Project Management

Public Sector vs. Private Sector PM

Michael R. Wood is a Business Process Improvement & IT Strategist Independent Consultant. He is creator of the business process-improvement methodology called HELIX and founder of The Natural Intelligence Group, a strategy, process improvement and technology consulting company. He is also a CPA, has served as an Adjunct Professor in Pepperdine's Management MBA program, an Associate Professor at California Lutheran University, and on the boards of numerous professional organizations. Mr. Wood is a sought after presenter of HELIX workshops and seminars in both the U.S. and Europe.

Having had the dubious honor of leading projects in both the private and public sectors, I can honestly say that the differences in culture and focus are the leading reason why government projects differ from their private sector counterparts. Understanding the cultural differences—and how they impact project success—can help project managers moving from the private sector into the public sector (and vice versa) make a more successful transition.

On the surface, the PM function seems very similar regardless of the form the organization takes. All appear to follow a well-thought-out framework. All have similar protocols and practices. In fact, from a technical PM point of view, many governmental frameworks and environments appear to be more mature.

It is only when we make a deeper dive into the environment that the differences are revealed. It is there that we learn why governmental projects fail so much more than their private sector counterparts. Of course, in government a failure is rarely recognized. Material budget overruns and missed deadlines just get absorbed and are often just a “good” reason to do a project “reset” where all is forgiven and the project starts anew. Resets are often met with fanfare and celebration in government circles, where in the private sector they usually indicate failure. But wait…there is so much …

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"When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge."

- Albert Einstein