Project Management: Exciting, No...Essential, Yes

Project management has never really achieved star status in the enterprise world. But it's a real discipline we don't practice very well, and therefore always need to improve.
This one's been around for a long, long time. It's actually masqueraded under lots of aliases over the years, including total quality management (TQM), capability maturity, statistical quality control and balanced scorecards, among other attempts to better organize us at work.

Of course, all of these movements have their gurus and disciples, and all of them are different in their own important ways. But by and large they're about professional discipline -- something very few of us actually have -- which is why these movements come and go.

Project Management is Different

But project management is different because it's never really achieved star status. It just keeps on rolling along. Maybe that's why it never makes the top five initiatives-we-need-to-worry-about-this-month, but always makes the top ten we're worrying about this year. It's a real discipline that we don't practice very well, and therefore always need to improve: We're told by industry analysts that it's 75% likely that our mega technology projects will fail, so I guess we need help.

At the outset, let's stipulate that discipline -- like adhering to technology standards or hiring only smart, hard-working, ethical people -- is hard, primarily because it means that we have to control our impulses. And we hate that. But discipline works: it makes money. And project management should be a core discipline in every company in the world.

The first thing we need to do is declare project management an important thing. Then we need declare this very publicly. If you're in a big company, then you need to organize a serious off-site to raise consciousness. If you're a medium-sized company, then you need to speak to all of the employees and incentivize the change agents.

But the real key to this is consistency and persistence. Initiatives fail because companies roll out programs, processes and policies that vary from group to group or organization to organization, or because they lose interest over time, something that employees can smell long before the plug is officially pulled. I remember well sitting in audiences listening to senior executives talking about the company's major new initiative only to hear the lifers muttering "this too shall pass." The "been there/done that" problem is a big one, especially if your track record is weak. Lots of long-term employees have adapted to management's lukewarm commitment to major initiatives and have learned to drag their participatory feet for as long as they can (or until management loses steam).

Five Not-So-Easy Pieces

Enough politics. What should your project management expertise look like? What skills do you need -- really? Here are five:

1. The ability to assess a project's likely success or failure. Note that this assessment comes after the business case has been filed -- and approved. Can the project be successful? What are the risks? Who's the best person to lead the project? Is a good team available? What are the immediate problems we have to solve? Honesty is of course the best policy here.

2. The ability to keep the business case front-and-center as the project unfolds. Once approved, the business case is the blueprint developed by well-dressed, well-meaning architects; the project is all about construction -- schedules, sub-contractors, screw-ups, miscommunication, etc. You know, reality.

Companies need to continuously link project progress to the business case that gave birth to the project in the first place. This means that the business case also needs to be re-assessed on a regular basis, especially if the project is a big, long one. Measure the distance between the business case and project progress on a regular basis; if they start to drift away from each other then it's time to take action.

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3. The ability to execute project fundamentals, such as milestones, deliverables, schedules, cost management, reviews, etc. These skills are not necessarily resident in your company. You might consider getting a number of your good project managers certified in the latest thinking, processes and tools. The Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org) is a good place to start.

4. The ability to kill bad projects; the ability to determine if a project is hopeless or salvageable.

How do you kill projects? There are at least three reasons to kill a project: 1. The business case and project are drifting far apart (the business assumptions about the importance of the project are no longer valid); 2. Project execution is way off track (the project is over-budget, behind schedule, etc.); and 3. The probability of recovery is low for all sorts of empirical reasons.

5. The ability to "see" your projects together to assess your overall project situation. How do you "see" all of your projects? Some companies have weekly project meetings, some have monthly ones, and others only do it informally, privately. What you need is a dashboard that immediately shows you which projects are on track and which are under-performing -- and which are candidates for capital punishment.

Dashboards are not hard to build; they're even easier to buy. Microsoft Project can be used to feed off-the-shelf reporting applications or you can customize one to show projects as red, yellow or green, as well as the trends. You should standardize on both the project management and dashboard application. You should also make sure that accurate information gets into the dashboard.

Some of these tools -- like The Project Control Panel (developed by the Software Program Managers Network) -- extract data from Microsoft Project and inject it into a Microsoft Excel tool that displays project status. Other tools, like Portfolio Edge from Pacific Edge Software, enable you to track multiple projects at the same time.

Project management discipline is a not-so-glamorous discipline that we all need to practice well. Maybe it's time to revisit project management requirements. I know there are several projects I wish I could re-execute. If I saw them on a dashboard I'd kill them instantly.

Steve Andriole is the Thomas G. Labrecque Professor of Business at Villanova University where he conducts applied research in business/technology convergence. He is also the founder and CTO of TechVestCo, a new-economy consortium that focuses on optimizing investments in information technology. He can be reached at stephen.andriole@villanova.edu.






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