The Challenge of Project Management

Over the past few decades the rise of project management has seen it become the main vehicle for delivering business change: strategic initiatives, new products and services.  Effective project management means organisations and managers can stay ahead of the competition and, in many cases, confers a competitive advantage.

Since the advent of computers the project management discipline has become increasingly and intrinsically linked to information systems as a major means for delivering business change. 

Projects with IT elements are difficult to manage

Yet projects with IT elements are difficult to manage for many reasons: they often appear/are abstract; have their own specialised and frequently changing terminology, myriad ever-changing standards, approaches and methodologies as well as ever-improving technologies available to us. 

Systems integrations, which increasingly result from business mergers and acquisitions, require the management of numerous suppliers responsible for the various elements.  Similarly the advent of open systems and “free” software (even to the point of robust operating systems such as Linux) has introduced increasing numbers of third-party suppliers. 

How can these complexities result in straight forward comparisons that permit proactive, early and well informed decision making by business people whose understanding of technical matters is necessarily limited?  And should they need to know anyway!?  And if not, what do they need to know and understand to make rational decisions for the benefit of their company?

Our profession remains largely unsuccessful

In creating a ‘new’ profession the emphasis has been on planning, activities, change control, financial control alongside an understanding of technical matters.  Despite the creation of professional project management qualifications, the success rates of projects that deliver successful business change remains painfully and embarrassingly small.

It is no surprise that IT projects are regarded suspiciously.  Those project managers with both IT and business skills are in ever-increasing demand but in short supply: even more so that tiny remnant of project managers who have been and remain successful.  Suddenly rational questions cascade forth in abundance:

Who are they? 

Where are they? 

Can we hire them?

What is their secret?

How can we become like them? 

Can we learn from them?

Neither hard, nor soft, nor a combination of approaches have succeeded

Many top-tier consultancies, as well as august, professional bodies have therefore focused on the softer behavioural aspects as the panacea for project management considering the ‘harder’ aspects important but not critical for success.  However, like the professional qualifications before them, the ‘soft’ focus has been (and remains) important, but is not on its own, own critical for success. 

Without this ability to pragmatically and intelligently apply necessary and timely tools and techniques, the project manager is left with apparently few options.  At these crucial times of a project, project managers are invariably reluctant to take that calculated risk.  They will usually revert to type: focusing on the (hard) structure and discipline of formal methods or the (soft) reinvigoration of the project team. 

What are we missing?

Experience shows that there is a need for both aspects: hard and soft.  But it also clearly highlights a gap filled by a third focus that has largely been overlooked because it is so (necessarily) inextricably linked with both hard and soft it is difficult to isolate.

A balanced combination of hard disciplines and soft skills may be achievable and desirable but will it consistently and successfully guarantee project delivery?  Although providing a theoretically correct project, it would not necessarily (specifically) consider the:

Peculiarities of the organisation, its environment and culture

Pragmatic means by which projects must flex in order to deliver (within the legitimate bounds of methodological good practice) using an appropriate selection of tools and techniques from the depth of hard disciplines alongside the breadth of stakeholder management and people skills and all that within the context of the organisation’s limitations and position at that time

Asymmetrical and dynamic balance that needs to be maintained between best practice and reality when unexpected turns of events dictate alternative project measures (even when, for short periods, good practice is not necessarily in evidence but that risk, which had not been worth taking in theory, has now become an issue in practice and needs managing)

“Do-ability” of the project.

The human condition as it is presented in that organisation at that particular time.

Project managers are expected to maintain a coherent project by judicious decision-making (despite not always having the entire picture at their disposal).  They do so throughout this ‘organisational haze’ so that, when it clears, what remains is a coherent whole with:

Visible project integrity retained

Stakeholders still committed to the course taken and the business objective

Demonstrable good practice

An (apparently) uncanny ability to correctly identify and manage critical issues and resolve painful problems at the right time.

Figure 1 – Even an appreciation of systematic and systemic, rationalistic and soft systems, approaches is insufficient

The expertise and experience required to navigate such a course is considerable and is more than just a combination of hard disciplines and soft skills.  It also requires the experience and expertise, born of intelligence gleaned and honed over years of battle-hardened project management, to be applied in order to achieve the project objectives.

Why should we believe this alternative approach?

Repeated, consistent and successful project interventions indicate that our approach has some mileage; if only from a substantively experiential perspective.  The hypothesis may be relatively new and may require more statistical evidence to support it, but in the intervening period between tentative hypothesis and established empirical truth, are we to remain rooted in project failure never seeking an uncovering of myriad failures or an explanation for occasional success?

If our approach succeeds, competitive advantage is acquired and our hypothesis is further corroborated.  And even if it is incorrect, it still teaches important lessons in the discipline of project management and may serve to improve our hypothesis.

Organisations that work with our approach are discovering that, though not easy initially, it is nevertheless possible to “stop digging” themselves further into the hole of failed projects but rather find an escape route through the recognition, realisation and application of project intelligence; and moving apace towards the successful delivery of business change.

The challenge remains…

Yet the challenge of project management is not static as some would urge (if it were the project management techniques used to construct the Egyptian pyramids would still be employed today, having gravitated to our industry through the rationalistic tradition). 

Perfect project management remains a moving target.  As long as a drive towards innovative business solutions exists, it will always remain on the move.   And we must do more than merely accept this fact: we must continually learn what it means for us and our organisations now, or we, too, will be left behind building pyramids for ourselves.

Neil Richardson

After over 15 years’ in IT management consultancy both independently and with agencies including PA Consulting and Fujitsu/ICL, Neil is now one of Pelicam’s Managing Practitioners.  In 2006 he established Pelicam North and is currently delivering Pelicam’s “Realising Project Intelligence” training alongside consultancy assignments.