Why Successful Project Management Is So Illusive

By Ammar W. Mango

A lot of what experts say seems like common sense: “Plan well,” “communicate with team,” “manage your stakeholders,” etc etc. All of it seems like the old adage : “Buy low sell high” kind of advice. We all know we need to plan. We all know that communication is important. Yet, in real life, none of that takes place; we do not plan and we do not communicate. So what gives?

In reality, many of us abuse project management. Every time we have a project, we go about it the same mechanical way of filling the necessary forms with the necessary information, get approval, start work, and collect and report on progress, and handle issues and risks. Yet, the project fails, again. The reason might be that we did all the “mechanical” parts of project management. There is a missing important part: The intelligence.

Project Management is not about filling forms. All the tools we use in project management are just mechanical tools to help the intelligent navigator carry through the project successfully. The mechanical tools without the intelligence are useless and here are examples:

  • How many projects do you know, where project management forms were filled and projects were managed, but the whole business model behind the project was flawed? ie the company ran out of cash, or the market did not accept the product?
  • How many projects do you know had reports that clearly stated certain major risks in manager reports but no one took action until the risk hit the project?

So, everything we do in project management is meant to help an intelligent pilot and team navigate through the project risks. if that intelligence, attention, commitment, and leadership are not there, then project management is a waste of time.

Let us take this a step further. I believe that the avalanche of documentation and information collected on a project might be to the detriment of the project. For example, Developing a detailed schedule might be a waste of time on some projects. Other projects estimating and setting a detailed cost baseline might be a waste of time.

The other side of the coin is that not doing enough documentation is detrimental to the project. Sometimes for convenience purposes we assume we do not need a schedule when we really need one. Then we get into trouble.

So, too much documentation is as bad as too little. Too much detail in irrelevant parts of the plan are as bad as too little detail in the relevant parts. A judgment call is needed to determine how much is necessary, and in many cases that judgment call is flawed.

This is the trick in project management. To know what the real challenges and opportunities on the project are and gear project management towards exploiting these opportunities and dealing with the challenges. If the key is the cost issue, then put a lot of effort on the cost, and reduce information from other factors that are not as important. If the schedule is of essence, focus more on the schedule. If the issue is on the soft side managing client expectations, then put more effort there.

So, the intelligence, commitment, and leadership are prerequisite for successful project management. Also, the art of knowing how much or how little information is needed in each of the project phases, and how to manage this information, are also prerequisite to successful project management.

This is easier said than done, and this is why project management will remain an illusive art more than an engineering science.

Ammar W. Mango, CSSBB, PgMP, PMP is an Organizational Project Management Consultant at Method (www.methodcorp.com). You can read more from Ammar on his blog.

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on Wednesday, August 28th, 2013 and is filed under Project Management Musings.
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