Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Project Management No Substitute for Discipline

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Once in a while we hear a comment that really is disconcerting. For me, it was a discussion about organizations using draconian project management to compensate for lack of discipline. This column discusses the need for organizations to realize that project management and discipline are two different topics.

First, project management involves optimizing the use of scarce resources (people, time, capital, equipment, materials, etc.) and managing the various forms of risk to meet stakeholder expectations. Of course, there are many different definitions for project management and most are relatively accurate. The point is that project management involves a methodology to ensure that projects are successful.

Switching gears, the word “discipline” has a number of meanings. In the context of this article, it is synonymous with “self-control.” Organizations can invest millions and millions of dollars in technology and processes and have nothing to show for their efforts if their people lack the appropriate levels of discipline to change, learn and effectively utilize the investments.

For example, let’s say that an organization brings in the world’s best project management consultants and performs numerous classroom training sessions, involves people at all levels, and does everything seemingly right, but some of the people fail to adopt project management. Management needs to review these situations and ask some difficult questions about the people, the processes, and so on. There must be a very real effort to determine if the problem is with the processes or the people.

For those of you who haven’t read Jim Collins’ book, Built To Last, he makes a number of interesting points, one of which I will paraphrase here: A new organization typically starts out focused, exciting and vibrant with a relative lack of policies and procedures. As the organization grows, more and more people are hired. Some of those people are less than ideal and, as a result, management must put in policies and procedures plus hire professional managers who put in even more policies and procedures.

As this level of “command-and-control” environment increases, it becomes increasingly stifling, the great people leave, more mediocre people are hired and even more policies and procedures are put in place — all in order to compensate for a lack of discipline. Collins emphasizes the very important need to first and foremost have the right people in the organization and the rest of the work becomes much easier.

No Substitute

The point is that implementing, or enforcing, a project management methodology is not a substitute for having good people and constantly trying to cultivate the ones you have through training and development programs. At the most fundamental level, project management cannot compensate for people who lack discipline.

One cautionary note: Please do not read this article and assume that project management failures are always tied to people. This is typically not the case and any inquiry needs to look at process, technological, environmental, and other factors to see what dimension(s) are causing the problems. This article is purposefully focused on the issue of having a lack of discipline and the resulting need to increasingly add layers of policies and procedures in an attempt to compensate.

If anything, project management ensures accountability, or the linking of people to tasks and deliverables. An excessive level of detail in the planning process and resulting work breakdown structure may reflect intentional compensation for a lack of discipline.

Ideally, project management should be about optimizing outputs relative to inputs while factoring in both risks and expectations. It should not be in existence solely to ensure people do their jobs. Just imagine the overhead of trying to track whether or not the simplest of seemingly mundane tasks are accomplished! Another way of saying this is that project management should add more total value than total costs to the organization.

One can read hundreds of articles and books espousing the value of project management. Organizations adopting and using project management need to step back from the day-to-day firefighting and seriously look at the value their unique implementation and usage of project management brings to their respective organizations. If the value doesn’t significantly outweigh the costs, then there is a serious issue that the organization needs to analyze. The issue will involve the interaction of processes, technologies, the environment and people — both customers and employees. The organization needs to carefully assess where the issues are and promptly address them in order to get project management back on track to delivering optimal value.

George Spafford is a project management consultant and instructor, living in
Saint Joseph, Mich. George has more than 10 years of experience in the
fields of information technology and project management. His areas of
personal interest include project management, software engineering,
organizational learning and maximizing the value added by information
technology to an organization. He can be reached at

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