Originally published in the Cutter IT Journal
The increasing advocacy for a new and better way of managing projects is very much rooted in dissatisfaction with current environments. The desire for greater responsiveness and flexibility on the part of project teams, the frustration with failures and project overruns and the chronic difficulty in ensuring that project results deliver real business value all exemplify this dissatisfaction. The result has been several streams of development in the project management sphere, or at least the larger sphere of attempting to deliver projects. One stream has seen an emphasis on establishing ever more structured approaches to project management, with an emphasis on introducing methodologies, standards and certifications for project managers. Other streams have focussed on the introduction of more responsive project management approaches, or simply on flexible and agile strategies for the development of the products and services that projects deliver.
It can be argued that all of these efforts in some way, however, are attempts to compensate for the lack of effective organizational leadership of projects. While many organizations struggle to ensure that projects deliver on expectations, even successfully managed projects often fail to deliver on their hoped-for business results. The effort at improving project management is often seen as something that requires change at a project management or project team level, without appreciating the corresponding changes that the sponsoring executives and organizational management need to make to support project delivery. Continuing improvement efforts that evolve the role of the project manager without addressing the required project leadership within the organization are unlikely to be successful.
The Challenges Of Current Paradigms
The current paradigms that define project management, or – to be more inclusive – the delivery of projects, are numerous. The pace of change brings a feeling that each passing week sees the introduction of a new and different approach to projects. The drive for the creation of each of these paradigms is a dissatisfaction with the current order of managing projects, and a belief that an improved approach will bring more effective and predictable results.
The shape that each paradigm takes is very different, however. In the field of project management today – particularly in the space occupied by the delivery of IT-related projects – there seem to be three dominant themes.
The first of these draws upon the formal methodologies of project management proper, notably such frameworks as Prince2. Related frameworks, described by their developers as project management processes, are systems development frameworks such as the Rational Unified Process. Whether ‘pure’ project management or a managed approach to overseeing the lifecycle of product and service development, these frameworks place their emphasis on highly formal, structured approaches and processes, with formally defined deliverables or ‘artifacts’ that must be produced at each discrete stage as a way of formally documenting and confirming progress through the project.
The second dominant paradigm is built upon the various certifications available in project management. While the most prevalent of these is the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation administered by the Project Management Institute (PMI), there are a number of others, including those administered by the International Project Management Association (IPMA) and the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM). None of these certifications are based upon processes, per se, but are derived from ‘standards’ – statements of what should be done in managing projects, rather than how it should be done. Despite not having a specific process orientation, there is a strong level of formality that can be observed in many project managers who have obtained certification. This has been reflected by many customers as a rigid, formal, highly process-focussed means of managing.
The final dominant paradigm is the emergence of the flexible and responsive approaches to project management that have been variously characterized as agile, lean or extreme. These approaches are characterized by a high level of flexibility, a team-based orientation, on-going collaboration and interaction with customers and a progressive, highly iterative method of eliciting requirements and defining and implementing an appropriate solution. The dominant theme in these methods is an avoidance of what is characterized as ‘high ceremony’, the formal production, submission and signing off of structured, defined and prescribed deliverables. The approaches that are advocated are situational and responsive, and are extremely relevant in situations of uncertain requirements. Their primary challenge is the nearly messianic manner in which they are advocated.
The Challenges Of Current Projects
The drive to develop and apply formal approaches to project management is in large part driven by the challenges of delivering projects in the current business environment. The pace of business, the increasing escalation of expectations, the pressures of daily operational demands and the competitive drive to deliver means that many of us regularly work at a pace that several years ago would have been considered unsustainable. The result is that most people regularly feel overwhelmed in their roles, and struggle to perform all the work and deliver the results that they feel they should. The level of co-operation and collaboration is declining, and project teams struggle to gain alignment and agreement on what is required to be successful.
The challenge of defining expectations runs directly up against the ability to deliver projects on time and on budget. Many regions of North America are experiencing considerable cost escalation and are challenged in securing qualified, capable resources. While effectively estimating projects has long been more art than science, and a discipline that most organizations struggle with, the uncertainty in the environment and within organizations simply compounds the difficulty. What projects should cost, and what they actually do cost upon completion, are often two very different numbers that are poles apart. While some of this is influenced by the uncertainty of the environment, that much more is influenced by uncertainty in what the project itself should actually do, and the outcomes that it needs to create.
The final challenge is in being able to define and to quantify these project outcomes. Projects are investments, and are undertaken to deliver value. Theoretically, this value is defined within the business case, a decision making tool that evaluates the choices and considerations of how a project might be conducted in purely financial terms. All too often, however, the business case is presented as the rational choice that the organization desires, alongside the very unreasonable status quo and one or two progressively implausible options, for the sake of providing the appearance of a comparative analysis. Business cases in this regard are not decision making tools, but instruments of marketing and rhetoric. The do not support the decision of whether to do the project, but provide a veneer of plausibility to rationalize the project decision that has already been made.
