Project Management isn't a cookbook exercise

Following good project management practices is a darn good idea, but it's insufficient. You can't just follow the recipe and be sure the cookies will come out tasty.

Management Speak: This has your name all over it.

Translation: You're the only unsuspecting schmuck we can flatter into taking on this project.

-- My good friend and colleague Kristen Weingartz's name is all over this one.

The Standish Group, in its annual Chaos Study of project completion rates, quotes from Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears: "The Roman bridges of antiquity were very inefficient structures. By modern standards, they used too much stone, and as a result, far too much labour to build. Over the years we have learned to build bridges more efficiently, using fewer materials and less labour to perform the same task."

At the risk of quibbling with Mr Clancy, some of those Roman bridges are still standing almost two millennia later, while some of our more efficient ones have tumbled into the bay. Adherence to budgets and schedules is our pre-eminent ethic. One suspects Rome held different values.

But I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him: An IT department's credibility depends on its ability to get projects done. And if we believe the Standish Group, getting them done is the exception, because about half finish late and over budget, and nearly a third are put out of their misery altogether.

If you've read anything about this subject, you've found an unfortunate focus on process and methodology. Supposedly, the key to success is following the right steps in the right order, whether you're building bridges or writing software.

The experts, I'm afraid, are wrong. Or, rather, they're insufficiently right: Following good project management practices -- the right steps in the right order -- is a darn good idea, but it's insufficient. Effective project management isn't a cookbook exercise. You can't just follow the recipe and be sure the cookies will come out tasty.

The most important factor in project success isn't having a repeatable process or sophisticated methodology or, for that matter, having the project management software. If you want to succeed, find a strong, experienced project manager to lead the project. Seem obvious? Of course.

So why do so many companies actively prevent project success by ensuring they have no experienced project managers? The career ladder is the problem: Project management is used as a bridge position -- not in the Roman sense of solidity and durability, but in the American sense of being something to cross as quickly as possible.

Project management is the bridge between staff and management. It's a test to see whether you deserve a department of your own. Do well and you're promoted out of project management. Faced with the additional salary and prestige of a management position, how many good project managers will say, "No thanks. I want to keep managing projects, because I like working longer hours for less money and respect"?

Here's a novel thought: Create a project management career path. The entry point is an apprenticeship with an experienced project manager; the progression moves from small projects through large programmes; and the end-point is leading your company's PMO (programme management office). Managing small projects should be parallel in compensation and prestige to workgroup supervisors; the head of the PMO should have as much influence and clout as the CTO.

Want your technology projects to succeed? Stop worrying about employing project management methodologies and start worrying about employing strong project managers. They'll take care of the methodologies.

Agree? Disagree? Send Bob Lewis an email at Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant with Perot Systems.

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