Project management: Have we lost the plot?

So, these two people meet.  Discovering they were both teachers, the woman from New Zealand asked of her male English colleague, “What do you teach?”. “Mathematics.” he replied, “How about you?” “Me”, she replied, “Oh, I teach children!”.

How we frame what we do, the way we describe ourselves, what we do, and what we do it with, fundamentally affects how we manage ourselves.  That’s just as true in project management as it is in education.  As a professional project manager, what is it we say we do, what is it we say we are, and why does it matter?

What does a project manager manage? 

We were listening to a heated debate within a group of individuals on the topic of project management.  We think it had started in response to the age-old chestnut, “What constitutes project success?”  What the discussion had degenerated into was a series of passionate assertions of what the various people did, their role in delivery of outputs, and the approaches (methods or frameworks) they used!  Like the mathematics teacher most were more concerned about what they knew and how they went about doing it, than ensuring that the purpose of the role of project manager was achieved.

Claim and counterclaim abounded.  “I’m in construction… our approach is different.”.  “I run IT projects – my issues are totally different!” And perhaps most recently, and perhaps most disturbingly, “I am an Agile project manager, so I go about things in a completely new and exciting way!”

We looked at each other with some consternation.  Surely, we thought project managers deliver projects, their role is not to deliver products, whether buildings, systems or bits of code!  We turned to go.  How could we help?

From iron triangle to golden pyramid

Just like the teaching profession, project management has, and continues to tolerate self-centred philosophies and approaches in the conduct of projects.  For years, inexperienced project managers have been taught that the success of their project will be due to what it is they do, and their fundamental role is to ensure that the project delivers its outputs to time and to budget.  It is even given a name: the project’s iron triangle.  It’s as though a mathematics teacher would be a good teacher if he didn’t get any of the sums wrong!

There is so much more to it than that.  It never was the case that the correct execution of the technical aspects of project management delivered project success.  Work by Shenhar (2001) and others, should have made it obvious to the professional project manager that management attention must be focused on project success criteria rather than project execution.  It’s not an iron triangle, it is a golden pyramid, with success as a project manager determined by project effectiveness factors, while project efficiency, though still important, takes its rightful place as subservient to the delivery of value to the key stakeholders.

Manager as servant leader

To be a project manager means in many ways being a servant leader.  Your success is not determined by what you do or the way you do it.  It is determined by how well you understand, listen and deliver to the needs and wants – often poorly expressed – by the key stakeholder groups.

There are techniques that can help a project manager do that, some with new names like Scrum, many old ones that have stood the test of time.  None of them are project management, any more than mathematics is teaching.  It is a simple category error to think so.

A project manager accepts the responsibility – and indeed the accountability – of delivering the outcomes required, usually by delivering sets of outputs with desirable characteristics, which it is anticipated will trigger the necessary changes.

Achievement orientation, not process orientation

Project managers are achievement-oriented.  Processes are chosen and discarded in response to whether they aid or hinder that achievement, and so they can never be process-driven.  It means asking questions like:

  • What does success look like (from the stakeholders’ point of view)?
  • How do I know I’ve completed the project (what will the stakeholders recognize as completion)?
  • How will the project be measured / judged (and who will make that judgement and when)?

These are the core drivers of project management actions.  These establish the context to determine the choice of which of any number of competing delivery frameworks to use. Not some arcane, internally focused theoretical analysis of team preference. 

Innovation in product development frameworks, such as Agile and DSDM for IT products is great.  But, ultimately their value lies in providing more options for the project manager to choose from, not by providing an alternative way to manage projects.

I don’t know about you, but we’re definitely with the New Zealand teacher.  The role of a teacher remains as it ever was, to teach, develop, and grow children into valued and valuable adults – or at least to try!  The role of the project manager today is the same as it was in yesteryear, to deliver value to the key stakeholders, using whatever techniques, tools, tricks, or teams that can be brought to bear.

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