Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Case for Professional Project Management

There have been more than 4 years since I've started managing projects, one year since I took my PMP and 4 months since my PMI-ACP. I have shipped 4 big projects so far, I've been involved in many others and I have recently been appointed as the head of video game production in Ubisoft Kiev. All my professional life I have been involved in projects, most of them with many stakeholders, distributed around the world.

Whenever I think back to what I could have done better in various circumstances, two things stand out: I could have better controlled my area of responsibility through more standardized PM practices and, by being more in control, I could have acted more responsibly on various occasions. While clear, standardized processes do not guarantee neither project success nor the sense of ownership and responsibility that every project manager should have, they are liberating. They free the PM from the burden of reinventing the wheel and let him focus on the project at hand - contrary to the wide spread belief among unexperienced PMs that standardization is a burden the corporate management enforces on them.

Throughout this post I will discuss why Project Management is so important and why standardizing its practice within the organization can be of benefit to everyone involved. At the end, I will discuss the two blockers one can face when trying to spread the practice.

The promise of Project Management:

“Today, project management is more than a position or a career. It has become a mind-set, and it turns up in every corner of the business world. Every company is trying to manage its resources as closely as possible and project management is an essential part of that effort” - Project Management For Profit, Joe Knight 2012

In one sentence, the discipline of project management is about acting preventively, proactively and responsibly when leading a project. While great PM still has many intangibles related to human interactions, intuition, communication, talent, the discipline has evolved from magic to science, with tons of best practices, patterns and processes.

So, before asking yourself whether you need PM in your organization, ask yourself if you can afford:

  • Multimillion Euro projects being led without a certainty that they will ship on time and on budget.
  • Bad reputation of not being able to deliver. Mistrust.
  • Poor communication and unhappy stakeholders
  • Not learning from past mistakes.
  • Not utilizing the investment put in past experience.
  • Leaving managers without proper support when they manage multimillion euro budgets.
  • Overtime, the cost of burnout or that of leaving personnel.

The promise of project management lies in having a scientific, measurable solution to the problems above. Great project managers are not magicians. They don't have a magic wand.They are trained professionals that you can trust. They will be able to explain you very clearly what value they bring to your organization and how they do it. They will talk about objective measurements, they will talk about process, about best practices. Their promise and their craft is to show you transparently what they do with your money and what to realistically expect in return. In a word, deliver expected results, transparently. Among others, they will talk about:
    • Building and managing budgets and plans
    • Following completion
    • Identifying and managing risks
    • Communication and keeping stakeholders happy
    • Continuous development of staff
    • Organization, structure, process

Why standardize? What if projects are going on well already?

The first question that comes to my mind is "what do you mean by "going well?"". How do you measure it? How do you know that a project is achieving maximum performance in terms of cost, schedule, quality, stakeholder satisfaction, risk, staff development? How do you know that you are getting the maximum from your investment and how do you compare projects?

In order to survive, a company needs to lead. Leading companies are the ones that have the initiative, the vision and the means to succeed. Profit and talent follow the leaders. Ideas worth nothing without being materialized, so leaders excel at execution. As PM sets the framework for delivering results, leading companies have PM as one of their core competencies - either explicitly or implicitly. Leading companies:
    • have trust from our peers (ship on time, stick to commitments)
    • learn from their past experiences
    • secure the learning process and reuse it in future projects
    • secure the talent
    • optimize talent usage
    • optimize budgets and timelines
    • predictably deliver value

The promise of standardizing project management is to achieve all that, including:
  • induction of newcomers to PM (and not only) and short, predictable ramp-up for them
  • easier access to PM knowledge and lessons learned
  • less burden on project managers who do not have to reinvent the wheel (processes / forms / metrics)
  • a baseline for common understanding and expectations
  • tracking of performance based on objective measurements
  • continuous improvement
Above all, it shifts the emphasis from magic to science and process across all projects. Because of this extra transparency, everyone with an interest invested in the well being of the company have only to gain:
  • Company management
    • Visibility on progress
    • Trust in their teams
    • Less administrative burden
    • Extra value added for customers
  • Project managers
    • Lessons learned
    • Proven, transmittable processes
    • Knowledge base
    • Standardized forms and metrics - not have to reinvent them
    • Simplified induction of new PMs
    • Learning and sharing among PMs
  • Team members
    • Continuous learning
    • Visibility, clarity, predictability, security
    • Ground rules
    • Trust in the company
  • Customers
    • Trust
    • Clear deliverables
    • Clear expectations
    • Clear view on progress
    • Involvement

Therefore, I personally do not see any reason not to standardize PM across all projects within a company or department.

What stops companies from standardizing their PM practices?

I believe that the blockers lie mostly in two areas:
  • Misunderstanding about the role and the job description of the PM.
  • Resistance to change.
Unfortunately, PM is a very misunderstood practice. I have seen a lot of people calling themselves project managers when what they really did was process work. The person who is providing the same technical service, over and over, to multiple projects is not a project manager. There's no such thing as office project manager for someone who is doing office maintenance work. I believe some people add "project manager" to their title just because it sounds nice, without knowing what it is about and contributing to global misunderstanding about the term. Doesn't help much either the fact that projects vary widely in size and impact, ranging from school-type assignment to multimillion, multinational enterprises.  Thus, in real life, the term "project manager" has been diluted and it does not say much about what the person's expertise is. To counter any doubt, I believe that it is up to the true PM professionals to explain what they do and by what metrics they should be measured.

Other than that, even in well established project organizations where PMs drive significant projects, it is not always clear why the practice should be standardized. Instinctively, nobody wants a new manager, nobody wants to be directed on how to do his / her job, nobody wants audits and process rigor. It seems easier to escape in the fog of "the magic practice", without clear measurements and standardized processes. Even more, as standardizing involves more work in the beginning (after all, it is a project per se), people are reluctant to take it on when their schedules are already fully loaded.  PMs would need to learn more - which is not always comfortable - and be evaluated on new metrics - on which they may not succeed that well. All these trigger the resistance to change especially in the people that would benefit the most from the standardization.

Standardizing PM is a project per se.

In order to succeed in standardizing PM, proactive managers should convince top management about its benefits and gather support for their project. They need a strong sponsor and an experienced PM. They need to provide a plan, they need to provide metrics for measuring success and progress. They need to have an approved budget and time for the people involved. Standardizing does not come free, as it requires employee time, trainings, materials. Its objectives need to be very well defined and monitored and have a designated responsible with enough power to set things in motion. Of course, it needs to be properly managed so that it becomes a success story, an example of a "perfect project" for the organization. 

Companies need to be aware that standardization is not a one-time effort. After all the practices are set in place, a budget should be allocated to maintain a structure to monitor continuous deployment of PM internal standards, audit projects, evaluate PMs, archive lessons learned and dispatch them, train new employees and evolve the practice within the organization. As with everywhere, quality, security and trust come at a price. The good news is that the price should be far less than the benefits.

Good luck! :)