7 Ways to Address the Blind Spot in Project Management

I am periodically asked why, as a project manager of 25 years, I say so little about project management in my speaking and writing. The reason is that a tremendous amount has already been said and written about current “good practice” in managing projects. There are countless groups and forums that discuss and expand on this traditional practice knowledge. There is much of this practice that I agree with and little addition useful contribution I can make.

Where I believe that far too little has been said and that a fundamental shift in our project thinking is required is outside what we currently believe about traditional project management.

Man Hand writing Execute with black marker on visual screen

Specifically, in two areas:

  1. How we use projects to achieve our business objectives, and
  2. How we actually DO projects

I’ve discussed how to effectively use projects in previous posts, so this blog focuses on point two – how do we improve the efficiency and effectiveness of DOING projects? How do we get really good at designing and executing project work?

By their nature, the five process groups and ten knowledge areas that PMI includes in their Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) focus on the process and techniques for managing and assessing project results rather than the actions that produce those results. These “good practice” systems and processes are focused on reviewing the state of the project by creating a “static plan” (a baseline for the anticipated timeline, cost expenditure, resource deployment, etc) then measuring and forecasting progress against that plan. There are limited structured processes to make the execution of work conform to the plan and/or refine the plan to conform to project outcomes. There is limited recognition of the dynamic nature of projects and how to use this recognition to improve project performance.

This means that, traditionally, we rely on the experience and expertise of our people to do the work in these dynamic conditions then measure their level of success or failure – pointing out to them where significant failure needs to be corrected. Little attention is paid to empowering them, giving them a framework in which to succeed and engaging them in the project’s higher purpose so that they can be effective at adapting to changing conditions. They are given a plan to follow and instructions on what to produce then expected to use their experience to succeed. In fact, the PMBOK® Guide says that operations management is outside of the scope of project management – but what is doing the work associated with a project if it’s not operations?

Both the statistics and my own experience suggest that, at best, this traditional project management alone is inadequate to ensure successful project outcomes; particularly, as criticality and complexity grow. At worst, traditional project management practices can actually be detrimental to performance outcomes when they are used to emphasize measured results – earned value or productivity – over performing the right activities at the right time.

This lack of rigour in planning, controlling and improving the effectiveness of day-to-day activities is a significant gap – a “blind spot” – in the dynamic project environment.

Included below are 7 areas that I focus on to begin to fill this gap and shine a light into the blind spot:

  1. Create an investment mindset. Move away from the view that expenditure of time, money and energy is a cost that needs to be minimised and encourage your project teams to see them as investments that need to be optimised for maximum return. Cut those expenditures that don’t create value, be willing to make those that maximise value and balance trade-offs based on providing the greatest overall value rather than optimising for an individual line item in the cost report.
  2. Co-create the project strategy with your team – re-visit often. Unless the project team understand and embrace the delivery strategy, you don’t have a strategy! Co-create the strategic approach to the project with your team so that they are able to bring their experience and expertise to its development and they understand the strategic imperatives when establishing priorities for action.
  3. Create a circle of inclusion not a barrier of exclusion. Structure and operationalise your project teams so that they are cross-functional and all those that contribute to or are impacted by the project actively participate in it. Some will be active “doers” while others will help to shape end-user requirements and bring specialised background knowledge that allows constraints to be more effectively addressed.
  4. Plan and control the work as close as possible to where value is created. Empower your people by making those closest to the project activities responsible for planning and controlling those activities – in a systematic not ad hoc manner. This allows you to take advantage of their superior understanding of what it takes do the work effectively and creates an accountability framework for ensuring that the right activities are being done reliably.
  5. Create a work execution framework. Too often we expect our project teams to not only consistently achieve the project plan but to create their own framework for doing it.  Make the investment in a framework that supports your team in planning and controlling their activities in a structured manner. The production management based approaches – some refer to them as lean or agile – provide business processes and techniques that are designed to perform in dynamic project environments and drive a collaborative execution approach that is committed to delivering overall value.
  6. Plan and re-plan. As Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted as saying “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The value of planning is not producing a plan, but identifying the work sequences and constraining activities necessary to meet a strategic objective. In the dynamic project environment, this requires constant re-planning to make the plan that the team is working to relevant to the current project situation and the near-term objectives that the work serves.
  7. Improve performance rather than fixing negative variance. Focus improvement efforts on the activities required to generate the best possible results rather than on the results themselves. Make shortcomings in results the imperative to find better ways of doing the project not a reason to punish the guilty. A well-designed work execution framework will help gather root cause data on areas where performance is lacking that can then be used to improve in those areas.

In highlighting a gap that traditional project management does not fill (and is not well suited to address), one could be forgiven for thinking that I am suggesting that all traditional beliefs about project management should be scrapped. On the contrary, I am not advocating completely replacing these traditional systems and processes with “a new way of managing” projects. It is still extremely important to create an overall roadmap by which the project is meant to be delivered, to measure progress and performance against this roadmap and forecast the likely final delivery performance outcomes – investors expect it and senior management demands it. This is a role that project management systems fulfil very well when implemented effectively.

What I do believe is:

  • We need to bring far more focus and rigour to the way that work on projects is done and that this systematic approach needs to be founded in the principles of production management.
  • We need to better leverage the experience and expertise of those doing that work to continuously improve the reliability and efficiency of the working environment.
  • We need to better align on what represents over-arching project value and use it as the rallying point for all that the project team does.
  • Finally, we need to continuously improve the way we work – to strive for mastery – because projects are the new normal.

A somewhat simplistic sporting analogy that one can use to contrast these two areas of delivery management is:

Most project management approaches focus on what goes on in the coaches’ box and on the scoreboard. We need to bring a greater focus to how the team plays on the field – because it’s on the field that games are won and lost.

When done effectively, work execution management and project management should complement and inform each other. The result will be “a new way of delivering” projects that creates broad-based improvements in time, cost, and quality outcomes – not trade-offs between them.

Questions for consideration:

  • Do you manage your project time and cost results or lead the execution environment that delivers those results?
  • Are your project teams a resource to be controlled or delivery capabilities to be leveraged?
  • Do you see your projects as a series of time, cost and scope line items to be accounted for or a business investment whose return needs to be maximised?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share them in the comments below.

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