The Challenges Of Ineffective Leadership
The challenges described to date may be viewed by some as cynical, and by others as improbable, but to many today they simply describe real life. There are days when Dilbert seems too true to be actually funny. In the same vein, our project realities might seem like exaggeration to the outside observer, and yet they are no less real because of it.
Where these challenges stem from, however, is nothing more or less – in my view – than an absence of effective leadership within our organizations. Those that have an ownership and leadership role in the projects that they initiate do not understand, do not perform, or simply do not know the role that they should play. The result of this is the project realities described above – and the struggle to define, to estimate and to ultimately deliver the projects that we are assigned. As a consequence, project managers continually strive to develop and adopt new and more elaborate approaches to managing. There is an increasing drive to define, to control and to circumscribe the responsibilities of the project manager, in the hope of better insulating the project from the political vagaries of the organization.
Interestingly, each of the different project management paradigms described above can be seen as a response to the same symptom. The formality of the methodology, with its defined processes, deliverables, milestones, checkpoints and sign-offs, is an attempt to impose rigour and discipline on the organization, to force decisions to be made and approvals to be given at each discrete stage before the project can move on to the next. The excessive zeal and formality of the individual project manager armed with a certification is often the same phenomenon in microcosm – in the absence of any agreed upon organizational approach, the individual project manager attempts to impose their own discipline based upon defined and recognized ‘standards’ – however imprecise these standards might be.
Even the agile, lean and ‘extreme’ paradigms can, if actually examined closely, be seen as an attempt to insulate the project team from the vagaries and indecisiveness of the organization and its leaders. While these approaches call for stakeholders and customers to be embraced as equal partners at the project table, it is not the leadership of the organization but the actual end users who are most typically involved. While advocates of these approach may sneer at ‘high ceremony’ techniques associated with formal deliverables and approvals, this is as much as anything prompted by a belief that organizational leadership cannot know what is required in the project and are ineffective in playing their project role. Project teams comprise front-line staff and front-line technologists working in close partnership, sincerely hoping that senior management will go away and leave them alone. Ironically, organizations that struggle to adopt lean and agile approaches resist them precisely because of the lack of perceived control such techniques offer; there is a reluctance on the part of senior management to sign off on a budget and timeframe for a project without any clear understanding of what will be delivered.
Making The Case For Effective Project Leadership
While the paradigms of project management may have evolved, the very real situation for many organizations is that they still struggle with the same challenges described earlier. Whether suffering from no process, too much process or attempts to use process as an insulator and buffer from the rest of the organization, the reality is that the underlying problems persevere. While individual projects may experience isolated success, this is often the result of the skills, abilities and luck of individual project managers and teams. It is still the rare organization that experiences consistent, repeatable project success. Those organizations that do attain a level of repeatability most often cite the clear and committed involvement of senior management in their projects. What’s more, research into effective project management continually cites as a strong and essential contributor the committed and active involvement of senior management.
The research work of Terry Williams, examining the causes of project failure, illustrate the role of ‘perturbations’ in management decision making creating feedback loops that inevitably lead to project failure(Williams 2004; Williams 2005). The benchmarking and research into maturity models conducted by my own organization has repeatedly demonstrated the link between strong senior management involvement, process maturity and resulting project success(Mullaly 2005). These findings are echoed and supported in similar studies conducted by Terry Cooke-Davies(Cooke-Davies and Arzymanow 2003).
The challenge in creating a level of consistency in successfully delivering projects inexorably leads to a single conclusion: creating processes to control, limit, circumscribe or limit the input and involvement of senior management is unlikely to have the desired impact. We can develop new paradigms and new approaches, but unless they are supported by the organizational leadership – and contain a clear role for leadership – they are unlikely to be successful. Moreover, even where these paradigms include a leadership role, success can only result when senior management steps up to and embraces their role. In other words, Project Management 2.0 is unlikely to be any more effective than previous approaches, unless we can first get to Project Leadership 1.0.
Defining Project Leadership 1.0 – The Necessary Capabilities
Effective project leadership is fundamentally wrapped up in what is usually termed ‘governance’. The idea of governance in a project context, however, can realistically be divided into two dimensions, which I’ll call here ‘organizational governance’ and ‘project governance’.
Organizational governance represents those choices that organizational management makes about a project – namely, whether to do a project in the first place, and whether to change how the organization operates after the project is done in order to realize the intended benefits. In the context of project management, these are the independent choices about projects that come before and follow after the project itself is conducted. What is fundamental here is how these choices are made. While preparation and analysis of a business case represents the theoretical ideal in managing the project initiation process, this is only true where the purpose of the business case as a decision making tool. Absent this reality, both the choice to proceed with the project, and the degree to which the project results get utilized, become considerably more arbitrary.
