Project Management: Fairy Tale or Nightmare?

Project Management: Fairy Tale or Nightmare?

As the battle against inefficiency rages on, government agencies are adopting new approaches to project management in their never-ending quest to complete IT projects on time and under budget.

Once upon a time — for that’s how all good fairy tales begin — a group of programmers worked long hours in a deep, dark dungeon far below the castle at the centre of a grand kingdom. Far away from the bright sunlight they worked tirelessly to produce, fix, deploy and maintain all the software applications to keep King C E Ovian’s kingdom running smoothly.

The software ran on a massive computer that was kept inside an enchanted glass room where heat and dust were magically sealed out. It helped the treasurer better manage the royal coffers, improved tracking of the products made inside the kingdom, charted the king’s popularity amongst the populace, and monitored the successes of the king’s knights in trouncing their rivals. The constant stream of information helped the knights win glory, with well-thought battle plans fed by a constant stream of relevant information.

And so the kingdom grew, with the programmers sustained on a diet of pizza, cola and performance bonuses.

Now, it so happened that one day, a wizard named Consultis came to the kingdom. In truth an extremely powerful member of the sect known as Client Server Architecture (CSA), Consultis arranged a series of low-key meetings that eventually led him to an audience with the king. Alone in the king’s chambers, the wizard enchanted him using a spell called Object Oriented Development, and then brainwashed him with the teachings of the CSA.

Still under the spell, King Ovian immediately decreed that Client Server Architecture would be the new standard for the kingdom’s development. He thanked Consultis profusely, and then began arranging training courses for developers even as Consultis rode out of town, his mule loaded down with treasure.

Yet treasure was only one part of his plan. Consultis, who had years before been laid off from his position as an assembly-language mainframe programmer, had spent years learning the magical arts and had sold his soul for a chance to get back at the industry that had turned its back on him. The price? A lifetime as a nasty dragon, living in a rocky cave high up the mountains. He could only regain human form for one week per decade — and as the sun set upon him, Consultis morphed back into a winged beast and flew up to his lair.

While the Object Oriented Programming spell had improved the kingdom’s applications and empowered its developers, it also carried a secret curse: as applications did more and more, it would become virtually impossible to manage them.

Sure enough, King Ovian’s programmers soon fell under the spell. More and more programmers were brought on board, helping build applications that were intolerably complex. Development was delayed, projects ran over budget and internal political bickering was rife. Growing impatient, the king called on The Standish Group, a band of seers who had seen the effects of Object Oriented Programming before.

Their faces dark, the seers read the king their CHAOS Report 1994, which confirmed that 31.1 per cent of all projects were being cancelled before they had even been finished, while more than half of those that remained would cost nearly twice what they were supposed to. Even when projects were completed, they only performed around 42 per cent of the tasks they were supposed to.

His heart heavy with realisation of what he had done, the king returned to his castle and called a meeting of his lords. They, in turn, relayed the news of the human-like dragon living in the mountains, and the king understood that he had been duped. “Spread the word,” he said. “He who can defeat the Dragon of Inefficiency can take his weight in gold and will evermore join my legion of most honourable knights.”

Slaying the Dragon

In the years since, hundreds of project managers tried — and failed — to beat the dragon. Some fashioned particularly thick armour and shields to deflect stakeholder complaints, while others raised swords and attempted to slash through mazes of red tape. But in the end, the dragon pelted them with a constant stream of process audits, budget cuts, downsizing and scope changes.

The end result was inevitable: the hapless project managers were buried under the mass of distractions and were either unceremoniously eaten or ran away to monasteries where they could live out their professional lives free of the pain.

With would-be saviours being devoured by the dozen, few could see the real root of their problem. “It’s not so much that organisations do project management poorly,” says Kenn Dolan, director of project management consultancy FPMS. “It’s almost that they don’t identify project management as a skill or area of expertise at all. They just respond to the last problem they encountered, but that leads to omission of other essential elements that will arise in the future.”

Eventually, many of those who despaired at the wretched state of project management — particularly those few who had fought the Dragon of Inefficiency and lived to tell the tale — joined forces. One such noble soul was Terry Wright, a project manager for Multimedia Victoria’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, who set out to benchmark the emerging art of project management in the early 1990s.

