“Project Management” is an enormous industry. Software, training, certifications and even Masters degrees – everything you can imagine — to make us better at managing simple and complex projects. But we keep failing. Over and over again. Is there a solution? Yes.
Research on PM effectiveness reveals there are 7, or 9, or 10 reasons why projects fails. Maybe more. Always more. The Project Management Institute reports that “only 58% of organizations fully understand the value of project management … (and) … only 23% of organizations use standardized project management practices across the entire organization.” While these numbers suggest that if more companies valued or implemented project management tools and techniques everything would improve, there may some other things at work. Why do only 58% of companies value project management? Why is this an uphill battle? Is it possible that companies don’t value or practice project management because they don’t believe it works? Or are there some other reasons why standardized project management tools and techniques are left at the altar?
Note that technology projects fail the most:
“IT projects are notoriously difficult to manage. A survey published in HBR found that the average IT project overran its budget by 27%. Moreover, at least one in six IT projects turns into a ‘black swan’ with a cost overrun of 200% and a schedule overrun of 70%. In other words, while most IT projects will fall short of their budget targets, a few might overshoot the targets so much as to cause catastrophic organization-wide problems. KMart’s massive $1.2B failed IT modernization project, for instance, was a big contributor to its bankruptcy.
“A PwC study of over 10,640 projects found that a tiny, tiny portion of companies – 2.5% – completed 100% of their projects successfully. The rest either failed to meet some of their original targets or missed the original budget or deadlines. These failures extract a heavy cost – failed IT projects alone cost the United States $50-$150B in lost revenue and productivity.
“To give you an idea of the abysmal success rate of most projects, only 40% of projects at IBM meet the company’s three key goals – schedule, budget, and quality.
“17% of IT projects can go so bad that they can threaten the very existence of the company.”
Software Isn’t the Answer
While companies – especially companies whose projects fail all the time – almost always use project management software, we should not assume that the answer is better software or better software training. These tools are just that, and sometimes all they do is make it easier for project managers to track their failures and prepare more interesting post mortems.
Nor are Management Artifacts, Like SCRUM or DevOps
The answer is not to commit to Agile, SCRUM or DevOps either. While these methods, tools and techniques can help, they’re anything but elixirs. In fact, they too frequently fail.
The answer’s not here either. Sure, they can help, especially if they’re willing to speak truth to (client) power, but many of them worry as much about keeping their contracts in place as anything else.
Poorly Defined Objectives & Inevitable Scope Creep
Of course, but project objectives are conceived by people and scope creep is caused by people. It’s always about the people.
Projects Fail Because of People
All of the software, tools and management elixirs in the world will not save project management. Only people can save project management. We can implement project management software, we can train and train, we can give awards for the smartest PM student in the class, we can hire consultants to tell us how to manage our most precious projects, and we’ll still fail unless we focus on the real reasons why so many projects fail.
Years ago I wrote a book – IT’s All about the People: Technology Management That Overcomes Disaffected People, Stupid Processes and Deranged Corporate Cultures – that focused on the human element in technology. The premise is as correct today as it was then. All of our efforts to avoid technology project failures can be simplified if we focus primarily on the humans who plan, fund and execute technology projects.
This is not a new concept. Listen to what Matt Asay (and Gartner) said about big data projects:
“A year ago, Gartner estimated that 60% of big data projects fail. As bad as that sounds, the reality is actually worse. According to Gartner analyst Nick Heudecker this week, Gartner was ‘too conservative’ with its 60% estimate. The real failure rate? ‘[C]loser to 85 percent.’ In other words, abandon hope all ye who enter here, especially because « [T]he problem isn’t technology, » Heudecker said. It’s you.”
Many analyses of project failures focus on humans, usually defined around poor leadership and teaming. Skills, competencies and communications are also often mentioned. Even corporate culture is identified as a culprit. So what’s the answer? How do we reduce the number of technology project failures?
