Not too long ago, it seemed that you couldn't read two articles on project management without one of them citing the purported failure rate of projects. Was it 50 percent? 80?! Some sort of "objective criteria" defined the failures in these studies — a certain number of days past deadline or a percentage over budget, for example.
You don't see those doomsday leads as often these days, and their validity was always a matter of debate. Definitions of success or failure aren't so neatly tied to simple metrics that don't take into account the many ways an initiative can deliver value. Of course, that's where self-appointed experts, consultants and vendors make a good living, offering their solution to your project management problem.
But forget failure rates and packaged solutions for a minute. You know, the world's best baseball players walk back to the dugout having failed almost 70 percent of the time. And they don't throw away their equipment or change their technique each time. They've accepted the reality of their enterprise: small, spinning objects traveling more than 90 miles per hour are very difficult to hit.
To continue the analogy, project teams get thrown a lot of curves, from before the project even starts (unrealistic estimates) through the heat of battle (missing-in-action sponsors, conflicting directives, competing resources) to an often-hazy closeout (if they get there). Under these conditions, homeruns are hard to come by. A few bad-hop singles might even be deserving of celebration — and certainly not evidence of complete failure.
My point, of course, is not to say that late or over-budget projects should be accepted as inevitable by organizations. But it is more constructive to re-focus the failure conversation. No methodology or technology solution can wish project success into reality — unless it begins with people.
I've never interviewed a process. However, I have chatted with thousands of project leaders and team members over the years. And many of them confirm that their organizations are striking out on a consistent basis.
But the root cause of these failures does not necessarily map out directly to the particular method or tools their organizations employ. No, the problem is more often the dangerous disconnect between the organization's strategic goals and how those goals are — or aren't — translated into action.
The project teams know it and hate it, but they don't feel like they can do much about it. The customers sense it, and they're ready to do something about it, sooner or later. The senior managers know it, and they're doing everything they can to deflect it. And what of the top-level executives — the leadership? Well, too often, they're still waiting to be told about it, so they can hire an outside consultant, who may or may not get around to talking to the project team, to fix it.
If that sounds like sour grapes, or cynicism from the trenches, so be it. Perception becomes reality. And the truth bears repeating, again and again, until someone at the top hears it and believes it:
Processes don't perform projects; people do. Until people drive the processes, and not the other way around, there will continue to be unrest in the trenches — along with "experts" who make a good living citing the project failure rate, whatever it is.
Accidents Will Happen
Categories: career development
The professionalization of project management has long been established. More important, the value of project management skills has been widely accepted. Case in point: research consistently shows that PMPs enjoy higher salaries and ever-expanding opportunities in the fast-evolving digital economy.
Still, there remains a vast population of "accidental project managers" — individuals who were tapped on the shoulder one day and charged with managing a project along with the day job.
Lately, though, I hear as much about CAPMs (Certified Associate in Project Management) as APMs (accidental project managers), and that's a great development. New project managers have some very helpful resources and networks to tap into these days, starting right here on ProjectManagement.com.
But let's face it: many individuals cast in the role of unofficial or temporary project manager view it, quite reasonably, as an unwelcome burden at best and a lose-lose situation at worst. If that's how you feel, perhaps you're operating on the perimeter of your comfort zone, if not completely outside it.
Consider this though: maybe the job of project manager chose you. Maybe this new, scary responsibility is an opportunity, a tough but exciting challenge with potential long-term career rewards.
Hopefully, you were chosen to oversee a project for a reason, be it technical experience or familiarity with a similar effort. If your comfort zone happens to be rolling up your sleeves and "just doing it" — all else be damned — then no one can realistically expect you to become a master of motivating other people overnight. If, instead, you were tapped on the shoulder because you have an ability to inspire and work with people but don't know what P-M-B-O-K stands for, then you can't be asked to invent, much less implement, a new five-stage lifecycle to save the day.
And there are dozens of other mismatched skill-set scenarios that can intimidate or ambush even the most enthusiastic project managers.
Still, if you are in a situation where you've been asked to manage a project without so much as an introductory course on risk or a used copy of Project Management for Dummies, take comfort. There are thousands of project managers with advanced degrees and 20 years in the trenches who will tell you a little secret: they sometimes have to wing it, too.
And though seasoned project managers have had career-enhancing successes and been able to replicate them with strong practices and lessons learned, they also have suffered failures — failures that could be attributed to lack of support, unrealistic scope, or just plain bad luck. But they keep learning. And adapting. And growing.
Hey, accidents happen. Welcome to the profession.
Though it is a well-worn cliché, many technologists probably are less people savvy, while great communicators must rub the glaze from their eyes at the site of code. And business vision may be better left to the MBAs in the executive suite.
It's unrealistic to expect any one person to excel in all three areas. But ... a successful project must. And that won't happen by osmosis or timecards.
Strategy without the tactics to execute it is nothing more than hot air. Tactics without a strategy to give them purpose is just busy work.
No matter what the project, the business goals and the processes must be on a first-name business, or the results are destined to be a stranger to the original vision.
But is it up to the project manager and team to connect the strategic dots with tactics? If team members are providing the relevant technical expertise, and their leader is staying on top of the project management processes — status reports, budget and schedule, risk assessment — haven't they "covered" their responsibilities? According to the typical job descriptions, yes. But according to the reality of projects, there must be another obligation — or success is unlikely.
The unwritten obligation of all team members is to see beyond their individual pieces of the project puzzle, to understand the importance of their roles in the larger scheme, to care about the results off in the fuzzy distance. That, after all, is what gives work — any work — meaning.
