Top Ten Reasons Why Projects Fail – Reason #7

Posted on: April 11th, 2012 by admin

Reason #7 – Unsupported Project Culture

In my twenty years in project management, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. If you ask 100 random people walking down the street what a lawyer, doctor or accountant does, they will all know. Now ask that same group of people what a project manager does. Some will know, many won’t. They won’t even necessarily know what a project is much less what a project manager does. We may be the world’s best-kept secret. So is it any surprise that this lack of PM knowledge transfers over to the corporate world? Now, I’m not saying it’s an unknown or totally misunderstood profession. Far from it. But for a lot of people I’ve encountered in my travels, it’s still somewhat of a mystery, a black art if you will.
So given that, I am not entirely surprised to find that organizational cultures often don’t embrace project management. They ask themselves, What exactly is that PM with the fancy certification I’ve just hired doing spending so much time planning? He’s got the team in a room for a couple of days and what are they really doing together? Why can’t they just start executing? If you’re a PM, you know exactlywhy you plan. PMI devotes fully 20 of its 42 processes just to planning. So if they think it’s important, I’m inclined to agree.
So how does this lack of understanding of what a project manager does impact the projects that are run in an organization? In many ways. And if I haven’t seen them all, I’ve seen quite a few. Example – I was contacted about 1 ½ years ago by a recruiter. She advised me that she had been called by a company to find an independent PM. Why? Because they had a woman who was barely out of the secretarial pool running projects using 20 (or more) Excel spreadsheets. And they wanted someone to come in part-time and convert it all over to Microsoft Project. Now, I’ve personally never run any project from a spreadsheet. And yes, I suppose it can be done. But how, just for one example, do you display your dependencies?  For the record, I did not wind up getting this assignment. I don’t know why. Maybe I was too expensive; maybe they just changed their mind.  And for all I know she’s still running her high-level (this was an insurance company) projects from spreadsheets. Succeeding? Maybe. I know I couldn’t do it.
Another example comes to mind. I was hired by a pharmaceutical company which had been working on a project for about 5 years. (Drug development can take 12-14 years). In this instance, they had somewhat lost sight of their purpose and were not sure how to proceed. (A stage gate review should have caught this). And so over time, the project schedule had been handed over to, for want of a better word, a low-level project coordinator. And yes they were using Microsoft Project and no, he was never trained on it. So the success or failure of this multi-year drug development project came down, more or less, to the abilities of the unsung, untrained “project manager.”  And so, we were able to successfully get this schedule out of his hands and into the reach of a more seasoned project manager who is still managing it.
Now, this is not to say that this is the state-of-the-art for project management in our culture. Thankfully, it’s somewhat better than that. (Although nowhere near where it should be). But rather I mention these examples because they happen every day.  And while you may think that what I’m talking about specifically are untrained project managers, what I’m REALLY talking about is a fundamental top-down misunderstanding of project management. (Do you think that either of these organizations would hand their financial books off to an untrained person and say, “Here, do our taxes?” Of course not. The very idea is ludicrous. But they will hand major multi-year projects off to the nearest available body, trained or otherwise, and say, “Bring this project in on time and on budget.”)
One more thing that’s important to note. Many companies are starting to recognize this problem. And so they identify a curriculum or certification, send all their people out for training and figure that’s enough. But the problem is that when team members learn techniques such as WBS or risk register, it often never goes any further than the classroom. Because while on the one hand they’re being sent for training, on the other hand they’re being told, “We don’t have time for that.” So as an instructor, I sometimes feel like rather than teaching people PM best practices, I am actually unintentionally breeding cynicism. (“Why do they bother sending us for training if they won’t let us use it?”)
(My next post will be on a corollary, the Accidental Project Manager).  

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