Current Issues in Project Management

There is only one consistent feature of modern business and that is change.

Organisations are constantly required to change what they do and how they do it. The most successful commercial organisations are those that have become best at changing. World-class performance is seen to be possible through the development – of excellent management, one significant part of which is the management of projects. However, working against this is a number of issues, which are exemplified by the following quotations:

  1. ‘Ready, fire, aim’
  2. ‘It’s all in my head’
  3. ‘We work in a nanosecond environment, we don’t have time to do this stuff’
  4. ‘Project management – we have a procedure for that’
  5. ‘It’s all just common sense, isn’t it?’
  6. ‘We’ve done this lots of times before. It never worked then, why should it this time?’
  7. ‘It won’t work here!’

Ready, fire, aim

Ready, fire, aim; is the fate of many projects. Here the project is started with no clear objectives. The motto is shoot first – whatever you hit, call it the target. There are still some corners of the commercial world that tolerate this approach to managing projects, but in general, this is not associated with any great success.

This approach may work fine for the early stages of a project or where the benefit is in carrying out the process of the project, rather than in achieving any particular outcome. In most organisations today, this is being replaced with a highly structured system of justifications that any project must go through. However, if you do work in this environment, setting your own targets at the end of the project is the easiest method for the project manager, without a doubt!

‘It’s all in my head’

The second represents the approach that is taken by to many projects. The project manager will set out with all the information in his or her head. This may work well where the project is very small, but the lack of any system will soon start to tell on the individual and the results if there are any problems or if the scale of the project escalates. Here, the application of the structures and systems will greatly help, enabling better-grounded decisions to be made and avoiding many problems to which this approach will inevitably lead. It remains a challenge for many individuals and organisations to move away from this usually random approach to managing projects. This links to the next point.

‘We work in a nanosecond environment, we don’t have time to do this stuff’

This was a regular quotation from managers in fast-moving e-commerce firms. Given the demise of so many of these, one can only speculate on the impact that the unwillingness to deal with anything as messy and un-hip as good project management had on those businesses. There may be changes to the basic practices of project managers that are required under such circumstances, but this is more of adaptation rather than radical re-invention. This scenario is in sharp contrast to the next one.

‘Project management – we have a procedure for that’

Having a procedure or a documented set of processes for projects provides a highly structured approach that is favoured in some industries. Indeed, there are many where the slavish dedication to highly restrictive methods is necessary as part of the requirements of customers (military procurement and areas where safety considerations are paramount are two such areas). The result is high levels of documentation (the procedures manual for projects at one international bank ran to several thousand pages) and considerable bureaucracy associated with it.

Decision-making can be very slow and the overhead costs associated with such systems significant. This represents the other end of the formalisation scale from the previous scenarios; it is a challenge for project managers to deal with this high degree of formalisation, and yet try to engender creativity into the project and the people working on it. It is a constant theme among project management professionals just how much formalisation is required in systems. While some will have the levels specified by the requirements of the project, the vast majority, particularly for smaller projects, require an approach that is more appropriate to the particular situation.

‘It’s all just common sense, isn’t it?’

Well yes, but that depends on what you mean by common sense. If you mean ‘the obvious after it has been explained, then possibly. However, this statement usually just shows that things about which little or nothing is known appear obvious as exemplified by the bar-room philosopher with easy answers to life, the universe and everything, if only they would listen. This is a great challenge for project management today. The past 50 years of the subject will be shown to have provided a substantial knowledge base for project managers to use. The art is in knowing the relevant parts of that base and tailoring that knowledge to the particular environment.

‘We’ve done this lots of times before. It never worked then, why should it this time?’

Here we see the experienced project worker showing the exasperation that comes with the application of many different approaches, only to be regularly confronted with the same results – projects running late, over budget or delivering less than was required of them. This is not at all uncommon, because the real causes of failure are rarely addressed by organisations. The failures deserve more careful study – they are a significant opportunity for learning and are generally very costly – to individuals, the organisation or both.

‘It won’t work here’

Lastly, the challenge is for new methods that have been developed in other areas of business to find how they might be applied with benefit to the project environment. , These must overcome this often-heard rejection of anything new as it was not invented here, therefore it cannot be of any relevance to us. The pressure for change in most organisations is such that ideas need to be brought in from wherever possible and adapted for projects and then the particular application.

Examples of changes that are having an impact on the project environment include taking operations initiatives (including Lean and Agile) and applying the principles to the project environment. As was commented in the previous section, there is no longer just one best way to run a project. Now there are many possible options, and it is this choice of processes that will be discussed in subsequent chapters.

One final issue should be shelved very quickly. Many managers have not recognised that they are project managers, despite the statistic from those who study such things that the average manager now spends upwards of 50 per cent of their time on projects or project-related issues. Their line responsibilities (finance, marketing, design) involve them in a variety of day-to-day activities plus longer-term projects.

The skills and techniques used in the line-management function will differ to those required in projects, as we shall see. The more enlightened organisations will I provide a basic skills grounding in the best ways to run projects, and help, coach and mentor individuals in recognising and developing their project roles.

The subject of project management needs to move on. The incorporation of a substantial strategy element in this text reflects the need for the subject to change its reactive nature and move to the situation where it aspires to be a source of competitive advantage. This advantage has been amply demonstrated in the operations management area, and the contribution of operations to the success of major businesses such as Toyota has become legendary.

Unless the strategy is right, even the best management practice in the execution of projects is wasted. It has become evident that project managers have been woefully ill equipped to take this strategic role. This text takes a much wider view of project management to prepare for a discussion, much of which can rightly be placed at the highest levels of organisations.

A further issue that was raised in the opening of this chapter is that of the ongoing extent of project failure. This presents a significant opportunity to organisations, to improve their performance, through improving the way that both operational projects (those that directly earn revenue) and change projects (those that change the way that the organisation or an individual works) are managed.

One issue that has already been raised in this section is that many project managers fail to recognise that this is indeed a major part of their role. In order to help recognise this element and where the differences exist between project and general management.

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