, it is one of the most critical components in the performance environment. An effective feedback mechanism should be one of the first steps in improving performance because an improvement in performance will not be sustained if the performer is unable to detect that improvement. Also, a defective feedback mechanism is one of the most frequent causes of deteriorating job performance.

The human performance system is a closed-loop model that is displayed in Exhibit 1.

The “people side” continues to be one of the more difficult things for project managers to understand. The key point is that it goes beyond training people and making sure that their salary is in line with industry standards. The performance system components listed above must also be carefully considered in order to truly provide an environment that promotes success in project management.

Software RequiredNone.

Final Thoughts

The four-dimensional approach described in this paper provides a road map for organizations that want to achieve world-class performance in project management. This is a journey that can be made using basic desktop software tools that we already have on our PCs. The proliferation of new IT solutions will continue to benefit project managers who have clearly identified their specific needs after installing a sound architecture or project management process foundation in their organizations. For the rest who are visiting the trade shows with their checkbooks, rough waters lie ahead.


Fox, Terry L. (2000, March). Do the features support the functions? PM Network 3, 69–73.

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.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



Related Content