I am fortunate to be married to a project manager.
In fact, my wife teaches project management to undergraduate students. Unlike my wife’s students, however, who are much more career-focused and hardworking than I was at their age, I live a relatively happy-go-lucky life. This means I struggle with many of the formal processes associated with project management, though I very much respect and appreciate my wife’s organisational abilities. She once project managed a major refurbishment of a ramshackle house we owned in Nottingham, ensuring it was completed days before we had to cook a Christmas lunch for 14 people. I just stayed at work in London, blissfully ignorant of the challenges she faced.
Processes are of course a major part of project management. If you take the PRINCE2 methodology, for example, you will find it is founded on seven core processes (linked to the life-cycle of any project from start-up to closure), with many sub-processes (such as project planning and risk assessment) beneath these. The aim is to ensure projects are organised so they meet their objectives and are completed on time and on budget. A laudable aim, but are we in danger of missing the point?
I do not doubt some projects fail because of a lack of effective processes to control their delivery and implementation. But in my experience, many more fail even though the associated project management processes are strong. The problem is that just like the businesses looking to implement them, many projects are unique. As a result the rigid application of standardised process based methodologies for project management can mean that the individual complexities of projects and organisations are overlooked, resulting in a perfectly managed failure.
Even more dangerously, I have witnessed projects failing because so much effort is devoted to following the various processes of project management that managers forget to adapt to the changing world around them. All may appear serene with a clear project plan and a regularly updated risk register. But what about the problems of cultural or ethical misalignment, for example? Do people within the organisation understand and accept the project and its objectives, and is there sufficient buy in? Plus, by focusing on the process, managers can miss the early warning signs of a failed project. And then there is simple human error – following a process does not guarantee that someone will make a stupid and potentially expensive mistake.
Irrespective of who is in power, failed major government projects provide fertile ground for businesses looking to learn from the mistakes of others. The Taxpayers’ Alliance research into UK government departmental losses is illuminating, since many of these come from failed government department projects. The causes of these failures are varied, but factors such as human error, changing political priorities and not understanding the changing needs of end-users are common factors. Even more significantly, the high-profile failure in 2013 of the ambitious NHS National Programme for IT cost billions, and had more to do with a failure to understand the diverse cultures that make up the NHS, rather than poor process management.
When embarking on a new project, businesses would do well to remember that while strong processes and project controls have their uses, they are no replacement for common sense, adaptability and thinking creatively. Perhaps there is a role for my brand of “seat of the pants” project management after all? But don’t tell my wife – I don’t want to end up managing our next home refurbishment project!
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