Forget deliverable-inspired tasks that produce little useful output. If you want your project management discipline to really shine, apply them to true business objectives.
In the past several years there seems to have been a project management renaissance. While you'll have to pardon me for referring to one of the great intellectual movements and a fairly dry topic like project management in the same sentence, what was once an esoteric discipline is now a topic for discussion everywhere from boardrooms to cocktail parties. Like any good management religion, a cadre of certification and membership organizations has arrived on the scene, bestowing a slew of letters on the last name of anyone that wishes to write a check and take a test, and project management itself has become wrapped in esoteric terminology and incomprehensible mathematic gymnastics.
This increased focus on project management to a large extent has been a good thing. Companies have come to the realization that succeeding at implementing complex projects, like those an IT department frequently tackles, requires more than hope and good luck. Like any discipline, there are right and wrong ways to manage a project, and the project management organizations have done well spreading this dogma. Where they have failed is that many are now placing more emphasis on the mechanics of project management than completing the project the discipline is meant to facilitate.
Many seemingly well-managed projects mysteriously spiral into disaster. Initially everything looks good to the stakeholder committee or CIO overseeing the project when suddenly, usually around the realization phase, everything falls apart. After spending millions to get the project back on track, a "post-mortem" often finds a focus on project management mechanics and deliverables were a distraction that obfuscated the true source of the failure. While consultants and implementation team members produced reams of paper and checked boxes on their to-do lists, fundamental business challenges and decisions remained unsolved or unnoticed.
Taking the tools of project management and applying them to true business objectives rather than deliverable-inspired tasks that produce little useful output is where the project management discipline can shine, and an area where project managers, and those who manage them, need to pay heed. There's no need for additional certifications or tests; look instead at each objective and milestone of a project and ask if it's "MAD":Measurable - The objective has concrete measures to know when it is completed Actionable - There are concrete steps that can be taken to achieve the objective Dollar-based - There is a positive and financially-quantifiable business benefit to achieving the objective
For example, producing a ream of technical documentation, a classic deliverable, meets the first two tests since you know what documentation to produce and how to produce it. Where this task struggles is that there is little concrete financial benefit that accrues from documentation on its own. One might argue that the documentation feeds a larger objective, say completing a component of a complex system. If that's the case, the completed component should be your focus rather than the documents associated with that component. In addition, focusing on the larger objective brings "soft" tasks into sharper focus. You can mindlessly toil away on documentation when a critical process remains unfinished, or a business decision is stuck in the morass of indecision. When you are evaluating the project by a MAD objective, these gray areas are thrust to the forefront and likely acted upon rather than being buried.
While any value-producing component has a variety of support tasks required to complete it, and one could argue that these task are worth tracking, traditional project management methods focused on these support tasks while missing the larger picture. Countless projects have failed due to a handful of critical decisions that were made too late, or made without proper consideration. Despite mountains of completed deliverables, the distraction of deliverables and mercurial milestones shifted the focus away from realizing business value, and identified these gaping holes too late in the game.At a higher level, stakeholders and C-level executives can apply this test to determine the health of their projects. If a new logistics system is being implemented, create objectives for the project derived from the business case, for example "10% improvement in transaction time." This objective is clearly Measurable, the project manager presumably has the Actions required to complete the objective, and an obvious Dollar value can be placed on the objective. Have the project test its work against these objectives and the results will provide a clear view of how the project is tracking against its business goals, and create a far more transparent management tool than traditional completion rates. If you have completed 99% of the deliverables, does it really matter if you are showing a 4% increase in transaction times when your goal was a 10% reduction? If you would like more information on using MAD metrics, take a look at this free whitepaper.
With a more rigorous focus on the end-game, project management can save itself from the fate of other management religions gone wrong. Tying objectives to business results also instantly engenders that mythical and elusive beast IT folks often obsess about: alignment. When a project's objectives are concretely and inextricably married to business objectives with a clear financial impact, there is no debating whether IT understands the business, or what all the technical wizardry is actually meant to accomplish. While the conceptual shift is simple, encouraging the mental leap and fully implementing it allows everyone involved in a project, from the CIO to the most junior programmer, to immediately and dramatically see and understand his or her contribution to the business.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.