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Seeds of Project Failure, Part IV

thThis editorial piece will show how project managers (PM) and business analysts (BA) managing with the wrong mindset compound their potentials for failure on the project to which they are assigned.

In the initial article of this series, a tradition not normally associated with editorial columns, we decided that the PPG editorial would at least take on a linked series of commentaries that would illustrate for our readers why their projects are experiencing such poor performance statistics and what could be done about it. Thus, in this second of five editorials, we will start the in depth discussion of the “Seeds of Project Failure” that was initially listed in our February 2014 editorial:

  1. Focusing on the wrong activities,
  2. Measuring with the wrong benchmark,
  3. Managing with the wrong mindset, and
  4. Studying the wrong historical lessons

This editorial piece will show how project managers (PM) and business analysts (BA) managing with the wrong mindset compound their potentials for failure on the project to which they are assigned. This mindset is mired by focusing the thinking of most traditionally trained and certified project managers that do not think for themselves on the mindset of processes and not deliverables. The project management standards setting bodies in both the USA and Europe have detailed their standards to be process-oriented and not deliverables-centered since the former is easier to test and quantify, as we were told by the premier USA standards setting body when asked why they would not update their risk management framework, this standards body informed us that it is harder to teach in a classroom and even harder to test for a certification since it takes time and experience to grasp these concepts of execution over planning, deliverables over process, or management over control.

Why then does focusing on processes increase your potential for failure or at least does not support the potential for success? Processes by themselves do not deliver much in the way of the potential for success based on a single characteristics of a project – that being the uniqueness of each project. If what most believe is true about each project being unique then how can the definition of standard processes be useful in assisting project managers in the achievement of success of their projects? Each project’s deliverables are unique and therefore the processes needed to produce these deliverables must be somewhat unique as well, but the manner in which PM are trained, tested, and certified are all based on the concept that there are now 47 processes in the current edition of the premier body of knowledge produced in the USA while just a few years ago there were only 42 in its fourth edition. This alone shows that there is little value in defining processes as the standards for project management when with each edition new or fewer processes will make the grade. What does this mean – that projects during the 4th edition were correctly managed with only 42 processes, but not going forward, to be successful, projects need 47? Sounds kind of silly?

Is the standardization of anything for project just silly given that projects by their very nature are a unique set of activities that when combined by an experienced and skilled PM or BA have the best potential for successful outcomes – the production of ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables? The answer is clearly understandable: it is! Standardization of processes invites the idea that there exists a set of acceptable and defined activities that each project should utilize in order to be successful which speaks to the concept of a ‘one size fits all’ framework for project management. This is an idea that is both dangerous and potentially risky for PM and BA since the ability to use a standardized framework in any environment has to be tempered with the experience and skills of a professional project manager that has the knowledge of when such standards are effective and when they need to be tailored. These are capabilities and critical thinking skills that can only come from time in the trenches either under the mentorship of an experienced PM or through the harsher tutelage of ‘on-the-job’ training where one learns through making mistakes. This assumes that organizations can weather the cost of training their PM and BA in this manner. In short, believing that there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ set of processes for every project is simply infantile thinking or wishing: one that is based on wanting to learn just a defined list of processes that can be applied to all projects. Such a desire to those that embrace it is orthogonal to the alternative of having to spend years and years learning how to apply standard processes which is the only palpable manner to effectively apply such ‘standardized processes.’

Knowing the wrong mindset clears the way for us to discuss just what is the right or more effective mindset that PM and BA should focus on to improve their potential project successes? We at the PPG Editorial Board believe that there is only a single effective or efficacious mindset for a PM or BA: the production of ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables.

This single statement may seem to many as an oversimplification of the situation, but in our over 100 years of combined project management experience just on our editorial board at the PPG we have seen that project management is just this concise and just this definitive. Standards setting bodies seek to make the discipline of project management complex so that their certificate holders can command higher and higher compensation packages; however, where are the results of these complex processes and frameworks? We are NOT saying that the standards setting bodies are to blame for the stagnant project success rates over the past 25 years, a statistic that we have many times shown in the issues of the PPG to be in evidence [targeted II of this issue], but nor are they part of the solution. If the increase in certified project managers just from a single certification body has increased over 11, 000% over the past 25 years while project success rates have stayed stagnant [see the Standish Group and Forrester Group studies] clearly indicates the validity of the previous statement about the lack of linkage between certification and project successes.

What is the right mindset for PM and BA to be successful in their project assignment? They are:

  1. The only acceptable outcome for project sponsors is the production of ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables,
  2. The quality metric, fit-for-use deliverables, is the only metric needed to measure project success, and
  3. Unique deliverables require the application of unique actions

Each mindset component needs a bit more explanation for those still not able to grasp these concepts. For project sponsors, and we have dealt with literally hundreds of sponsors, what matters is more than just being on time, or on budget which is the almost cliché metric thrown out whenever a group of project managers or project team members are queried on the subject. However, when asked the follow on question, “does being on time and on budget matter if the deliverables are not usable or ‘fit-for-use’?” Many have to stop and reconsider their initial snap response. We have yet to find a project sponsor that will accept being on time and on budget over having deliverables being classified as ‘fit-for-use.’ Nothing matters more to a project sponsor or their users than being provided with a usable set of deliverables. Having such deliverables is more acceptable if they are produced under the remaining constraints of time, cost, quality, and risk, but this juxtaposition is precisely the professional charge that any effective PM or BA must accept when taking on the assignment to a project. Just planning or managing processes is not good enough or even acceptable!

We have already discussed the idea behind the concept of ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables in our Issue 2014-04’s Fourth Page mini article called, “Fit-for Use Deliverables Only!” and we offer the link for this background reading. However, we will say that producing ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables is the only quality metric that any project needs to pursue since without this metric being achieved, the project will not be accepted as successful by any other quality metric as defined by the project’s sponsor or key stakeholders.

Finally, the uniqueness of each project requires, no demands, the application of unique action. This only makes sense. It does not mean that an experienced or skilled PM or BA cannot utilize a set of standard processes as a baseline, but it is only through the application of tailored processes in the hands and mind of such capable project professional that a project can increase its chances for success. If the reverse were true then the increase of certified PM by over 11,000% should have had a significant impact on the project success rates over the same period of time – the facts do not support this conclusion. Thus, it can only be surmised that it is the deployment and skills of an experienced project manager that has the best impact on the project success rates and not the blind application of standardized processes listed and taught by the so-called project management standards setting bodies.

Therefore, we have seen that the current mindset that is being offered as the simplest approach to support both the training, examination and certification of project managers is not sufficient to improve the very lackluster performance that has become the placard of the project management discipline today. It is very sad that PM and BA are not willing to think for themselves and question the standards setting bodies as the impact or lack of it that their bodies of knowledge offer to project professionals. Until we start to question that just taking and passing a 200 question exam on 47 processes is going to improve your project success rates, we will continue to under perform project sponsors’ expectations and over-consume project resources as the discipline is doing currently. Project sponsors have to be the agents of change in this manner which will be the topic of a future issue’s editorial piece.

In our next editorial, we will discuss the fourth seed of project failure: studying the wrong historical lessons. In this editorial installment, studying the wrong lessons or worse no lessons at all can condemn project managers and business analysts to a never-ending circle of repeating activities that do not improve project success rates, but can contribute to project failure. Join us in August for our ongoing dissection of these insidious seeds of failure.

Providing PM Deliverable-Centered Mindset Innovations

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