Why Your Projects Suck, and Ours Don’t?

downward arrowPublished in the Project Post-Gazette, Issue 2014-02
by Paul Lohnes, MBA, PMP
Project Post-Gazette

Get your attention? 

So why are your projects failing, and others are not? The answer is quite simple: you are focusing on wrong activities, measuring with the wrong benchmark, managing with the wrong mindset, and studying the wrong historical lessons.

What are these misaligned actions that most project managers (PM) and business analysts (BA) are continuing to utilize even in the face of mounting proof that they are not providing the expected business value? From the previous paragraph, these seeds of project failure are:

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.

Each of these seeds of failure are being happily practiced on most commercial and government projects as they are the foundation of the bodies of knowledge being taught to the current generation of PM and BA. See the Project Post-Gazette (PPG) 2013 issues on reviewing the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), 5th Edition, the AXELOS’ project management methodologies, and several process improvement frameworks.

While we do not hold individual PM and BA to task for the overall poor performance of the disciplines, we do expect such professionals to realize when something is not working, and to seek remedial action for its correction; however, this is also not appearing to be the issue. Most of the professional project management certificate holders that we have interviewed do not know of anything else but the methods they learned in order to obtain their certificates. They have not even come to point of beginning to question that it is these processes and frameworks that are the center of their dismal performances. The PMI states that they are only a framework of processes and NOT a methodology – that is up to the PM to take their standardized processes and weave them into a workable methodology based on the context of their projects. Such statements do not provide much solace or salve when projects continue to fail using the processes of their standards.

The folks across the pond that have only recently pushed their standards out of the UK Government’s clutches into the quasi-governmental organization called AXELOS do not fare much better. Our UK cousins, or as they still consider the US – the colonists, our former motherland, have not produced any more effective solutions with their different approach to the project management arena. According to their web sites, the newly organized AXELOS now the proud owner of the ITIL, PRINCE2, MSP, M_o_R, MoP, MoV, P3O, and P3M3 (all registered trademarks of AXELOS) brands clearly states that their approaches are global ‘best practices’ that can be used by any and all types of projects – moving beyond the mere description of processes like the PMI and providing usable artifacts. However, given the recent rash of gargantuan sized failures in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) IT modernization project, the FiReControl project, and Universal Credit Programme (UC) Mega-Agile project all point to the fact that the current methodologies and delivery approaches are not providing much in the way of solutions. We speak to the Agile issue in our “In My Opinion” article in the PPG Feb 2014 issue.

Each of the above four seeds of failure will be dissected in future blogs, but we will show how each contributes to the current failure rates and how they can be solved with a simple change in focus and mindsets of the PM and BA working today. The four seeds of failure are described in the remainder of this blog.

Seed of Failure #1: Focusing on the Wrong Activities

As previously indicated, most PM and BA are focusing on processes and not the production of ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables. This trained and learned behavior pushes PM and BA towards believing that if they just implement the right processes and methodologies as prescribed by the current bodies of knowledge, their projects will be successful. They concentrate on the planning, design, and monitoring aspects of their projects since these make up about 80% of current bodies of knowledge documentation. These activities are necessary, just not foundational. This is not surprising since these activities are most easily defined and described in definitive language and constructs making them more palatable towards organizations attempting to set standards and ‘best practices.’ Project management is messy, dirty, and somewhat chaotic – it defies the civil treatment of standards and best practices. Only by focusing on the production of ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables can PM and BA maintain any level of sanity within their projects.

Seed of Failure #2: Measuring with the Wrong Benchmark

If a PM and BA is focusing on the wrong activities then it is most likely they are going to be using the wrong benchmarks to baseline their progress against for analysis and reporting. If one is focused on the wrong horizon then it would behoove him/her to choose a measurement of progress in agreement with this misalignment. Any other choice would illustrate that the horizon of focus was not the optimum direction for the project providing dissonance towards continuing along the current path. The PM and BA would have to either make a course correction or explain why their performance measurements are not showing adequate progress to the described outcomes. The only benchmark that is at all valuable is the one towards which the project must make daily progress – the production of ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables. This metric is clearly in the best interests of the project, stakeholders, and project sponsors since it is the only baseline that will ensure sign-off at project completion.

Seed of Failure #3: Managing with the Wrong Mindset

The mindset that most PM and BA are instilled with during their initial experiences and training not to mention their indoctrination for certification under the current bodies of knowledge is that of planning, processes, and procedures. The reason for this ineffective mindset is that it is easier to codify into standards and methodologies while the real mindset of any successful PM or BA is always that of execution over planning. While planning is indeed an aspect of real value, it is not the mindset that produces successful projects. How is this? Think of the logic chain: if the planning, processes, and procedures of the current bodies of knowledge were indeed the correct mindset, and the growth of professionals trained in and implementing these activities would have produced a significant improvement in the project success rates over the past 20 years. The data is clearly not in support of this login chain. The best laid plans of ‘mice and men,’ the adage goes… In project management, if the best of plans is not executed correctly the value of the planning is of little compensation; however, the reverse is not true. Less superlative plans have been expertly executed with much more successful outcomes. While planning is valuable, the execution is where the proof is given life. It is precisely that execution cannot be codified or standardized is why is it not taught as the necessary mindset for PM and BA. Experience is the prime ingredient being lost on most project management organizations as necessary to the recipe for successful project outcomes.

Seed of Failure #4: Studying the Wrong Historical Lessons

Finally, probably more than anything that could immediately improve the project success rates of an organization is to study the outcomes of all previously completed projects and SPECIFICALLY those that have failed to meet their deliverables’ measurements of value. While most PM and BA understand the need to track previous project outcomes via a process called ‘lessons learned,’ very few if many do it. Most simply either accept the sign-off and move on, or attempt to explain why it was not their fault that the project failed to meet the project sponsor’s expectations. In the latter, all team members are very quick to move on and forget about their participation on the failure. In some organizations given the consequences for failure, even the listing of their participation could be detrimental towards their future promotion or compensation increases. It is no wonder why the failures are buried quickly, and the successful simply run up the flagpole without analysis. The archiving and studying of all historical project outcomes is one of the best uses of a project team’s time and effort, but sadly is not seen as such and often disdained. As it is often said: ‘Learn from history, or fall victim to its repetition.’

These seeds of failures are neither permanent nor inviolate – they are simply being taught and practiced. Future blogs will talk about training and how it can be modified to improve our project success rates. We will deal with the modification of project management practices and mindsets.




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