TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.
I’m a consultant and I’ve worked on long-term projects at four companies during the past five years. My current client has a defined process for managing projects and appears to do a decent job of following it. To tell you the truth, it was a bit of a culture shock getting used to the more formal process, but it seems to be working out well. I would go so far as to say it’s part of the company culture.
This experience got me thinking: Why don’t all companies embrace project management processes?
I have also worked at a number of large and small companies that did not have a formal, defined project management process. The last company I worked at had a process, but it was not followed very well.
An initial observation is that companies that don’t manage projects well are usually run by CIOs and senior managers who never learned formal project management themselves. It’s hard for them to lead culture change around project management when they don’t understand the value. Sometimes these managers think of project management as a tool for managing projects, rather than as a process for doing the work. When they discover a tool isn’t involved, they lose interest.
For example, in one large company I worked with, we had a decent project management process that was customized from a Big Five firm. In an initial conversation with a new CIO, he openly questioned the value of the project management process and wondered if we were spending too much time “managing” and not enough time “doing.”
These comments were especially surprising, given his background on a major enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation. Then again, he hadn’t gained perspective from actually managing projects himself. He had always been a functional manager or a client manager.
Roadblocks to embracing project management processes
A number of other reasons prevent companies from implementing project management processes. If you identify what is holding back your organization, it may help you address misconceptions about project management methodologies. This is the first step in leading the cultural change toward instituting a formal project management process.
Here is a list of typical roadblocks:
Misconceptions over project management’s value
It's hard to be a good project manager in an organization that doesn't value project management skills. For example, if you take the time to create a project definition document, and then your client asks why you were wasting your time doing it, you’re probably not going to be very excited about the planning process on your next project. Many people, like the CIO in the example above, consider themselves to be “doers.” They might not be as comfortable with the planning and managing skills required for project management. People who see themselves this way want to analyze a problem and then go out and fix it. This works when you have a five-hour change request. It doesn't work on a 5,000- or a 50,000-hour project.
Solution: To be effective, the entire organization must be behind the project management initiative, and you must have executive sponsorship. Otherwise, you’re fighting a hopeless battle against company culture. Gather anecdotal evidence—from your own work or from industry examples—that illustrates how project management can help keep the organization’s tasks on budget.
The organization doesn’t suffer pain around projects
In many small to medium-size organizations, projects aren’t under pressure to complete within fixed deadlines and budgets. They just need to be completed within a “reasonable” timeframe. If a deadline is missed, it’s usually not a big deal, as long as the completion date doesn’t drag out for too long. In these environments, there’s not much internal pressure to change the status quo.
Solution: Explain the benefits you’ve experienced in the past with the project management process. Show your clients that, as they grow as an organization and more demands are placed on their time, project management processes can help them become more productive and make the best use of resources. Plot out a fictional 60-day project—using Gantt charts or timelines from your past contracts—to illustrate how deadlines affect the project progress.
The organization may have been burned in the past
Common criticisms of methodology are that it’s cumbersome, it requires too much documentation, and it takes too much focus away from the work at hand. Sometimes this is a legitimate concern that can be exacerbated by not scaling the methodology to the size of your project. For instance, if your client’s business had been required to develop a 15-page project definition for a project that was only 250 hours, they would likely be turned off.
Solution: This is not usually a methodology problem as much as a misapplication of the methodology. Work with your clients to ensure that the project management process doesn’t supersede the product. Make sure your approach to the project scope process is scaled properly for the size of your client. Collaborate with team leaders to establish lines of communication to ensure that their concerns about the workflow process are addressed before the project begins.
The project teams fight against the formal process
Many people want to solve problems and do their jobs creatively, with minimum supervision. They fear that project management techniques will result in controls that’ll take the fun out of the work. Without strong sponsorship, the project teams may resist using the project management process.
Solution: Leadproject management training courses for team representatives. Offer case studies from your work with other organizations to support your argument that project management will benefit them more than an unorganized approach. Explain the concepts of time, cost, and scope, and show how they are applied to projects. Bring examples of project management applications, such as Microsoft Project, to show how the contribution of each team member can be represented.
Management fears the loss of control
If you really want to effectively implement a project management discipline at your company, you must give a level of control and authority to the project manager. Some management, middle managers especially, don’t want to lose that control. They may want people to coordinate the projects, but they want to make all the decisions and exercise all the control themselves.
Solution: None. Formal project management will not be possible in organizations where this fear is prevalent.
Making it work
Many of these roadblocks can be overcome with strong sponsorship from senior management. In addition, as a consultant, you can win over skeptics by addressing each of the roadblocks as you identify them. Nearly every study that looks at project management shows that it is a discipline to help projects deliver on time, in budget, and within client expectations. Collect statistics that support this idea and develop your own list of success stories from your professional experiences. All companies should have some project management processes to maximize the chances of delivering their projects successfully.