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Why Project Management Suffers

We’ve all heard the horror stories: the highway that was not going to cost a penny more than a quarter of a million dollars and ended up over a billion. The convention center that opened two years behind schedule. The computer system that doubled its estimates, tripled its schedule, and still didn’t work properly.

What’s going on here? Why do so many projects run into so much trouble? Why can’t companies and governments, that have had years of experience in projects, seem to get it right? After all, there are professionals, called “project managers,” who are supposed to be running projects and whose job is to keep them on budget and on schedule. Why do so many of them fail?

Project management is management. In many ways, it’s not the same as line management, and it uses different tools and techniques to achieve its goals, but its purpose is the same as that of line management: to direct a group of people to achieve an objective. Therefore, project managers need to know how to manage budgets, people, and processes.

Why, then, do so many companies assign senior technical people—who usually have little interest in or aptitude for management—to head up projects? These companies wouldn’t dream of assigning just anyone as an architect, or designer, or developer; they look for qualifications, for some evidence that the person can actually do the job, so why are they so casual when they assign a project manager? The main reason is that companies tend to regard project management as secondary: not as important as line management or technical skills, and certainly not as a career goal for ambitious souls.

The result is that projects founder, destroying schedules, shredding estimates, derailing careers, and delivering results that companies accept out of desperation rather than design. In the longer term, those who have managed these commonplace disasters retreat from project management and either return to the technical world or move into “real” management. So project managers are not developed, the cycle continues, and the result is that there are too few experienced, qualified project managers in industries that are project-driven.

How can organizations escape this trap? How can they create a group of trained people who know how to define, plan, and carry out a project?

Here’s a simple suggestion: Create a group of trained people who know how to define, plan, and carry out a project.

Identify people who have an aptitude for managing and who want to progress. Train them; there are many courses and programs available. Provide mentors; there is no end of consultants who can offer this service. Reward them; recognize their successes, correct their problems, and give them career targets to shoot for. Is this a novel idea? Hardly. After all, it’s the same process that organizations follow to create a group of trained people who know how to carry out any specific skill.

Is it expensive? That’s the wrong question. The right question is “Do the benefits justify the costs?” Most managers would agree that spending a hundred thousand dollars to prevent a cost overrun of a million is a great investment. Create a group of trained project managers. It just takes commitment.

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