Failing to see through the project management haze

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Despite the plethora of advanced project management tools and techniques, most projects turn out to be poor value for money. Abdi Ali (EMBA 2015) highlights some of the challenges in the field and how the “managerial aspect” of projects is still poorly understood.

Imagine regularly attending project oversight committee meetings and sifting through colourful project progress update decks. At some point, it will become apparent that most of those reports reflect rear-view mirror collections of project events, rather than forward-looking assessments of the causes of the underlying issues that impact the project – the very information one would need for effective decision-making.

And here is the first problem: so much of what goes on in organisations is managing what does not matter: tracking project dashboard activities, status updates and worrying about which activity moves from Red, to Amber to Green. The core evaluative aspect of project management (i.e. managing what really matters) is often missing.

A closer look at the root causes of failed projects often reveals that no one had overall responsibility for the project, or understood the issues, when things were going wrong.

This is not the only problem in the field but it is one of the most common. There are other notable examples:

(i) Project Governance

There is a pervasive assumption in the field that, as projects often cut across a number of departments, the key to ensuring success lies in having an accountability layer of control with senior management representation at its heart. This often translates into layers of hierarchies in the form of Project Sponsor, Working Group Committees, Project Implementation Boards and Project Steering Committees, to name just a few.

However, a closer look at the root causes of failed projects often reveals that no one had overall responsibility for the project, or understood the issues, when things were going wrong. Nor had they the ability to take action when emerging risks crystallised and difficult decisions needed to be made.

The question is then why would a seemingly robust governance model lead to the very problems it was designed to prevent?

The answer: fundamental weaknesses in the understanding of the managerial aspects of projects.

We of course know that most committee members, who assume oversight roles in addition to their normal organisational responsibilities, do not have the depth of understanding of the complex technical details of projects and struggle to make sense of the overwhelming amount of information and data shared with them. This then means significant reliance is placed upon the project managers’ assurances. As a consequence, the assumed committee oversight role is either completely lacking or ineffective at best.

Because the committees’ focus is on project activities, their overriding priority becomes understanding how the project is coping with current pressures – i.e. how issues are identified, tracked and reported to the committees (i.e. dealing with the apparent problems). Everyone fails to assess the difficult questions on whether the project is on the right track to deliver (i.e. the real problem is overlooked). This is a typical example of the clash between accountable governance committees and the absence of responsibility for decision-making.

(ii) Link between project inputs and outcomes

Another key issue in the field is when the link between desired project outcomes and required inputs (i.e. resources) is not appreciated. This problem is particularly visible when projects that are set up to solve specific issues, on a limited budget, are mistaken to be delivering something more transformative. This often puts the project in a triple bind: an objective that is vague, an outcome that is unachievable and inputs that are insufficient.

(iii) Alignment with strategy

Any internal organisational initiative would not be complete (or unlikely to be signed off) without committing to deliver “transformation of processes to be best-in class” or “robust and comprehensive end-to-end systems”. Invariably, the difficulty arises when these ambitious outcomes need to be delivered through projects.

And there lies the issue: a project to “transform the process to be best in class” is not a project. it is an open-ended (and vague) commitment that will waste scare resources whose outcome will be difficult to measure. What generally happens is that, as the project drags on, delivery confidence ebbs away, key managers move on until another “strategic transformation” project takes its place.

Role of assurance providers

Internal and External Audit assurance providers also largely focus on rear-view mirror assessments – how project issues are identified and reported to governance committees. Rarely do they look at the realism of the project’s scope, delivery expectations or how the different variables in the project – risk, resources, timelines, oversight – interact.

Seeing through the haze…

The few examples above illustrate some of the continuing challenges in the field. Getting the managerial aspects of a project right means learning to appraise the underlying project risks; vigilance about apparent problems, caution about over-optimistic outcomes and having a clear focus on the project’s delivery scope.

This is a step-change in approach which needs to be integrated in how organisations think about managing complex projects.

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