Focusing On Fundamentals Yield Project Success

By  Jon Weinstein, PMP, President, Line of Sight, LLC

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The spread of high-tech tools and solutions like Big Data cloud capabilities and mobile applications has increased the pressure for Project Managers to execute projects and quantify progress using automated tools. However, smart PMs and CIOs know there is more to project management than the numbers. Information technology is not a panacea for project management; rather it’s one tool in the toolbox. The irony is that technology tools can have an enormous impact, but only when used properly to support proven project management practices.

These practices are mostly “high touch,” requiring a structured approach that, like most engineering-related disciplines, strikes a balance between art and science, requiring emphasis on both soft skills and effective tools.

IT organizations usually exhibit the strongest project management in organizations. IT people usually have a strong affinity for applications to manage projects. Given this, one could surmise the marriage of IT and project management would produce world-class applications that transform project management, catapulting it into a nirvana of on-time, on-budget bliss. That bliss is not the reality. While sophisticated tools are available to support project management, most organizations don’t use them. Few of the ones who do use these tools, do so as designed or to their full potential. Furthermore, twenty years ago we managed IT projects without the benefit of Google, JIRA, Bamboo, SharePoint, MS Outlook, and MS Project was still in DOS. In essence, all of the tools we now view as essential to a project’s success were not available, yet the percentage of project success was just as good as it is today.  Why? The reason is simple. Regardless of our expectations, getting more information about a project has not improved its chances of success.  And in some ways, it actually leads to information overload and project confusion.

The knowledge areas defined in the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (Fifth Edition) are a mix of quantitative and qualitative disciplines. Ample technology tools exist to address the key quantitative knowledge areas – scope, schedules, cost, and procurement. No application, however, can be substituted for the human touch required in human resources, stakeholder, or communications management. Those areas that are a mix of quantitative and qualitative disciplines, like quality, risk, and integration management, require deep expertise in blending the use of technology tools and soft skills.

The reality is that most PM applications provide a platform for planning and reporting against plan – both quantitative functions. Most studies of project management success focus on the qualitative, “softer” knowledge areas as the ones that provide the greatest measure of project success. Where “high touch” and “art” enter the picture is in the interpersonal relationships that, when managed properly, have the potential to produce tangible, measurable, and highly quantitative results.

Newer IT tools, like cloud-based capabilities, certainly increase the visibility of project data, but provide few advances in actually managing projects. Successful project management often relies on disciplines that benefit little from quantitative capabilities. Project management largely remains focused on the management of the relationships and people who do the work to complete the deliverables. As these new technologies continue to mature in the project management realm, they will bring in new insights and better predictive modeling from a quantitative point of view. They will not, however, replace the level of engagement needed from executives and project managers to shepherd a project to successful completion.

Successful PMs and Project Management Offices (PMOs) focus on the “soft” skills and process as much, or more, than the data technology tool produce about projects. Applications point out weak project management elements, but tools alone cannot guarantee success. The real world of relationships cannot be reflected in a project dashboard. To this end, project managers and their executives should hone and apply their soft skills set, including:

  • Leadership – The intersection of setting the project vision, inspiring team members’ commitment to the effort, effectively engaging sponsors and executives, and satisfying the varied needs of many stakeholders.
  • Facilitation – More than managing effective meetings, PMs must be able to lead groups (teams, stakeholders, the public, and others) through the process of achieving specific results.
  • Workflow – The ability to control information inputs and subsequently direct, defer, disseminate, and delegate. Workflow enables project managers to focus on critical elements of a project when attention is required and to empower project team members to own their assigned tasks.
  • Framing – The ability to define the boundaries of a problem or opportunity and derive and describe its essence is the central to this skill.
  • Messaging & Context – The ability to distill, organize, deliver and receive information. Effective messaging and context require translating concepts and jargon across the multi-disciplinary personnel that comprise project teams today.
  • Integration – Not quite the same as Integration Management in the PMBOK, this refers to the ability to

assimilate unconnected systems of people, processes, resources, information, and technology.

PMI’s 2015 “Pulse on the Profession” describes the results of their global research on the impact of project management on successful organizations. Their findings reveal, “When a project and program management mindset is embedded into an organization’s DNA, performance improves and competitive advantage accelerates.” The characteristics of successful projects or PM organizations described in the report do not include IT systems or applications. Instead of more technology, the report recommended returning to basic project management and orienting organizations toward:

  • Fully understanding the value of project management;
  • Actively engaging executive sponsors;
  • Aligning projects to strategy;
  • Developing and maintaining project management talent;
  • Establishing a well-aligned and effective PMO; and,
  • Standardizing project management practices throughout the organization.

Note the absence of IT systems and applications as an indicator of project management success and value generation. The path to success lies in the interaction of the project manager, project team, and stakeholders. Tools often expose the issues with project management fundamentals. The project management discipline and project managers (and their organizations, including CIOs) sometimes become enamored with “high-tech” tools at the expense of more appropriate and effective “high-touch” techniques.

World-class applications exist and are waiting for the right time for most organizations to employ them properly to maximize value and benefits. The focus for CIOs must continue to be on good process management and good people management. CIOs need to understand and appreciate their organization’s and staff’s capabilities AND capacity for new technology to support project management. The organization and its most important part… the people will inform the CIO when the time is right for the right high-tech tools to improve project management success.