Project governance represents the oversight activities that occur between the decisions to do the project and utilization of the results. Theoretically, once a project has been initiated, the decisions of the organization fall to the management representatives who have oversight of the project itself – the sponsor and the steering committee. These roles own the decision making associated with ensuring that the project is delivering its intended results, and that those results are something that the organization still values receiving. This is not in any way a passive role – it requires understanding the business purpose of the project, why that business purpose is of value, and how the results of the project will support realization of that value.
In fulfilling the project governance role, there are a number of key activities that any project sponsor and steering committee member should be ensuring are addressed, regardless of the underlying paradigm being adopted and the overall philosophy of the project manager. These include:
- Clearly understanding the business rationale for the project. While the business case is the basis of project initiation, and rationally supports the decision the organizational executive makes to proceed with a project, it is still something that must be fundamentally understood by those that will oversee the project through its life. This requires becoming conversant with the business case – if they are not already – and the assumptions, drivers and critical success factors necessary to ensure that it can be realized.
- Making sure that the project plan will produce results that enable the business case to be realized. A key point of departure for most projects is the finalization of the scope of the project. While this theoretically should support and derive from the objectives of the project and the rationale of the business case, theory and reality can span a broad gulf. In that the scope of the project – and the basis of the project plan – serves as the construct from which all subsequent decisions will be made, ensuring the scope truly reflects something that the organization values attaining is essential. A well executed project that produces exactly what was promised, but whose results cannot be used, ultimately cannot be considered a success.
- Ensuring the organizational support for conducting the project. Every project competes with every other project in the organization for time, money, resources and attention. Throughout the life of the project, it is a fundamental project governance role to ensure that the organizational support and commitment is in place to ensure successful delivery of the project. The role is one of project champion, where the project leadership is an advocate for the project, ensures awareness and commitment to supporting the project effort and reinforces commitment to realizing the project results.
- Securing the resource effort necessary to deliver the project results. With the overwhelming magnitude of work that we all face, ensuring that any particular project has the resource support that it requires is a challenge unto itself. Securing the resources required to complete the project – and ensuring their continued availability and allocation – is a fundamental aspect of project governance. This includes ensuring both internal and external resource support is made available as required for the project to succeed.
- Asking the hard questions about project progress and results. The greatest challenge associated with project governance is ensuring that the project is delivering results, and that those results are still worth getting. All too often, organizations and executives avoid learning the truth about their projects –for fear that the answer they hear may not be the one that they value. The less we face up to the reality of project progress, however, the more likely it is that progress slips and value is lost. The most important questions that any project leader can ask are “Will the project still deliver what it is supposed to?” and “Do we still value getting those results?” Where the answer to either question is ‘no’ or ‘maybe’, this is a trigger for further, more probing questions to be asked. The project may need to be recalibrated, re-planned or stopped altogether, but unless the courage exists to ask these questions there is every likelihood that the project will not produce its expected results.
Getting To Project Leadership – The Required Transition
Regardless of the type of project, or the underlying paradigm of how the project is managed, there is an organizational leadership role that is essential to project success. Sponsors, steering committees, executives and project managers all ignore this reality at their peril. It is not enough to apply the latest techniques or adopt the most current project management fad in order to avoid engaging the organization or its executive. Nor is it acceptable for executives to assume that project management is ‘done’ in their organization, and that it is up to the project manager to ensure that projects deliver results. The best that a project manager can hope to accomplish is successfully delivering the results that were asked for, on time and on budget. The reality is that it is up to the organization to determine whether these results are useful, and to ensure that the organization uses these results in a way that is meaningful and effective.
A fundamental principle of project management is that projects have a defined start and end. By their very nature, the decision to start a project comes before this point, and the decision to use the results of the project comes after. There is an increasing desire on the part of executives to allocate responsibility for the business case to the project manager. Perversely, there is increasing desire on the part of the project manager to accept it, as a way of demonstrating the strategic role that they fulfill within the organization. Neither rational is acceptable, realistic or appropriate. The project manager owns ensuring that what is produced is what is needed by the organization. It is up to the project leadership within the organization to ensure that the produced results actually deliver meaningful business outcomes.
It doesn’t matter how much the process of project management attempts to minimize the leadership role of the executive, and it matters even less how much the executive tries to push accountability for results down to the project manager. In the final analysis, accountability for each role is circumscribed. We can evolve project management as much as we want to pretend otherwise. Until the leadership role of projects is fully embraced, however, project success will always be elusive and ad hoc. Without Project Leadership 1.0, Project Management 2.0 is nothing more than a pipe dream. So what are you smoking?
Cooke-Davies, T. J. and A. Arzymanow (2003). “The maturity of project management in different industries: An investigation into variations between project management models.” International Journal of Project Management 21(6): 471.
Mullaly, M. E. (2005). Executive Summary of the 2004 Organizational Project Management Baseline Study. Edmonton, Interthink Consulting Incorporated.
Williams, T. (2004). “Identifying the hard lessons from projects – easily.” International Journal of Project Management 22(4): 273.
Williams, T. (2005). “Assessing and moving on from the dominant project management discourse in the light of project overruns.” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management 52(4): 497.