A scientific approach to project management

July 26, 2001
Recent insights have brought project management from black art to critical discipline.

George Pitagorsky
Senior Vice President, Director of Product Development
International Institute For Learning
New York, N.Y.

Edited by Sherri Koucky

Associations like the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the International Project Management Association (IPMA) recognize project management as a true discipline.

Yet, despite this recognition, project performance is less than stellar. There are reports of 40 to 60% project failure rates. Few organizations have made project management integral to their strategy. It is not subject to the same precision and continuous improvement as manufacturing or supply-chain management.

But, for companies receptive to project management, there are examples to follow such as project-centric discipline. In project-centric organizations, projects are the primary vehicles for meeting product development, customer service, and process-improvement goals. Project-centric organizations manage projects from the top down so that projects are indeed integrated into strategic planning. Top management establishes functions to select which projects to attack, facilitate and plan projects, educate, and create consistent processes for managing and executing projects.

Project management is becoming a distinct discipline with its own career path. The most far-reaching extension of this development is the creation of strong matrix organizations in which project managers report into a project-management office (PMO) which assigns projects to them and to members of other groups. In the absence of a matrix organization, project managers report to functional groups but are trained, certified, supported, and reviewed by the PMO.

Retaining and motivating people is a more strategic objective. Consequently, hierarchical managing is giving way to a more peopleoriented approach. It is characterized by team-oriented management styles, communication that promotes collaboration instead of conflict, and the movement toward virtualproject teams that use electronic collaboration tools.

Industries and organizations in which oldstyle management is deeply embedded will be the most challenging to change. The most difficult changes to make are in the ways one manages and communicates.

Selecting the right project is at the heart of being project centric, and is the responsibility of senior management. Leadership that selects projects rationally helps eliminate conflicts between project managers and functional managers vying for resources.

The way to improve project management is through a formal program. This program establishes formal, but flexible PM processes. Tools support the process and people at all levels of the organization are educated in how to use them. Establishing a PMO and a PM career path is also part of the program.

Over the past several years, PM maturity models have emerged. These models identify both a path and criteria for assessing an organization's PM process. One PM maturity model identifies five levels of expertise. These range from establishing a common understanding of project management at the bottom level to instituting continuous improvement of a formal PM process at the top. Benchmarking, including measurement baselines and processes, is the means by which a company progresses from one level of the maturity model to the next.

It is helpful to take a systems-oriented or holistic view of PM. It can be viewed as a set of interacting entities and processes in which any change anywhere may affect the system as a whole. For example, project management influences organization structure, performance, relationships, and strategy. PM, in turn, is influenced by all of these forces. Despite the widespread recognition of these relationships, people still believe PM can be implemented or improved as an isolated initiative. That is a formula for failure. PM is a critical business process that must be fully integrated with other processes.

For effective project management, eliminate either-or thinking. This absolutist point of view is based on the premise that if something is right, anything that contradicts it must be wrong.

Academics and practitioners alike must drop unfounded beliefs. It's better to take a scientific approach that explores new ideas instead of immediately rejecting them. Avoid words like never and always.

The elimination of either-or thinking is a foundation for collaboration. Healthy conflict resolution supports PM. To excel, organizations must address human-resource management and communications issues.

PM education has grown. PM courses abound and many people are becoming certified in this field. If this trend continues, people ranging from project performers to executives will be schooled in a consistent PM model and its importance. Educating executives and senior managers is critical, as is developing a cadre of professional project managers.

Self-paced computer and Web-based multimedia learning products make it possible to teach PM principles and techniques to large audiences without affecting their daily performance. Also effective are instructor-led courses (both live and via satellite), interactive workshops, and on-the-job coaching and mentoring.

Consistency in PM is an important factor in improving the chances of project success. Beware of dictatorship by PM zealots. The cookbook approach represented by a set of rigidly enforced, detailed PM procedures is giving way to the concept of a "framework."

The framework is a superstructure for planning and controlling projects. It's supported by a set of standard forms, tools, document templates and samples, task-list templates, gating requirements, guidelines, best practices, and checklists. Project managers create a project plan using the right set for their project and style of management. A compliance group makes sure that minimal requirements are met.

Advances in methods for tracking projects include Earned Value Management (EVM). EVM compares three values to track the project schedule and budget status. It is more useful for controlling large projects and management reporting than for percentage completion reporting.

Critical-chain project management is becoming part of the standard PM toolkit. The critical-chain approach highlights the importance of overall throughput (i.e., bottomline results) and reduced cycle time as a means to achieve project goals. Whether it is adopted as a whole or in part, it uses project buffers to improve scheduling and control, and eliminates multitasking.

Computer and Web-based tools help increase performance and make project centric approaches more practical. Collaboration tools let geographically dispersed people share documents and lists, as well as discuss issues. These tools work as well installed on an organization's intranet as on the Internet.

Simulation and specialized tools that support critical-chain project management are becoming widely used. They help make quantitative risk management and effective scheduling possible.

The success of PM is by no means certain. Lethargy, lack of top management interest, and resistance to change, particularly by middle managers and seat-of-the-pants project managers are the most likely causes for concern. Champions of PM must build a strong case to get the support needed. Also, they must drive improvement by facilitating collaborative change. Flexibility and patience are as important as consistency and focused intention.

PM improvement requires a conscious effort. It's a business process change program performed over years with specialized resources, continuous improvement, and cultural-change management. Short of an organization-wide program, improvement can be made locally. Don't wait for the future to come to you, create it where you are. However, organization-wide improvement offers the greatest bottomline benefits.

Your organization's survival is at stake.

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