This article was originally published on gantthead on January 8, 2003

By Mark E. Mullaly, PMP

One of the greatest distinctions that I have drawn between what current certifications such as the PMP offer and what should be expected by the marketplace is competence—the empirically demonstrated ability to manage projects well, rather than simply the demonstrated knowledge of the project management function.

In its current form, the PMP is an evaluation of knowledge only. While many who have written in response to these columns have asserted that the experience requirements of the PMP certification process should suffice with respect to competence, the reality is that nowhere does the application ask how well the projects we were involved with were managed, whether the projects delivered on their intended results or even if a recognized process was adhered to.

The comments I did receive, however, made me start to ask some questions. Once we have attained our certifications, how many of us actually manage projects according to a process that would be recognizably compliant with the PMBOK?

How many of us adhere to any process at all? Do we actually develop a work breakdown structure and from there build a bottom-up estimate, or do we instead develop an activity schedule that theoretically delivers to the schedule we are working to and then develop a top-down estimate to match? Do we actually track the performance of our projects, or do we commit to a plan because it’s necessary to attain approval and then carry on with whatever approach we had originally intended?

While the results of these informal surveys can hardly be considered statistically significant, they are nonetheless telling insofar as project management seems to be conducted today. As it exists today, the whole process can best be compared to getting our driver’s license: We know we’re supposed to drive with two hands on the wheel, obey the speed limit, yield to on-coming traffic and stay in the right hand lane until we need to pass.

When we’re taking our test we actually put our baser instincts on hold and drive this way. Once we have our license, however, it’s one hand on the wheel and a whole lot of burnt rubber as we put as much distance between ourselves and the testing center as possible.

When managing projects, the same lack of discipline comes screaming to the fore. During a recent workshop I led, a full afternoon’s discussion of the benefits of bottom-up estimation and tracking of project progress on an “hours per person per activity” basis was capped by one participant’s interjection that “This is all well and good, but let’s get real here: no one builds a detailed WBS, and activities are tracked based on percent complete. No one has time to do the other stuff.”

If this were a lone voice in the wilderness, I might silently paraphrase Lincoln: “You can reach some of the people some of the time, but you can’t reach all of the people all of the time.” Yet there were an astonishing number of people that actually agreed with the assertion. So many that I have actually started to take a poll of how many people actually intend to plan to this level of detail on future projects. So far, I am running at about 25 percent agreement. The rest acknowledge the value, but claim they don’t have the time, don’t have the co-operation or don’t see the results.

This percentage actually reflects the degree to which current organizational practices adhere to a formal approach to planning and tracking. According to the Organizational Project Management Baseline Study that my company runs each year—which has benchmarked 550 companies from around the world—only about two percent of projects actually track detailed performance against the plan. The remainder publish whatever approval documents are required, and then get on with the project as they had originally envisioned it.

All of this brings us to the heart of the problem: We know what we should be doing, and we know why we should be doing it, yet we don’t actually do it that way. While we may amply demonstrate in our certification exam the knowledge we possess of proper skills and techniques, our actual performance varies significantly.

To date, the most common explanation of this phenomenon is the time pressure that project managers face when a project gets underway—the incredible need to produce results as quickly as possible, bypassing any process that smacks of bureaucracy or overhead. Yet our research has also empirically demonstrated that the shortest path from A to B is through the process—not around it.

Behind the wheel we get frustrated when our attempts at dodging and weaving through traffic gain us little or no ground against the other cars that are only moving at the speed limit. Yet as project managers we believe that the same behaviors will actually get us where we want to go faster and more reliably. As Freud so wisely pointed out, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. It’s time to manage our projects a little more sanely.

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Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark is also the author of Interthink’s Project Management Process Model (PM2), a maturity model that has been used to assess over 550 companies worldwide.