All accountability, little authority: the project manager's lot

How well the challenges of organisational change are handled and the process communicated among the parties involved play a huge role in determining whether a project manager succeeds or fails.

How well the challenges of organisational change are handled and the process communicated among the parties involved play a huge role in determining whether a project manager succeeds or fails.

About 70% of IT projects that founder do so through poor change management rather than difficulties with the technology or shortcomings in the skills department, says consultant Ian Mitchell.

Mitchell, speaking late last month at a seminar organised by the NZ Computer Society and the Society for Computers and the Law, says with this responsibility for managing change goes the considerable difficulty of bringing things and people together to a common purpose, one which is often ill-defined. Two speakers at the event, having independently prepared, came up with the same analogy – “like herding cats”.

Realistically, no project plan of a reasonable length can have firmly defined objectives or, as one member of the audience put it, “any project plan extending more than six months into the future is a lie”. Milestones can be set out, but no more, he said.

Aims are always subject to assumptions, the panellists, lawyer Michael Wigley and experienced IT manager Judith Johnston, agreed, with Wigley pointing out that the assumptions attending any commitment had to be set out carefully to avoid any later legal problems.

The project manager is responsible for communicating with a range of people, including the business decision-makers who sketched out the aims of the project and the development team, which may include subcontracted developers and vendors and possibly other managers of related projects. He/she is often made accountable for failure, but in practical terms has little authority, says Mitchell. A significant change will usually have to be cleared with appropriate business managers. Often this will mean pressuring “the boss” to make a timely decision, something which is not always good for the manager’s reputation and career.

“The business owners are responsible for the results, the project manager for specific deliverables, the development team managers for tasks, and everyone for the relationship,” says Johnston.

They must facilitate communication, but not choke the channels, says Mitchell. Face-to-face whiteboard sessions with visibility of body language work much better than formal documents or emails.

Core project manager skills, according to Johnston, include negotiating, problem solving, organisation and management, leadership and team-building -- and a certain element of charisma.

“If they have all these qualities, they’ll probably move on,” said Wigley. Project managers, Johnston responded, are usually interested in moving horizontally, to another project, rather than promotion to a line management or IT management role.

In any case, there is a significant danger of losing a skilled manager before the project has been completed, and “golden handcuffs” might have to be brought into play, Wigley said.

Mitchell remarked that the "agile" practices of extreme programming, often seen as an unusual style, in fact express honestly the flexibility that in practice goes on within allegedly more formal methodologies. There is some defence in showing that “best practice” was adhered to, and an objectively defined project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) does exist to define this to some extent.

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