I expect this is true for most of us whose career focuses on projects. As a consultant the projects I get involved in are the more difficult ones, often when they have already got to a difficult place, sometimes when they have reached the point of no return. I have worked on projects without sensible goals, effective sponsorship, prioritisation, resources or drive to make progress.
The symptoms of these classic problems are usually easy to see, and although clients don’t always want to take the medicine, the solution is also usually pretty obvious. Unfortunately, there are many less obvious problems which can be harder to identify and cure.
In this post I want to describe one of these more insidious problems. It’s one of those not seeing the woods for the trees sort of problems. This situation arises in projects that look well run and produce all the paperwork to convince you that they are exemplars of a perfectly managed project. I want you to imagine a project in which the goals are clear, sponsors are engaged and there is a lot of focus on making progress. Surely such a project is destined for success?
Well no, not necessarily. There are many other problems that projects can suffer from, and the one I want to pick on specifically is the situation in which a project is being administered rather than run.
What do I mean by this? There are many symptoms of this problem. Five common ones I have seen often are:
- Form being more important than content: success is shown by completing all the templates – making sure you have status updates, weekly reports, risk logs and requirement specifications. But the content of all these beautifully completed standardly formatted forms is less observed. There is QA of the process, but no QC of the product.
- Box ticking over value add: doing is measured, achieving is not. This leads to the situation in which doing, and being seen to do, becomes more important than achieving outcomes and adding value.
- Governance is more important than the delivery teams: success is perceived through a structure of engaged senior committees who ask profound questions and nod sagely over all those beautifully produced forms.
- The parts are more important than the whole: everyone worries about doing their work, but no-one worries about how it all integrates across the piece into a coherent outcome.
- Everything is driven bottom up: there is no over-arching picture of how it all hangs together, but there is a huge amount of information about the details that will be done. The program manager chases the individuals on their work, but is not managing across the work.
Does this sounds familiar?
Before anyone concludes I don’t think these things are important let me make clear I think every one of these things is important. Good, robust governance is crucial to the successful delivery of a project. Projects need efficient ways of working. Efficient working is facilitated by conformance to standard proven processes. Project success is dependent on individuals doing the work required. A good project plan works from top-down and the bottom up – taking account of the devil in the detail, as well as the high level strategic master plan.
But each one of these is a tools, they are not ends in themselves. When the project is over only one thing matters: did you deliver in line with expectations and commitments? All those perfectly completed forms and reports, that wonderful governance structure, the tasks of every individual on the project team are all forgotten to blow away in the wind.
Delivery is not just about each person doing their work, it is about that work combining into a coherent and meaningful whole. This means it cannot just work bottom up, it must also work top-down. You need to see the woods and the trees.
The problem is that an over focus on the tools can lead one to lose sight of the over-arching goal of a project. I applaud and encourage you to administer your project well, it will make your life a lot easier. But I have seen successful projects that were badly administered and wonderfully administered projects that were complete failures. I have seen projects in which the focus on administration obscures the more important focus on delivery.
There is a lesson in this – choose your tools with care, but more importantly never forget your goal is to deliver however well you apply your tools.
Richard Newton is a consultant, author and program director. He has published 15 books. He is the author of the best-selling The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery, the award winning The Management Book, as well as a series of eBooks on change management. He is currently working on a second edition of Project Management Step-by-Step and the development of a project management simulation for educational purposes. Richard is always happy to discuss any aspects of his writing.