Banding together with like-minded process improvement crusaders around the world, Wright co-founded the Australian Software Metrics Association (ASMA) and later established the International Software Benchmarking Standards Group (ISBSG), which years later has collected information on the management of some 28,500 software development projects in 30 countries.

Analysing so many projects “was the first time the world had seen productivity data on software projects”, says Wright. “The variation was incredible. Years later, it’s allowed us to build a language and understand what productivity means. Once the board understands they can manage software projects the way they manage their [property] construction projects, it’s all going to turn around. The problem is that too many people are locked into the old ways; they think software is about fighting.”

The work of these groups sent ripples of surprise throughout the kingdom, since they revealed previously unseen patterns of behaviour within a process that was seen by many as little more than one of the Dark Arts. These patterns allowed the creation of a new method of project management — one based on ‘function points’, a concept that was first introduced in the Dark Ages of software development (around 1979) but gained currency as project managers weighed up the consequences of Client Server Architecture’s rapidly increasing popularity.

Breaking a software project into function points allowed apples-for-apples comparisons of past and future projects, giving business executives a better sense of the true cost of a project as well as a way to measure progress against objectives. Because the concept of a function point has been enshrined in international standards (for example, ISO/IEC TR 14143-3:2003 completes the definition of a method for measuring the suitability of function point counting methods) developers and managers could clarify their mutual expectations and abilities.

Winning the Battle, Losing the War?

Formal development methodologies were news to many of the people that had been anointed project managers, often almost at random and without regard to their experience — or lack thereof — in project management. Budgeting was difficult, administrative heads became more demanding, and the blossoming technology produced even more ways for programmers to build systems that were not in line with real organisational expectations.

Kath O’Toole, a senior project officer with the Tasmania Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF), was among those who realised that planning and communication could deliver successful project outcomes. O’Toole was appointed project manager for a massive software project letting businesses go online to lodge forms for payroll tax, insurance duty, stamp duties and a plethora of other government imposts.

In the past, these payments had been processed using paper forms and client payments based on their estimation of tax due — a process that could take more than two weeks for manual processing. The project would let clients enter their details, have liabilities calculated instantly and make payments immediately online.

Building the system was not without its challenges: the many nuances of managing documents and calculating debt — including penalties, varying interest rates and complex rate tables — proved extremely complex, and required a multifaceted approach to government taxation.

O’Toole’s team included several project team members and testing staff from various business units within the State Revenue Office. As project manager, O’Toole reported to a project review team comprising several senior managers and an executive steering committee. Both worked with O’Toole’s project team to inventory business processes and ensure the project remained on track to meet its design objectives.

“It was groundbreaking stuff and we were learning all along,” says O’Toole. “With so many different stakeholders, the outcomes of the project can be very different. It took a fair bit of research and liaising with people, and with bodies such as the Real Estate Institute, financial institutions, the Law Society and so on. The thing about projects that always needs to be remembered is that at the end of the day, IT is just one small aspect. It’s people you’re dealing with.”

The system finally went live this past May, and has been rapidly taken up by the constituents it was designed to serve. Some 70 per cent of the state’s payroll tax clients had logged into the system within its first two months of operation, and more than 200 insurance, credit card, stamp and debit duty clients are also using it. All told, more than 1200 clients have gone online to eliminate paperwork and enjoy turnaround times that have dropped from two weeks to around five minutes.

Despite its eventual success, the project had its share of delays. Even though O’Toole and her predecessors were careful to ensure good communication and support for the Tasmania DTF’s project, what began as a six-month project ended up being rolled out several months later than anticipated.

“The time frames and costings that we entered into, turned out not to be realistic,” O’Toole concedes. “This was due to the fact that both the department and the development company were doing something that hadn’t been done before; we were dealing with some fairly difficult concepts, using groundbreaking technology, and going far beyond what any other state revenue office has tried. In the end, we chose to go with a quality product rather than go too hard, too fast.”

But not all project stakeholders are so understanding. Particularly when expectations are not managed well, it is possible for the inevitable project difficulties to derail technology efforts and alienate internal organisational units from the benefits of IT. These issues were Consultis’s gift to the global development community, for in distributing the power of IT development it was inevitable that business conflict would follow.

Some Day My PRINCE Will Come

O’Toole’s careful approach to project management (see “Taking the Right Steps”, opposite) reflects the newfound maturity of the many project managers racing to battle the Dragon of Inefficiency into submission. This understanding, in turn, has generated new hope amongst those who were once convinced that enterprise-level software development could never be managed properly.

