Last week I saw yet another industry analyst's report saying that the ratio of major IT project failures is steadily rising. This means that fewer and fewer of our projects are being successfully managed.
We must ask ourselves why are things getting worse? Shouldn't our collective project management skills be improving, not deteriorating? Especially now that we have project management tools and methodologies that the pyramid builders, or even Victorian engineers, would have died for.
Sadly, despite our function-intensive modern software, it seems that many of our project managers are doing little more with these "management" tools than recording historical, forensic data for the inevitable project autopsies.
Of course, there are some people who still believe that a good planning tool and methodology are critical success factors for a project, in their own right. Sure they can help. But only if properly applied. Nevertheless, my personal observation has shown that.
A poorly-defined IT project plan can do more harm to a business than probably any other commercial activity; often with a fairly quick impact on the bottom line. Likewise a well-defined plan that is poorly managed will be severely felt.
I have seen a lot of articles recently that have tried to address the growing number of high-profile project failures. Most of these tend to attribute the problem to poor management. Obviously that must be the case. However, the solutions offered generally focus on improving the quality of individual leadership, in the hope that a good leader will prevent a project going bad.
I think this approach only deals with the symptoms, not the root cause, of the trouble. My conjecture is that many projects fail because too many companies do not train their project managers properly in the first place so fail to provide adequate support for the manager, until it is too late.
All too often, important projects are entrusted to people who have had no formal induction into project management. This inevitably introduces an element of additional risk because the quality of project management is, at best variable and, at worst random.
We are back to the "professionalism-thing" again, I'm afraid. Most of our IT project managers earn their spurs by being thrown in at the deep end. I am glad that other professions don't take this cavalier approach to developing their senior members.
Imagine the scene, if surgeons were trained in the same way as IT project managers - "I'm sorry Mrs Smith but this was Dr Johnson's first major operation. He had all the right tools and equipment but things got a bit out of hand. Of course, we will waive the autopsy fee"
Every other profession has a structured approach to professional development, insisting on proper supervision and assessment for advancement; while the IT sector persists with "trial and error".
You may be wondering how can our project managers get their experience without actually doing it for real?
With a bit of effort, and investment, we could easily create opportunities for skills development. Like many other things though, we have optimised these out of our organisation to minimise cost. When was the last time you saw a project that had a deputy manager?
Maybe it's time we gave our project managers more personal support, through access to the know-how of experienced mentors.
Leadership is important but worthless without adequate planning and back up. We need to get back to basics and take a much more disciplined approach to project management. Until we do this, things will continue to get worse and the successful IT project will become such an exceptional event that everyone will want to find out how such a thing came to pass.
Colin Beveridge is founder of interim managers' group Premit
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Computer Weekly and The Coverdale Organisation, the UK's leading process consultancy, have partnered to host two workshops designed to help IT project leaders become more successful at delivering winning projects. Time is running out to book a place on one of the Leading Successful IT Projects workshops. The workshop will run in two locations, with a maximum of 16 delegates per course:
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