Vet, Vet & Vet Some More
It’s hard to assess people objectively. But it’s necessary if we want to reduce the number of project failures. All of the people involved in project management must be vetted according to their previous successful project experience, their leadership abilities, their soft skills, their ability to work in teams and the basic skills and competencies necessary to complete technology projects successfully. This is a tall and always incomplete order primarily because no company has an abundance of experienced successful project managers (PMs) or teams. How do we know this? Because experienced project managers know just who to recruit for their next projects. How many times have we seen PMs searching again and again for David, Jen or Robin for their next project? They know the chances of success are improved dramatically with the right people (and dismal with the wrong ones).
Find – & Reward – Real Leaders
Leadership must occur at all levels: corporate, LOB, CFO, CIO, CTO, CISO and teams. Is technology project management cultural? Absolutely. Companies must embrace and reward project management. They must find and reward leaders – and punish those that cannot lead by clearing their project slates. Companies are well aware of their leadership problems. Very few have an abundance of good leaders; hardly any have a cadre of great ones. Bad ones can get marginalized in lots of creative ways, but should never get near large technology projects, like the implementation of ERP applications which are already plagued by failure. As suggested below, leaders should successfully complete residencies before leading any significant projects. But much more importantly, without the aforementioned soft skills, “leaders” cannot be leaders. The problem is that executives and managers are forever hesitant to pull the plug on ineffective professionals. Worse, they often reward them sideways or, worse, upwards.
Build the Right Teams
Team functionality and dysfunctionality have been studied to death, often with more opinions than data. One of the most cited analysis belongs to Patrick Lencioni who identifies the following dysfunctionalities:
- “Absence of trust – unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
- Fear of conflict – seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
- Lack of commitment – feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
- Avoidance of accountability – ducking the responsibility to call peers, superiors on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
- Inattention to results – focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success”
Absent from the list are intelligence, successful experience, soft skills, maturity, motivation, domain knowledge and incentives. If these traits were present across a team, would there be less dysfunction? As I noted elsewhere, “incentives are essential to team performance. Without adequate – generous – incentives, teams will not be as productive as they should. Specialization is another one: linebackers should not play quarterback. The idea that ‘talent’ is horizontal is silly. Professionals can solve specific problems, but not all problems. Teams should be assembled according to the demands of the problem at hand. The notion that ‘we can move Harry’ here or there creates team dysfunctionality and threatens productivity. Teams come and go. There aren’t any great teams sitting on the bench just waiting to be deployed. They’re assembled, unassembled and re-assembled in real-time and over time.”
The challenge here is the assumption that everyone can be trained to perform better than they were – or are. Those in the trenches know that training doesn’t always improve performance, no matter how good the training may be or how many times it occurs. Companies that try to train everyone to become better project managers (or project management software jockeys) waste most of their money. Vetting requires identifying the professionals most likely to benefit from training – and refusing to train those least likely to benefit. But how are the “most likely to benefit” selected? Start with past records and then shift to organization and communication skills. Note that: “soft skills are increasing in importance for project managers. 51% of respondents in PMI’s 2018 survey said that soft skills are more important today, while only 19% said that this skill requirement is unchanged.” Put another way, don’t try to soften up demonstrably-hard-to-communicate-or-work-with-people in your company. Everyone knows who they are, and never put them in charge of projects no matter how many degrees or friends they have — and don’t train them for something they’ll never do.
The industry also likes to train people the wrong way. Classroom training? Are doctors trained that way, or are they immersed into the practice of doctoring? Other professions do the same thing, but most companies “(79%) offer onsite, classroom-based training using in-house trainers. However, a significant – and growing – number (51%) are now relying on external trainers for onsite classes as well … larger organizations are also more likely to use on-demand, online training … on average, these organizations spent 5 days per year in training … high-performing organizations use a variety of PM training strategies. 79% use PM software tool training, 76% offer training on PM basics, 67% offer advanced PM skills development, and 61% offer leadership training.” All of this is wrong.
Training should be re-invented around practice. Project management residents should learn how and what to do to manage projects successfully, and just like the medical profession, bad project managers should be washed out of their residencies.
It’s Always Been All About the People
Is this lesson just too hard to learn? As with so many corporate problems, we know how to solve them. But here too people get in the way of solving people problems. The thoughts above represent some small steps toward successful technology project management. But at the end of the day, successful project management depends upon our willingness to make hard decisions about the people in our professional lives, decisions that we’ve avoided forever.
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