It’s a subject that comes up every time I talk during training courses about the role of project managers within organizations.  The project managers are usually pumped up full of self importance having just learned how to do something clever that they believe will revolutionize the way projects are handled in their company.

I start by drawing a simple Organigram of a typical organization, CEO at the top, CFO, COO, CIO at the next level, other boxes without labels below that.  Where, I ask does the project manager live in this Organigram?  It makes you take pause because the answer isn’t obvious.  Often people will tell me where they wish project managers belong (usually somewhere very far up the food chain of course) but the real answer is often less satisfying.  In most organizations, project managers live as a dotted line to the left or right below a CxO of some kind with no direct authority at all.

For newly frocked project managers brimming full of new ideas and techniques, this is like throwing a bucket of water on a good campfire.  Yet, this is a phenomena that every project manager must come to terms with.  You may be given tremendous responsibility and even accountability but no real authority.  How, then can a project manager with all the techniques and tools we discuss in these columns month after month bring those tools to bear on the organization to effect change?  Well, aside from begging, groveling, cajoling, issuing empty threats and bribes (all techniques I’ve recommended here at different times over the years), there is one tool that has phenomenal power and that tools is wholly in the control of good project managers.

Science tells us through a principle called the Hawthorne effect that the very act of measuring something changes the thing being measured.  The Hawthorne effect (please don’t ask me where the name comes from) was demonstrated in a water study done in Tucson, Arizona.  A couple of water researchers named Woodward and Hirshon were studying how water was being used in Tucson households.  In the study, it became apparent that as soon as people knew that water meters were measuring the water used in different ways throughout the house, their use of that water decreased remarkably.

Of course, the effect was only apparent when people knew they were being monitored.  If the measuring is secret, there is no effect at all.

This effect translates very nicely to the project management paradigm where most project management tools are all about measurement and then display of the data.  In fact, the manner in which data is displayed has a profound effect on both the people doing the work and those managing it. 

Imagine a project team can see consistent data that shows the project is understaffed due to a low priority ranking on a portfolio grid.  The morale of the team might be terrible, thereby contributing to poorer performance. 

On the other hand, imagine showing a project team a report which shows the pace of work and the trend over time in which it is obvious that the team is now closing in on a particular target that it once thought it might not attain.  It would be easy to imagine this team redoubling its efforts to make that milestone!

The power of generating targeted project displays which generate particular effects can’t be underestimated.  Any senior manager who has had a highly skilled project management system user or report generating expert knows how important it is to keep that expertise close at hand.

Making this type of tool a powerful weapon in your project management arsenal means getting data to be centrally stored so it becomes accessible and knowing the project management tool that manage the data so you can display it to your best advantage. 

Project managers living at the end of a dotted line can take comfort from knowing the power of project displays and who gets to see them can radically affect the behavior of an entire organization.