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.

I received an interesting e-mail recently from TechRepublic member Paul who obviously wasn’t enamored with the role of project manager. He made his point clear by the end of the first paragraph, in which he said that much of his advice and feedback for project managers was first based on the assumption that the project manager must, in fact, “have a clue.”

Paul goes on to say that his two most recent project managers were both let go for failing to accomplish their project objectives, even though they were given much more time than originally scheduled. Paul’s general impression of project managers is as follows:

  • They focus on analysis and modeling and in the end don’t produce anything of value.
  • They speak using business and project management double-talk and produce only papers, charts, graphs, and analysis to justify why no actual product is going into production.
  • Their specifications reflect a lack of real experience in the subject area, and they don’t know how to actually build a program, a database, or a final application.

Paul contrasts this project management style with his, and he describes why his action-oriented approach results in the solution being built better, faster, and cheaper, to the benefit of the entire company. In fact, he states that he builds an application design in his head, not on paper, since the more ignorant wouldn’t really understand it anyway. This approach surprises company executives who think you can only deliver applications though Gantt charts, commit meetings, and status reports.

Is it that bad?
As TechRepublic members know, I’m a proponent of project management, so it is hard for me to accept the notion that project managers don’t understand what they’re doing and cause more harm than good. Yet I’m also certain that Paul is not the only person who feels this way.

I’ve worked with many fine and capable project managers. In fact, I would classify most of them that way. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone is competent, or that even the capable ones are perfect. That’s one reason we still have projects today that fail or suffer significant cost and schedule overruns. Being a successful project manager in the past should provide confidence that you’ll be successful in the future. But, obviously, there are no guarantees.

I feel confident that I could handle most project management situations. But I have no experience—and have never been trained—in handling billion-dollar defense projects, major construction projects, or aerospace projects. Do I have enough knowledge in those areas to be successful? I doubt it.

Some perspective on project management
Giving project management advice is something I do feel comfortable doing. So let me step back and try to put the comments from the member and my own experience into perspective.

There is no guarantee that every project will be successful. However, the vast majority of research and information on the subject shows that major work initiatives should be defined, planned, and organized as a project. While many cases exist that show successful outcomes based solely on the skills and talents of the project team, it’s clear that these instances are in the minority. In fact, the focus on project management processes during the past 20 years shows that the other way does not work well, in general.

There are good people who have skills or who even specialize in project management. If they apply their skills correctly, the project has a much better chance of being successful than ones that do not have project management processes applied.

Some people believe that a good project manager can be successful on any type of project, regardless of whether they have any subject matter experience in that area. Other people believe you cannot manage an effort without prior subject matter experience. I tend to believe that subject matter experience is very helpful but not absolutely vital. I would rather have a skilled project manager with no subject matter experience than a subject matter expert with no project manager experience.

The project management processes used on a project must be scaled based on the size and complexity of the work itself. If too many cumbersome processes are in place for a small project, the work will take longer than needed and everyone will be frustrated. Not having enough processes in place for a large project also limits your chance of being successful. Much of Paul’s observation is that project managers introduce processes as an excuse for not getting the work done. Don’t ever find yourself in a position of using this as your excuse.

Fundamentally, the end deliverables are the reason that the project exists. If you have the best project management processes in place, but you’re not delivering your base products, you’re not going to be successful.

A letter like Paul’s provides good feedback to all project managers and reminds us to make sure we are intent on delivering value, not just processes, in the work we’re assigned. For those who believe that project management provides universal value whenever and wherever it is applied, this should give us pause to reflect. If our pedestal is too high, perhaps it will knock us down a little—maybe to the same level as the rest of the team. Thanks for your comments, Paul, and I hope that you have better experiences and better perceptions of project managers in the future.

Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. Recently, he was Director of Internal Development at Geac, Inc., a major ERP software company. He’s worked for Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep and an application support methodology called SupportStep.

Do you agree with Paul?

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