Seeds of Project Failure, Part II: Focusing on the wrong activities

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Published in the Project Post-Gazette, Issue 2014-03
by Paul Lohnes, MBA, PMP
Project Post-Gazette

In our February 2014 issue, my publisher finally allowed me to write the article that I had wanted to write for over two years; however, due to the title and newness of the publication, she had felt that it might be appropriate for such a burgeoning endeavor. After much discussion and proof that the twin disciplines of project management and business analysis were both showing signs of being infected with the disease of dogma and process-orientation, she agreed. In the initial article of this series, a tradition not normally associated with editorial columns, we decided that the PPG editorial would at least take on a linked series of commentaries that would illustrate for our readers why their projects are experiencing such poor performance statistics and what could be done about it. Thus, in this second of five editorials, we will start the in depth discussion of the “Seeds of Project Failure” that was initially listed in our February 2014 editorial:

  1. Focusing on the wrong activities,
  2. Measuring with the wrong benchmark,
  3. Managing with the wrong mindset, and
  4. Studying the wrong historical lessons

These seeds have been planted, watered, and are even carefully being cultivated in many commercial and government projects with the resultant bummer crop of project chaos, inefficiencies, and failure that can be now spoken aloud in most circles. Projects are failing the world over, and not just in any one sector, industry or venue. The typical project success rate is somewhere between 6 and 38% percent depending on which of the most loudly touted survey or research studies one chooses to believe or quote.

As for the number of certified project managers whether it be the USA, UK, or even the Far East, this explosive growth in the labelling of project managers (PM) and now business analysts (BA) does not appear to be aiding in the reduction of this very poor rate of success. While we not going to quote the statistics (we have already mentioned them several times in previous PPG issues) the mere addition of certificate holders is not the answer and thus one would have to ask themselves what is the value of such certification if it is not doing what it should be doing? What is the value of certification if it is not to aid those towards which the projects’ deliverables are to help improve their business or human conditions? The answer is obvious – what the certificate holders are being taught must be at fault.

This is not just limited to the project management or business analysis disciplines any longer for in our last month’s issue, we detailed even the often revered discipline of Agile is showing that it does not have the correct answer given the recent number of very public, very large, and very significant projects, mostly on the government side, that have failed while using the offered almost panacean delivery solution. As we mentioned last month, the answer to the reporting of these very large and public projects in the UK, some showing a total lost over billions of pounds sterling was the statement from the Agile-progenitors that “they did not practice Agile correctly.”

Regardless of how the buck or pound is passed, the evidence is clear and unmistakable: the current practice of project management and business analysis is NOT serving its customer or clients in a manner to warrant the high compensations being paid to PM and BA. To make a society work correctly and efficiently (the demise of all but the most totalitarian of socialist regimes has shown) there must be, must be, the trading of value for value. Whenever something comes between a buyer and seller to alter this economic fact, the wheels of commerce and human interaction are muddied and sullied. In other words, the mechanism is gummed up!

In the project management and business analysis world this is the current situation. The so-called standards-setting bodies, the so-called ‘bodies of knowledge’ providers are so steeped in dogmatic concepts and protection of territory that they cannot get out of their own way even when it means that the disciplines are going to suffer the fate of other professional acuminous endeavors that fell from grace when their promises did not match their production. Project management and business analysis professions are headed down the same self-destructive and ultimately self-extinguishing path if this lack of attention to their current disregard for project success rates is not reversed.

Thus, the first seed of project failure listed is:

Focusing on the wrong activities

How can focusing on the wrong activities sow seeds of project failure? The answer is simple, but significant. Focusing on the wrong activities not only waste energy on unproductive or inefficient processes, but there is the opportunity cost of not doing what should have been done in the first place. To do something always involves a decision not to do something else and with this decision comes the opportunity cost, lost value of not doing the alternative, which much be considered in the decision to do what is not appropriate or outcome producing. In project management there is one simple guiding principle which every PM or BA should always ask themselves

In doing this activity, am I increasing or decreasing the chances of producing ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables?

This is not brain surgery, higher level calculus, or the cosmological determination of a gamma burst. It is understanding that the singularity of any project is that of producing ‘fit-for-use’ (FFU) deliverables for those that are funding the project’s activities. If doing something does not improve the chances of producing such defined deliverables than it cannot be called anything but waste and even worse, a shirking of a contractual almost fiduciary responsibility to the project’s sponsors and/or key stakeholders. Project management principles do not teach this simple fact or even consider it important. They discuss being ethical or being professional, but doing what is a positive deliverable impacting activity versus something that is not is at the heart of being both ethical and professional. We do not have an issue with expecting such behavior from physicians or dentists or even airline pilots, but when it comes to the trillions of equivalent dollars spent on project annually, this level of ethics and professionalism expectation is somehow not required of credentialed project managers or business analysts.

