The first project I managed was over 30 years ago. Since that small hardware upgrade I’ve managed, sponsored or been a member of countless project teams. Like everyone else who’s had that much project exposure I’ve had my share of exhilarating successes and heartbreaking failures. In what, I suspect is a very British fashion, the successes were only fleetingly celebrated whilst the failures were long agonised over. Nothing wrong with reviewing why failure occurred and learning lessons but I often felt those inquests never got to the real issues. And, yet, so often I could see disaster looming, knew that I was participating in a train crash but was unable to express why the project was going wrong.
I’ve recently attended some of Pelicam’s Projects Forums and their Realising Project Intelligence workshop. The opportunity to learn from their experience and debate with my peers has been fascinating. The combination of hard skills, typified by the established methodologies such as Prince2 and PMBOK, and the soft skills, for example communication and people management is not enough. Is there a third ingredient?
Pelicam argue that “Project Intelligence” is the third focus but what is it? Can it truly be separated from the hard and soft skills to the extent needed to select for it, develop it and train it?
At first glance “Project Intelligence” appears to be little more than the judicious, pragmatic application of the hard and soft skills, by an experienced Project Manager (PM). Dig a little deeper and you realise that experience applied pragmatically is a very powerful capability.
So, can we fast track less experienced PMs? After all “Project Intelligence” is of limited value if the only route to achieving project success is to engage seasoned, highly experienced PMs. And, an extremely disheartening answer for a young aspiring PM.
The discussions and training have persuaded me that there are insights, techniques and approaches that are used by the best PMs, and their project teams, and that these can be passed on to others. Not surprisingly I learnt that senior PMs can also learn from these techniques. In fact whilst I did learn many new things I also found the course to be a fantastic refresher – a reminder of approaches and tools that for a variety of reasons I’d slipped out of using.
Let me give you a few examples of what was discussed and without giving away all the answers explain why there is a third way.
Let’s start with sponsorship. A frustration of mine is the poor quality of the sponsors that I’ve worked with. Too many haven’t made any effort to understand what is required of the role. Whilst very few actively or covertly undermine the project team not many of them provide the support or challenge that the role demands. Pelicam have some good advice on how the PM should manage this most important of stakeholders. Developing and maintaining the stakeholder PM relationship is key to a successful project and an inexperienced PM will particularly struggle. I’ve noticed that external PMs are typically much more adept at this but I also think that they have a tremendous advantage over internal PMs who will feel constrained by the politics and reward structure of the organisation.
Stakeholder management has been identified by Pelicam’s health check analysis as one of the top three critical issues so it’s worth investing to improve this area.
I was particularly struck in one debate by the inverse correlation between project duration and project success. Instinctively we might believe this correlation but the empirical evidence is shocking. A Standish report records a 55% success rate for projects of less than 6 months duration which drops to 15% for 18 month projects. John Carroll reports a 50% success rate for sub six month duration projects with no successful projects over 9 months duration! 
In the face of such dreadful statistics it was interesting to learn about “Islands of Stability”. These are quite different to milestones in that they are deliverables with tangible business benefits. They typically require extra investment and will extend the timeline of the project. So, the approach will need to be sold but the benefits of reduced risk, greater visibility and higher engagement from the business all make for a strong case.
The Business Case
As a final example I’ll mention the business case. It’s high on Pelicam’s list of critical issues that contribute to project success or failure. It’s important that the PM understands the business case because it is so closely related to what success looks like. It should define the outcomes of the project but surprisingly often, this fundamental aspect is missing or is poorly defined. So, what does a PM do that finds himself confronted with a weak case? Many projects today are justified as being mandatory – hardware or software that is going end-of-life, regulatory demands or mandatory audit requirements. Because these projects are “no brainers” they are susceptible to massive scope creep. In difficult economic times these are great projects for a canny sponsor to latch on to and add their own pet initiatives. It will need strong discipline and judicious skills for a PM to negotiate a reduced project scope. Better to get the objectives right and de-scope at the project start than have to do that later.
My conclusion is that there definitely is a third way but that “Project Intelligence” is not always a simple thing. It is more than a re-stating of soft skills and thankfully it can be taught.
Any Project Manager would benefit from this workshop but it’s especially suitable for PMs who already have a good mastery of the traditional hard and soft skills.