Behind closed doors: In at the deep end and drowning!

The sink-or-swim school of project management training is leading to a growing pile of costly failures. Isn't it time to splash...

The sink-or-swim school of project management training is leading to a growing pile of costly failures. Isn't it time to splash out on a bit of skills development? asks leading interim IT director Colin Beveridge.

It's not every day of the week that one of your own project managers informs the world and his wife that you are a serious risk to his project. But such a report dropped unceremoniously onto my desk recently.

As I read it my first instinct was to tear this guy limb from limb. Ten years ago I would have done, but age has mellowed me slightly and I take a more circumspect view. But there it was for all to see, a new project risk: "lack of support from the project sponsor". A potentially serious problem for our most business-critical project. It might do my reputation some harm too, if it were true.

I wandered around to the project office for a friendly little chat with the author. Surprise is always a good way of getting to the bottom of things quickly and it is difficult to prevaricate when someone is sitting on the corner of your desk, expecting an instant answer.

Was the risk real? My project manager felt my sponsorship of his project was at risk because I hadn't responded to a couple of important e-mails from him earlier in the week. His frustration had led him to include me as a risk in his monthly report. Fair enough, I knew that his project had already exhausted the contingency time in the plan so he was bound to be sensitive to any perceived lack of interest on my part.

But I pointed out that I had been off-site for the week so far. My absence, rather than indifference, explained the lack of response and a quick call would have made that clear.
"We now have project management tools and methodologies that the pyramid builders, or even Victorian engineers, would have died for."
Colin Beveridge
He had failed to follow through.

Maybe this seems pretty small beer but it is symptomatic of a much bigger problem that affects most of us - the poor quality of IT project management.

Twenty years ago, we all had "project leaders" - a title that I haven't encountered for years, yet another victim of the inexorable trend towards impressive job-titles not always underpinned by justifiable merit. Everybody wants to be a "manager"! Meanwhile we all moan about the lack of leadership. There must be some connection there between these two.

The ratio of major IT project failures is steadily rising, which means that fewer and fewer of our projects are being successfully managed. But 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 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 project planning tool and methodology are critical success factors in their own right. Sure they can help, but only if properly applied. Good tools can never compensate for an untrained operator. 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.

Many observers attribute the growing number of high-profile project failures to poor management. Obviously that must be the case. But 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. This approach only deals with the symptoms, not the root cause, of the trouble.

Many projects fail because companies do not train their project managers properly in the first place and 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. Most of our IT project managers earn their spurs by being thrown in at the deep end so it is a case of sink or swim. I am glad other professions don't take this approach to developing their senior members.

Imagine 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".

Extreme? Maybe, but not inappropriate. Every other profession has a structured approach to professional development, insisting on proper supervision and assessment for advancement; while the IT sector persists with good old trial and error.

But how can our project managers gain experience without doing it for real? In fact, Catch 22 need not apply here. With a bit of effort, and investment, we could easily create opportunities for skills development, but we have optimised these out of our organisation to minimise cost.

When did you last see a project that had a "deputy", an "assistant" or a "trainee" project manager? I haven't seen one for years. Perhaps it's time that we did. Maybe it's time that we gave our project managers a bit more personal support, through access to the know-how of experienced mentors.

Maybe it's time that we accepted input from the wrinklies, the ones who have been there, done that and got the battle scars - never mind the fact that I have just celebrated yet another birthday! Maybe it's time to realise that the corporate "lessons-learned" register is not a "write-only" document.

Leadership is important but worthless without adequate planning and back up. We need to get back to basics and take a more disciplined approach to project management. Until we do, things will only get worse and the successful IT project will become such an exceptional event that everyone will want to find out how such a miracle came to pass.

Has Colin touched a nerve?
Or is he just looking on the dark side? What's your view of the state of IT project management?> Let us know with an e-mail.

Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development, services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, such as Shell, British Petroleum, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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