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Is process hampering your project success?

Is process hampering your project success?

Applying more process ‘rigour’ to technology projects with issues is not the answer, argues Colin Ellis

Project failures continue to occur despite the countless numbers of audits, reports, anecdotes, consultants and speeches in the public domain advising senior management on what not to do when it comes to project delivery.

The scathing report by Western Australia’s auditor general, Colin Murphy, on the Department of Health’s Identity Access management project illustrates this.

Murphy said agencies often have difficulty in successfully delivering ICT projects and the report contained important lessons for all agencies.

“Unless we get better at bringing in ICT projects on time and budget, the state will continue to spend millions more than necessary,” he said.

Let me start with a simple analogy. If the route you take to work in your car takes longer than it always has done, you will either set off earlier or find another route after speaking to colleagues who might suggest a better way. You do this because being late for work is simply not an option.

What you don’t do is keep queuing in the same traffic jam week after week, year after year if you think there is a better way to go.

Yet this is the way that companies run their technology projects and rather than addressing the issues (weak justification, lack of sponsorship, poor management), more process ‘rigour’ is applied, usually to the detriment of people leading the projects.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

A simple, but effective framework will allow for collaboration and innovation, but importantly will put the emphasis on leadership. And it’s through this leadership that you’ll get great results, not through a method in a book.

Ask any CIO or senior manager what the key requirements are for successfully leading a project through to completion – based on their own experiences – and they'll list some or all of the following.

  • Builds and retains great relationships
  • Highly organised
  • Creates great teams
  • Motivates staff
  • Leads by example at all times
  • Makes decisions
  • Celebrates success and learns from failure
  • Creates and maintains plans that deliver outputs
  • Identifies and manages risks and issues

What's not on the list is ‘the ability to slavishly follow a method.’ However, project management offices around the world seem to specialise in creating process, flowcharts and other beautiful, inefficient diagrams that show CIOs and senior managers what they need to do to succeed.

But they are unable to provide statistics that prove that they have.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that project managers don’t need support tools to help them meet stakeholder expectations and deliver outputs, they do and if you want these tools to all look the same, then that’s your prerogative.

However, like your framework, they should be simple and easy to use and not used as a stick. This framework creation is a once only activity and it doesn’t need to cost you up to $500,000 per year in operational costs.

The reason for this is that good project managers instinctively know what needs to be done and how to do it because they learn through trial and error, they share knowledge with others, and they deliver things the right way.

They also understand that certain principles need to be applied for each project and they don’t need anyone to tell them what needs to be done. Finally, they know the difference between a risk and an issue, and a plan and schedule.

Good project managers recognise the value in people and in developing the right approach for the project to succeed.

Their achievements and behaviours should be recognised and rewarded because in today’s method-heavy and overly complex project management environment, they are difficult to find, let alone retain.

If your project managers are not operating at the level they should or just starting their career, then seek out a good coach or mentor. Don’t bombard them with more process as this will get in the way of their development and the chances of the project succeeding.

If you consistently struggle to meet your project targets then you should be asking yourself the following:

  • Do your organisation’s structures support the business of good project management or do they provide a hiding place for poor project management?
  • Do your project managers build trust and relationships with quiet efficiency or do they need to be told how to fill in templates that explain how they will do so?
  • Do your sponsors understand the way that your projects are delivered or do they use it as an excuse to disengage?

Getting sponsors to actually ‘own’ a project is one of the most difficult things a project manager has to face, which is ridiculous given that it’s the sponsor’s money that’s being spent and their vision being delivered.

If it’s not a priority then it should be stopped, not thrown over the fence for IT to manage or put on hold. According to The Standish Group, 60 per cent of projects with a highly skilled and engaged sponsor succeeded compared to 27 per cent where the sponsor was poorly skilled.

The complexity of your projects should always lie in the assets or structures that you wish to implement, not the project management methods or process you use to do so.

It’s time to stop being sold a method as if it were a dark art and get back to what matters – good people getting things done quickly in a manner that delights your stakeholders.

You might find it confronting to lose the project method comfort blanket, but when the alternative is repeated failure and a loss of confidence, you should embrace the change not reject it.

Colin Ellis is a project management expert who believes that strong leadership aligned with sensible approaches are at the heart of successful project management and he is engaged by organisations who want just that. Find out more at his website or follow him on Twitter: @colindellis

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Tags The Standish Groupproject managerWestern Australia auditor generalColin EllisColin Murphyproject management officeICT projectsproject management

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