What are some of the WRONG activities that PM and BA focus on that do not produce the optimum level of FFU deliverables for project sponsors? These activities when listed are going to start the howling of our readers since this is all they have been taught in both academic project management courses (when was the last time your professor actually managed a project from start to end successfully — ask this question in class and watch how quickly you get shown the door,) and certification boot-camp style exam preparation seminars. The activities that do not by themselves produce FFU deliverables are:

  1. Focusing on the project schedule,
  2. Focusing on the critical path within the schedule,
  3. Focusing on the weekly, biweekly, or month status reporting, and
  4. Focusing on resource allocations.

While we could spend a significant amount of PPG newspaper space on each of these activities, suffice it say that we have mentioned and dissected some of them (Activity 1 and 2) in other issue articles and columns while the last two, we are confident, can be seen for what they really are – smoke screens for the real issue at hand of understanding the real project progress and how best to utilize resource for the production of FFU deliverables, not just filling out and supplying an elegant resource allocation or forecast spreadsheet that someone thinks is a good idea, but has nothing towards what it is doing to improve resource application or the success of a project.

What are the better, we will not say best since there is nothing that rises to that level of a superlative, activities that a PM or BA should concentrate on in order to improve their changes for successful outcomes? In our opinion and over 120 years of collective PM/BA experience at the PPG, we suggest the following activities are better deserving of your time and effort:

  1. The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
  2. The Project finish date, not the individual task start and finish dates,
  3. The Scope execution to produce FFU deliverables, and
  4. The resource assignments versus allocation

These activities will produce a better mix of the ingredients needed to produce a successful project. How? Well, let us begin with the WBS. In my many years of project whispering the one fact that I can mostly point to that causes projects to be unsuccessful is the lack of or poor implementation of a Work Breakdown Structure. Many PM/BA even believe that the WBS is outdated or outmoded; it smacks of the dark ages of project management. However, the WBS is the one project management artifact that has the ability to focus like a laser beam the eorts of the team on those activities that have the ability to produce FFU deliverables. Coupled with the Organizational Breakdown Structure (OBS) in the RACI chart (responsibility, accountability, consulting, and information) Resource Assignment Matrix (RAM) artifact, the power of the WBS is paired with the openness and visibility of the organizational resources to where no one guesses or is in confusion about their role or responsibilities towards the project’s production of FFU deliverables.

Focusing on the execution of scope via the WBS using the assigned resources of the OBS in the RACI chart is the single most powerful concept that any PM or BA can learn how to harness and deploy in favor of the project’s sponsors or key stakeholders. Project lacking these tools and execution of these activities is a major strike against the project on its journey towards its successful completion. The primary functionary in the execution of the project scope is not the PM, but the BA under the direction of the PM. While we are NOT saying that the BA is the manager of the project scope since this is a duty which the PM cannot delegate, they are the PM’s primary resource for knowing how activities, any project activity, can and should impact the execution of the scope and the resultant production of the FFU deliverables.

Finally, focusing on the resource assignments and not the resource allocations brings the PM attention towards the specific resources that can have a significant impact on the success of the project – not the mere accounting of the allocation numbers. Focusing on just the ‘hours allocated’ and not on the execution of the actual work effort leads the PM to believe that others are responsible for the project’s progress – a nasty misconception and source of many project failures. The PM is not the actual executor of the project tasks, but he/she has to be the primary driving force and therefore a major knowledge player in how the resources are being utilized not just the racking up of hours given to them by the resource manager. A PM must understand the value they are receiving for the compensation they provide to the resources and their managers. The PM must understand the skill sets and abilities of their resources and not pass the buck to the resource manager.

These seeds of project failure must be taught and understand – not glossed over as they are today in favor of standardized processes and techniques that are easily codified in current bodies of knowledge, but lack the ability to produce what every project much produce to be deserving of the funding to which it has been provided – FFU deliverables. Without the production of FFU deliverables, any activity is the wrong activity and must be questioned as to its inclusion in the set of activities that a PM executes in the furthering of his/her project’s success.

Until the PM and BA disciplines stand up and question the current bodies of knowledge and their inability to produce successful projects, the downhill slide will continue and most likely pick up steam as project sponsors and key stakeholders are beginning to question the value of project management and business analysis professionals. Your time is short – either wake up or be run out of the organizations to which you currently obtain such rich, but many times undeserved compensations when compared to the value you provide. Do not believe that your scam will continue without the reconsideration. It may take business a bit more time to understand the dwindling value most PM and BA provide to their organizations, but given the very public and expensive fiascoes now being reported on in the media, the time of high-times and salaries for PM and BA is quickly coming to a decision gate – and you will be found wanting and irrelevant.

Act now or deal with the consequences that are coming…

Next issue, we will deal with the second seed of project failure: focusing on the schedule’s critical path and it ramifications. It will be another rousing and thought provoking editorial – we promise.


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