If manipulating project plans to suit politically acceptable outcomes becomes the norm, maybe it is time to come up with new project management methodologies, says Colin Beveridge
Once upon a time, a long time ago before the age of political correctness, the best fairy stories always had a handsome prince as hero.
Nowadays, though, the only fairy stories associated with a prince are IT project plans and the prince is not a swashbuckling young buck in tights but a project management methodology.
I refer of course to the beloved acronym: Prince - derived from Projects In Controlled Environments, the de facto standard for project management in the UK, particularly in the public sector.
And, I suppose in the interests of completeness, I should also recognise the subsequent derivatives of the original methodology, namely Prince2 and Pino.
Of these two upstarts, Prince2 is the acknowledged, legitimate heir to its predecessor, while Pino (Prince in Name Only) is the popular choice, as practised in very many organisations that superficially subscribe to the principles of Prince but pragmatically prefer to interpret those principles according to their own local whims and preferences.
Nevertheless, Prince was founded on a very firm pretext and quickly established credibility in a market hungry for standards and consistency, if not quality.
Since its inception a whole certification industry has grown up around the methodology and we should be reaping the benefits of Prince for generations to come, if it weren’t for one fundamental flaw in the methodology: none of us lives in a controlled environment.
From the very outset, Prince was founded on the principle of managing projects in controlled environments and propounded the benefits of rigidly applying process to achieve successful outcomes.
But the real world isn’t like that. We don’t have the luxury of operating in a hermetically sealed vacuum for the duration of a project lifecycle.
In the real world of business, things have a nasty habit of happening unexpectedly and we need a degree of flexibility in our project planning, to accommodate changes to the original context.
Which is where Prince2 came in. This was designed to give Prince a degree of flexibility, while still retaining a sufficiently coherent framework to justify its credentials as a methodology.
So far so good, then, and all credit to the Office of Government Commerce for bringing some much needed maturity to the IT project management arena.
And yet we still see many large projects and programmes that struggle, despite the use of Prince methods. Some of these difficulties are most evident in very high profile government initiatives, such as the NHS national IT programme, which has recently announced project slippages and penalties for the subcontractors concerned.
For sure, in any major programme, some delays are to be expected. I understand all of that and have some sympathy for Richard Granger, the NHS IT director who is faced with a mammoth task.
But in announcing the recent programme slippages Richard Granger gave the game away by claiming that delays in testing wouldn’t necessarily impact the overall completion date because the GP roll-out activities could be compressed to compensate.
And that, in a nutshell, sums up the fundamental flaw in the vast majority of IT project planning – we regularly manipulate activity durations to achieve politically acceptable delivery dates.
I have lost count of the times I have seen previously sound project plans bastardised by arbitrarily trimming effort estimates until the final date meets the “politically acceptable”, ie desired deadline. And this behaviour is obviously not eliminated by using Prince.
So much then for Projects in Controlled Environments, perhaps what we really need is a whole new methodology, one that will recognise our real need for managing projects to politically acceptable outcomes.
In the meantime, instead of blissfully continuing to kiss frogs in princely guise, might I suggest a universal crash course in Pert and critical path analysis is in order?
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org