The human factor

I had occasion recently to talk to someone who had just completed a major implementation of a portfolio and project management system for a retailer large enough that you’d recognize them if I named the company.  The implementation had gone just as someone in the industry would have recommended.  It was well funded, enjoyed management support from the highest levels and wasn’t a rush job thereby eliminating three of the most common sources of failed Portfolio Project Management system implementations.  Sounded great I told my colleague.  No, he replied.  The implementation was a huge problem.  After a year of hard work and lots of investment by everyone involved, the newly established central Project Management Office had presented its first complete list of projects from the system to management for prioritization.  Never before had this organization been able to provide such a comprehensive list to management and the team was quite excited that they had passed what they considered to be their final system implementation milestone.  The management team charged with the responsibility of prioritization of these projects had poured over the list for a week and had finally returned the list to the PMO, with every project marked priority one.


A pall of doom fell over the implementation team.  Had they not explained the whole notion of prioritization?  The executive management team was assembled and the concept was reviewed.  If all projects were the top priority, they were told, that would be the same as all projects being priority zero!  We understand, said the execs and took the list back to work on it properly.  A week later the list was back at last, all projects marked… You guessed it: priority one.


My colleague was in a panic.  The whole point of implementing the PPM system and creating the process around it was to triage the projects on a regular basis.  If management wouldn’t prioritize, the value of the entire exercise was highly questionable.  The PPM system itself would be no better than a doorstop, he said.


The problem of course, is the human factor.  I’m sure that while they were designing this on a white board 18 months ago, it all looked great.  The software demonstration by the winning PPM supplier must have looked like a vision from another world and the hopes must have been high.  Why then would not everyone immediately get on board to prioritize these projects?


If you think about how it would work in real terms, the answer becomes obvious.  The executives looked at the list and knew that the first person who declared their project a priority ‘two’ would know that the project in question would never be accomplished.  No, the only way to have any hope of getting a project done would be to ensure that the project got first call of resources.  Any objective person would have been able to see that not all projects were equally important to the organization but in this kind of exercise there’s no such thing as an objective observer.  The effect is similar to helping a friend clear up the clutter from their closet.  You can easily tell that they’ll never fit into that suit from the 80’s but watch what happens when you try to throw it out on their behalf.  Projects are often worth a lot more than a suit, but the effect is the same.  In a corporate environment there may be all kinds of dynamics at work.  Some execs for example, may have their compensation wrapped up in project performance or have other relationships with the people involved. 


Can you eliminate the human factor?  Sorry, you can’t.  It’s always a part of enterprise project system deployments regardless of the size of the enterprise.  What you can do is mitigate the effects. 


We always ask the client to walk us through the entire decision making processes very early in the deployment so we can at least identify where the human factor will play a key role.  Setting up rules for behaviour that are transparent to everyone is critical.


We helped my colleague in the retail sector by suggesting empirical rules he could apply to the process which would at least identify a scoring system for the projects.  Deploying that structure would have to be done gradually, we explained with a grandfather clause for all current projects to ensure that management would adopt the new rules.  It’s a gradual process which may take a while to deliver the final results.

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