And the obligation to care is not unrealistic to expect. In fact, it is more often the desire of skilled people, whether or not they are adept at communicating it. Perhaps that is why employees universally resist timecards. And why wouldn't they? Who wants to have his or her role reduced, in large part, to the monitoring of a clock? Doesn't that, in essence, reduce their contribution to just another quantitative metric instead of qualitative value?
Of course, timecards are important to understanding resource allocation. And performance, hopefully, is judged by many other measures, tangible and intangible. The point is, organizations won't get well-run, customer-focused, value-driven projects if those initiatives fail to address both the technical and business objectives.
So if project managers and team members are expected to deliver the tactical execution in the name of the strategic vision, then they also should be included, supported and rewarded in pursuit of that all-important connection. Are you?
Our Projectified with PMI podcast continues to feature dynamic guests sharing fresh perspectives on the future of project management. Earlier this month, host Stephen W. Maye chatted with Dana Brownlee, a strategy consultant and former project manager, about "Millennials in the Workforce."
The Census Bureau doesn't actually recognize "millennials" as an official demographic, and there aren't precise dates to define this group that follows Generation X. But a widely accepted definition is a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st Century — anyone born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.
If you have siblings or children born on each side of that range — say in 1979 and 1983, or 2002 and 2006 — it wouldn't be surprising if they were more alike than different, so we should keep in mind that we're painting with a broad brush when discussing millennials or any generation.
But from a project management perspective, experienced project managers can certainly benefit from gaining a better understanding of the behaviors and mindsets of a group that is becoming a larger portion of the workforce each and every day.
Likewise, millennials — or Next-Gen PMs — need to understand how the older generation works as they seek to build credibility, influence and responsibility in their developing careers.
As Brownlee and Maye dove into the topic, one thing became clear: both Next-Gens and older generations have good things to offer and teach each other. But that isn't easily apparent if we operate in silos and stick to "our crowd" or comfort zone.
Awareness and relationship-building are critical, Brownlee says.
"It's hard to trust a person you don't like and it's hard to like a person you don't know, so it all starts with being very intentional about breaking up those cliques and creating opportunities for people who might come from different generations to actually get to know each other, and from there you can do some amazing things."
The responsibility to accommodate and adapt lies on both sides, and this episode shares several enlightening examples of how that can happen. Here are two:
For Next-Gen PMs, maybe the best place to focus on first is learning to take feedback, Brownlee says.
"One litmus test that I use for younger team members is not just how well do they do on a task, but how well do they take correction ... because if I get someone who takes feedback really well and I can tell they internalize it — they didn't get super-defensive — that's someone that I can work with much better."
On the other side, for experienced project managers and team members, it is important to be open to the new ways of thinking that technology-savvy Next-Gen PMs can bring to problem solving and collaboration. And that requires getting to know them as individuals, Brownlee says.
"One of the first things I'd advise project managers [is to] meet with people individually. When new people join my team I always meet with them individually and ask them all kinds of things. 'Hey, are you a morning or evening person?' ... 'If I were to reward you for doing a great job, what reward would be most meaningful for you?'"
The answers will vary dramatically, Brownlee promises. And that, ultimately, is the whole point. We can make some general observations about how millennials differ from older generations in the workforce, but we really can't begin to maximize their full potential unless we approach and get to know them as individuals.
This connection, of course, is a two-way street, and Next-Gen project management professionals must also recognize how their expectations should adjust and align with the organizations they are entering and the teams they are joining.
It all comes down to listening, doesn't it? And you can listen to all our Projectified episodes at pmi.org/podcast.
Have you checked out Projectified with PMI yet? This new podcast features lively, insightful conversations about emerging trends impacting your world — the world of project management. Projectified was created with one mission in mind: to inform, to inspire and to prepare you for success — today and tomorrow.
In our first eight episodes, we've explored a wide spectrum of timely topics, including artificial intelligence, digital transformation, and agile adoption. Many of these discussions — guided by our perceptive, engaging host Stephen Maye — provide an introduction to subjects that are complex or novel (and often both). We make sure to describe the landscape in general terms, to be sure, but we also dive deeper to make real-world connections that will resonate with project leaders and their teams. We outline the challenges, the possibilities and, most important, the opportunities.
In every episode, we strive to bring you new ways to approach your work, your career and your future. One of our most downloaded episodes to date has a mountain of down-to-earth, hard-earned advice from a rising project management star on how she developed her own leadership style. She shares insights on building relationships based on trust, asking awkward questions, learning from executive stakeholders, and ultimately believing in yourself.
One of my favorite episodes explores the often neglected role of creativity in project management and how to bring fresh thinking to process-oriented environments. Creativity, guest Scott Berkun says, isn't something mystical or fuzzy. It's about problem-solving. And every project needs that.
Among many helpful nuggets throughout the conversation, Berkun suggests keeping a journal.
"You need to invest in your relationship with yourself and what you think about your own ideas," he says. "Because if you're afraid of what might come out of your brain then the odds of you discovering something unusual is so much smaller because your inhibitions are really high. Reducing those inhibitions increases [when you write it down], which will increase what you'll have the confidence to pitch your co-worker or your boss. So I am convinced that one of the best tools you can have for thinking — forget creativity, just thinking — is to keep some kind of a journal."
And he says project managers should encourage their teams to embrace the same approach to enliven meetings, collaboration and brainstorming exercises.
"If you have a hard problem to solve, you want to allow people in the room to say things that don't quite make sense, or that are weird, or that are possibly embarrassing — because that's where you're gonna find an idea that might lead to a solution. If everyone in the meeting only says things that they are 100 percent confident make sense, you're not gonna find anything that interesting."
That's good stuff, and there's a lot more like it in every episode. These conversations deserve to be heard. They feature people who are passionate and knowledgeable. Listen for yourself and get Projectified!
You can find all Projectified episodes at pmi.org/podcast.