project_managementToo often in the project management software industry, we focus on functionality. We seemed caught up in the next feature, the cleverness of our programming and the frivolity of the next cute bell or whistle. Yet despite being the most mature of software categories (project management software was one of the first applications ever run on computers), over and over I see failed implementations.

What is common among the largest and most skill-laden firms in the country who have been unable to implement enterprise-wide project control systems? There are probably several answers to this but one of them for certain is the lack of an environment which supports a project control system. There is much to be said for better functionality and increased effectiveness of various algorithms and data storage techniques but if there is no listening from upper management for the proper implementation of these features and functions then there is no point to them.

So what can you as an IT executive do? According to Robert Graham and Randall Englund in their book “Creating an Environment for Successful Projects”, lots. Here are a few categories to consider:

  1. Develop senior management support
    There is perhaps nothing more important than this first category. If there is no understanding by senior management of what project management is, there is no hope of improving project performance. There are many techniques senior management can use to increase its support for the project environment. A project inventory for example, where every project in the organization is reviewed for status and performance. A mentoring program might also be effective. Having each senior manager adopt a project or a project manager.
  2. Creating an environment for project management
    Communication is everything and if the organization can adopt input from different parts of the organization then project then true project teams become possible. True project teams represent all departments involved in the project rather than the chinese wall method of throwing a part of the project over the departmental wall once finished. This method results in no one taking ownership of the project completing. A structure for interdepartmental communication is what is required to even start breaking up this kind of divisiveness.
  3. Develop a process for project selection
    Should you start every project that’s possible? Of course not. But do you actually have a formal process for selecting and prioritizing which projects are selected? This procedure is one that can make the difference between an organization’s survival or failure. Imagine choosing projects by virtue of circumstance then ending up in a situation where the projects you’ve got cannot be successfully completed by the skills available to your organization. Project selection can include whatever criteria you choose but consider some kind of cost/benefit analysis. You’ll want also to include some kind of risk assessment. One of your other criteria may be matching the project against the skills available to your organization. In our own firm, we recently no-bid the largest proposal we’d ever been presented with. I won’t bore you with the details but you’d recognize the company name if I mentioned it. The only problem with the proposal is that it was so large that if we started on it and failed, we’d put the entire company at risk of closing. The risk was just too high for the potential benefit.
  4. Develop upper managers’ abilities in managing project managers
    The number of organizations with this as a priority are few and far between but as soon as it’s mentioned, the usefulness of some kind of structured management of project managers is glaringly obvious. Are your project managers managed consistently? Are the criteria for evaluating the performance of the projects themselves even defined? The time for doing this is long before the project gets going. Once the organization is deep in the thick of a project and the heat is on, it becomes very difficult to change the rules on how project managers are to be managed. Start a program of training upper management on how to manage project managers. Better yet, include the project managers themselves in the training to get more ‘buy-in’ for the process.
  5. Establish a project manager’s development program
    If it hasn’t occurred to you by now, the importance of recognizing project management as a skill to be treasured can make all the difference to an organization’s success. As soon as that is recognized, a formal development program for project managers becomes an ‘of-course’. This needn’t be too extensive to start with. Any program with a track of any kind will at least set the stage for future refinements in the program. An element of this program that should be essential is budgeting time and money for these project managers to improve themselves. I can’t remember how many of our own users have had to take vacation time and pay for their own travel to attend user-conventions of the project control software their company depended on.
  6. Make project management a career position
    This kind of recognition pays back in two ways. First of all, you’ll attract good project managers to these positions. Secondly, your project managers will gradually become more and more effective if this is a career post with a future. The alternative is what too many firms do all the time. A project comes up and the employee with the least to do is thrown at the problem by upper management. This is, of course, because upper management does not realize the impact a trained project manager has on the outcome of a project.
  7. Develop a project learning organization
    My favourite book on this subject is by Peter Senge called “The Fifth Discipline”. I can’t possibly do it justice here but suffice it to say that none of what I’ve just described should be static. Your organization changes, flexes, adapts to the changing world around it. So should your practices and procedures! Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is something to be written up in a procedures manual to be followed blindly until the end of time. Build into your procedures and practices, procedures for adapting and improving the structure.

Without an environment to support it, any project management system you try to implement has almost no chance of success. And remember, it’s never too late. Your projects may be underway and you may not be able to instantaneously alter your entire corporate culture but starting on support from senior management will help to deliver the rest of the structure over time.