Having recognised that their teamwork was strengthening their fight, many groups of like-minded managers have since banded together to record their insight into successful project management. Whereas function point methodologies had gained currency in setting and measuring project expectations, professionals were trained in project management disciplines that gave them the skills to deliver whole projects effectively.

It is somewhat appropriate to this tale that one of the most popular project management methods is called PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environments). Originally released in 1996 through a partnership of the UK Office of Government Commerce and APM Group, which now administers it, PRINCE2 strictly defines a project’s start, middle and end, and ties those stages to timelines. PRINCE2-accredited project managers handle people, resources and expectations to ensure milestones are met.

“By having a common approach to project management and a set of process steps, you begin to standardise and get communications improvement, and realise some of the disciplines a project should have,” says Peter Whitelaw, director of PRINCE2 training firm Rational Management, which has trained more than 2500 PRINCE2 project managers over the past six years. “The old-fashioned approach, where a project lived by its outputs, is very much gone.”

PRINCE2, and the many other project management methodologies built within government and private sector organisations, has stepped up the fight against the Dragon of Inefficiency. The results are, for once, encouraging: project management “is definitely improving”, reports Leigh Cunningham, executive director of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), which in October will update the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management (ANCSPM) with a new level assessing the ability to manage multiple projects simultaneously.

Cunningham points to the Australian Taxation Office’s recent win of the AIPM’s Project Managed Organisation award as an indication that government project managers are finally getting their acts together. She is also encouraged by efforts in Queensland, where many departments have now mandated formal project management certification for applicants to project management roles, and Victoria, where PRINCE2 is a recommended standard and has been successfully used by the departments of Justice and Human Services, and others. Furthermore, she notes, AIPM membership has grown 12 per cent annually during each of the past four years.

“In the past, a lot of people were accidental project managers,” Cunningham says. “But with constant public scrutiny and accountability, government departments are going ahead leaps and bounds in making sure people and processes are up to scratch. Now there is a strong shift towards understanding that a person who’s been put in charge of a project has to be able to deliver — by using the right methodologies, good skills and having the right certifications. This isn’t about a cataclysmic event that changed it all; it’s just the hammer hitting the stone enough times until you break through.”

The battle is far from won, however. In their recent prophecy update, The Standish Group seers this year announced that success rates had increased to 34 per cent of all projects, outright failures had declined to 15 per cent of all projects and the remaining 51 per cent of projects had experienced some level of challenge.

They Lived Unhappily Ever After

In most fairy tales, the revelation of the underlying message leads to a rapid resolution of the conflict, defeat of the enemy, showering the hero with gifts and perhaps a wedding or two for good measure.

But this tale does not end so well. Project management is still a lost art, known to few and misunderstood by far more. The Dragon of Inefficiency, it is clear, remains as powerful as ever as he continues hounding the kingdom from his lair high in the mountain. The king’s gold is still there in the treasury, although there is less of it these days after years of poorly conceived and executed projects continue to blow out budgets and frustrate management.

Is there hope in the future? There is always hope, and advocates of change are continuing to muster forces against the Dragon of Inefficiency. But he is a powerful foe, and the battle will be long and difficult.

Taking the Right Steps

Pointers for project management success

Surveys regularly suggest project delays are the rule rather than the exception. Good project management, however, can minimise the effect of slippage and instead keep stakeholders focused on overall goals.

“Good project managers should be able to walk into a new environment and quickly know who to speak to, how to get up to speed on issues, get the right people behind them and help bring everyone together,” says Kath O’Toole of the Tasmanian Department of Treasury and Finance. “All the way through, staff [should be] aware of the progress and the work that is being done.”

From her experiences, O’Toole offers several pointers for project success:

  • keep strict status reports
  • report weekly to internal management group
  • conduct monthly steering committee meetings
  • report regularly to department secretary
  • consult with external bodies having specialised knowledge
  • keep documentation up to date and relevant
  • gain and keep support from all levels
  • keep users involved, including consultation on the project’s design, acceptance testing and eventual training and evangelising.

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More about AIPMAPMAustralian Taxation OfficeCSAFinancial InstitutionsiECISOObject OrientedOffice of Government CommerceStandish Group

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