Pcubed's Richard Evans asks, is it possible to deliver successful programs in organizations that reject structured project management processes and tools?
Companies that reject hierarchy - high tech and investment banking come to mind - often also disdain standard business processes and project management applications. After all, if you're a company that prides itself on being innovative and you've grown through innovation, you don't want to stifle people by giving them one method, one process, one set of tools to use. Yet, this rejection of structure comes with a price : Productivity takes a hit. Multiple methods and tools get used making planning and reporting integration more difficult. Cross-team communication is more complex.
So is it really possible to deliver successful programs in organizations that reject structured project management tools? I believe it is, but only with the presence of several special ingredients.
The Challenge of Managing Small Teams vs. Large
As Frederick Brooks eloquently expressed in his classic, The Mythical-Man Month : Essays on Software Engineering, "Adding manpower to a late software project only makes it later." If you have small teams working on projects that aren't strongly related, that situation presents a small amount of risk. Communication can be maintained by getting into a room and hashing out the problems.
But in a program where there are hundreds of projects or workstreams contributing to the whole effort with links among them in terms of project dependencies, tasks, resources, and issues, there has to be some form of communication to reconcile each link, whether human or automated.
When you go from 10 projects each with 10 dependencies to 100 projects each with 10 dependencies, the amount of time that needs to be spent on those teams reconciling and integrating their related work is increased enormously. You have to accept that you're going to be investing massively in having the participants - those human resources - handle communications and synch-ups.
That's where tools - for project management and online collaboration - can make work more productive, shorten the product development lifecycle, and allow the organization to spend less money on human resources talking to each other.
The Alternative : PM Lite
Success can be found even in environments where traditional approaches to project management have been rejected. But that success has three requirements : a PMO, people with emotional intelligence, and a high investment in meetings and communications. Let's look at each.
The PMO : The organization needs to set up a Project Management Office (PMO), a team of people that becomes your watchdog. The PMO provides control and visibility of a big program and also coaches and drives people working on the program. This PMO resides between the decision-makers and the decision-making data and the source of that decision-making data. If you're working without project management tools, you rely on the PMO to be the source of truth, honesty, integrity, and facts for making real-time decisions.
Emotional Intelligence : You need that PMO staffed by people who have emotional intelligence - a soft skill that refers to being self aware and being in tune with the needs of others. This isn't an ordinary pre-requisite for project managers. But where traditional project management techniques and tools are rejected, the people in that PMO need to operate in an environment where they have no authority over these highly matrixed and innovative teams. While they may have no authority, equipped with emotional intelligence they may have the ability to understand what motivates people and figure out ways to influence their behavior to try to steer it in line with the greater good.
Investment in Meetings and Communications : To counteract a culture of low investment in tools and process, there needs to be a compromise by senior leaders to place an enormous emphasis on communications and meeting management. This is something that carefully-staffed PMO should probably be responsible for. Meetings will be as short as possible and tightly agenda-driven, and participants well prepared for them. Making sure these meetings work needs to be driven by top management. The cultural norm needs to become : It's unacceptable to be late to meetings; everyone should be prepared; and meetings will be documented. For some scenarios, meetings need to have both a business facilitator and business champion, two different people. The facilitator will drive the agenda; the champion will drive the outcomes. At Pcubed, meetings management is a part of our 'lean program management principles', which place an emphasis not just on meetings discipline but also on honest and productive behavior in meetings. In scenarios such as software development, there are methods that can adequately address meetings processes. But efficient meetings happen most often to strong teams, and the text book methods can't fully help with team-building. New teams may need good facilitation to get started.
Also, you need to distinguish between review meetings and status meetings. Review meetings are really about educating program directors on the reality of what's going on. This includes not only project progress and technical challenges, but also what's going on with people in terms of morale and work-life balance issues. Management doesn't react to anything that comes up in review meetings, in order to let people get things off their chest and not feel inhibited about bringing up concerns. A status meeting, on the other hand, is all about action, resolution, and solving problems.
Organizational Change is Hard
Sometimes people simply aren't at a level of process maturity to begin using sophisticated project management tools from the first day of a new initiative. In these situations, we've found that other tools such as Microsoft SharePoint - a web-based collaboration tool for creating websites - can help project participants manage their part of the plan in the same simple way they add content to a website. It can make for an easier adoption cycle. From there, the organization may be able to progress to more sophisticated project management tools and eventually integrate those two when people are ready.
I'm not willing to rest the case for unstructured project management because I see so many compelling instances where the opposite can make a dramatic difference in the outcome. I'll share two stories to illustrate that difference.
During the dot-com boom, I was working on a project for a major bank that - like every other banking firm - realized it needed to offer banking services online. Smart people on teams from different countries around the world were working away with no idea of who was doing what. The big technical consultancies were bringing in their experts practically on buses to do development work. It was almost a blank-check scenario. The people in charge of those programs really didn't know what they were spending money on at all. The only way a program director could get his or her arms around the project was to fly people from all over the world into one city and have a team meeting at which 50 people were present, all trying to get a grasp on status.
That's not entirely adequate if you're trying to manage costs and keep shareholders happy, is it?
More recently, I have worked with a high tech firm that has manufacturing operations in several countries. Progress would have been slowed significantly, business would have been considerably more expensive, and the ability to get insight into the facts of projects in those countries would have been lost without the use of online collaborative tools to bridge the cultural and language gaps and time differences across all participants.
Ultimately, if an organization chooses not to go the traditional route of structured project management, it must make that choice consciously and ensure it's investing in a few good people who can bridge the gap between its teams.
Also, looking forward, the project management discipline has to get creative with project tools to address the needs of innovation cultures. This is becoming increasingly important as we enter the era of Web 2.0 and also as we see Generation Y start to take up key roles in organizations. Collaboration tools in the workplace are going to have to learn from the success of the social networking technologies, so that we don't lose the attention of the new generation. We will have to innovate in the area of program management processes and software, and allow them to twitter and blog their way to successful business execution!