Over the last five years, I conducted a number of detailed case studies of projects in both Australia and overseas with the aim of diagnosing their managerial shortcomings and suggesting improvements. The results clearly demonstrate that:
- The actual practices applied did not match the complexities of management of these projects.
- Managers strived to get their hands around the projects with limited success, and often left prematurely.
- Contemporary project management knowledge, standards, models rarely addressed the real challenges, often creating a layer of bureaucracy on top of already complex arrangements.
- Managers often used intuition and experience to make decisions and plans, or respond to complex situations faced on the go.
In a recent assignment, which involved investigation of a major infrastructure project, I noted that the application of the ‘latest standards’ was a mere formality. While several project management charts and diagrams adorned the project manager’s office and meeting rooms, the actual planning and execution of works did not follow the project management processes developed in accordance with such standards. In fact, the project management processes and plans were complicated and nobody seemed to know how to apply them.
The case demonstrated everything from poor appreciation by decision makers regarding project size, scale and complexity, to virtual absence of project strategic planning and poor governance, risk management and teamwork in general, which crippled decision-making processes.
The project was by no means isolated; the literature in project management is studded with failed projects and disillusioned clients. There is clear evidence that the contemporary practices, standards and approaches do not adequately address the challenges of projects and programs of significant size and complexity; in some instances they may actually hinder their proper modelling and management. In other words, there are fundamental unanswered questions regarding the assumptions and models embedded in contemporary standards and approaches. It appears that such assumptions and models are a byproduct of traditions entrenched in the practice of project management and education, training and enculturation of project managers.
Theory and practice disconnected
Look closely at the sources of failure; on many failed or distressed projects, most setbacks and discontinuities, which typically cripple projects during their execution phase, are manifestation of risks and shortcuts taken earlier, poor decisions, or disregard of complexities.
Projects must be managed continuously from their creation/selection to development, planning, implementation and operation. Breaking them into phases and executing each phase in different times can cause sub-optimal solutions.
It is wrong to assume that project managers should not get involved or be interested in project selection, development and continuous business alignment, as these are the functions performed by clients or specialist consultants. The real purpose of a project is to meet stated needs and requirements in an optimum manner. What is the good of a well-executed project if it neither delivers the business case nor meets the sponsor’s objectives? Project management excellence by itself is absurd; ultimately excellence must relate to project performance in terms of the value of change it will bring and how efficiently the needs have been satisfied.