The road to project management success

In the second article reviewing readers' responses to Colin Beveridge's thought-provoking column on the failures of...

In the second article reviewing readers' responses to Colin Beveridge's thought-provoking column on the failures of current approaches to project management, we focus on what we need to do to establish attitudes and methods which actually work.

Read Colin Beveridge's column on project management >>

We know what the problem with IT project management is - it ain't working. The real challenge is to find a way out of the muddle and move towards approaches which really work.

Project manager DariSann Stout sees effective coaching as the key to creating project managers whose companies can confidently put them in charge of multi-million pound projects without fearing that they'll have to sell off the MD's Mercedes six months down the line.

"For some reason when an organisation embarks on setting aside a few million for a new application to solve a business problem, they mysteriously disconnect the fact that people do have a learning curve," says Stout.

"PM candidates should show they can balance a chequebook/budget, manage teams, properly validate time estimates to tasks, and have familiarity with applying these skills to an effort with a defined start and end date.

"If you were the coach of a professional baseball team, would you take your first base man and suddenly have him be the pitcher with no prior training? Not only is this irresponsible of the coach, but it destroys the ability of the whole team to succeed.

"When an organisation seeks to fill a project manager position, what level of support is it willing to provide to an internal or external candidate to help this person succeed?"

Acknowledge the learning curve
Project manager Marilyn Barker-Green agrees that companies must understand the existence of the learning curve and help new recruits find their feet through providing effective mentors. "Project management is fascinating, rewarding and worth getting up for in the morning, but only with the right training, and that should start with being an assistant to a project manager who is worth their salt. There is no substitute for experience."

She points out that this is far from today's reality, but suggests that it may suit the short-term interests of senior managers to throw inexperienced staff in at the deep end of multi-million pound projects.

"The great and the good who appoint these poor souls seem to be happy so long as they can receive some pretty project plans, which in practice bear no relationship to the project actual, but of course always show completion on the required date.

"The poor souls who accept these jobs have no conception of what can and probably will arise to thwart those plans. They can also be relied upon to go along with any ridiculous cuts in timescales which may be desired along the way, without causing trouble by doing things like risk assessments and asking relevant and awkward questions of their executive.

"So there may be a method in this madness, the only problem being that it all goes horribly wrong at the end. Still I suppose those in charge can always blame the rookie project manager!"

Don't be obsessed with technology
Consulting practice manger Roland Chui believes that the rise of the Internet has played a big hand in reducing the importance attached to experience and traditional managerial skills.

"In the Internet and e-commence frenzy of the past three years, often new technology knowledge and experience in latest tools were valued more highly than previous project management experience," he says. "Many of these e-commence projects are just the establishment of another delivery channel which can be accomplished by a small group within a short period of time. High technology content, rather than strong project management experience, is the crucial factor.

"Enterprise-wide projects, on the other hand, involve many parties and stakeholders, with long duration from start to end. In this environment people-management skills, gaining the commitment of others, keen political instincts and system integration experience are the critical success factors."

Hugh Gleaves, technical consultant with the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, agrees that exclusive focus on technology is creating many of the problems and argues that a failure to define the project manager's role early on exacerbates the situation.

"IT is plagued by 'technical' project managers, who seem to confine their attention to technology-related issues rather than delegating this skill.

"This is where the problems begin; a fundamental misunderstanding of the role. One of the first things I do on starting/taking over a project; is sit down with the sponsor and other executives and agree exactly what my role is.

"It's always interesting to ask them what exactly they see the role to be, they too are often not quite sure.

"In my view a project manager should constantly strive to identify uncertainties and reduce them, with emphasis on the more threatening uncertainties. Every action of a PM should be to decrease the risk of project failure."

The power of visualisation
Project analyst Jigar Shah also believes that being clear about the goals early on is crucial. "Imagination and visualisation are needed. The project manager needs to possess the skills and the experience to virtually execute a project before it is commenced and then try and do the same in practice.

"Later, the minor hiccups and the frictions need smartness, communication and a "make it happen and deliver" attitude to reach the end. Factors like trust, support, follow-ups, and liaison are equally crucial to support the skills and the experience."

IT consultant Tony Thomas also focuses on honest communication. "I have spent to much time reviewing projects as a consultant which were in danger of or were going astray and found the cause of failure in virtually all cases has come down to:

  • Failure to identify the real deliverables and to cascade these down to all team members.
  • Communication either within the direct or indirect project teams.
  • Failure to control the direction of the project.

"With a good well versed and supported passionate project manager this does not happen, with a half hearted project manager given this job in addition to other tasks with no or little support it is inevitable."

Thomas believes that the current trend to outsourcing could offer some improvement in developing effective PMs. "Ideally we would in the IT industry take more care about the development of our next generation of PMs. However, this is usually seen as a luxury rather than a necessity, which unfortunately is rooted in the cost of IT projects and the need to cut costs wherever possible.

"This should be one of the major benefits we as an industry derive from outsourcing where the outsourcing companies need to make this investment to ensure they are capable of consistent delivery. I cannot say I have yet seen much evidence of this."

It's time to get honest
Freelance software development manager Tim Williams speaks for many when he asks: "What ever happened to honesty? We all know that without honesty about what scope and quality can be achieved within given resource and time constraints, all our project management efforts will fail. What's happened to our industry to make so many people forget (or fail to apply) this knowledge?"

Doug Chaney agrees: "Honesty is paramount. Honesty should be encouraged both ways, so your developers are honest with you about what can be achieved. There's nothing worse that promising the earth when it cannot be delivered. If your client makes an unreasonable demand, tell them it's unreasonable and they'll thank you in the end."

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