A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of giving a talk for the Useful Projects Group.  After the session, I received an email from one of the attendees.  She asked a very thoughtful question about why – when an increasing number of people do have at least some exposure to good project management practice – do some companies still fail to get it right?  Why do they seem unable to embed the good behaviours that we know lead to successful project outcomes?

I thought this was a great question and it really got me thinking.  In my reply, I outlined six initial reasons why I think this happens.  I thought I would share an edited version of that response below.

  1. As with many professions, there are some cowboys out there (or to put it more charitably, there’s a broad range of capabilities). A lot of people call themselves project managers because they have run a piece of work before (see my next point) though they do not necessarily have an appropriate understanding of project management.  And we’ve all worked with properly qualified, card-carrying project managers who were – sorry – just not that good.  Not to mention the many good project managers who simply fail or forget to go back to the basics, because they’re in the white heat of delivery and the customer is breathing down their necks.  I’m as guilty as anyone of that.  But with perspective, I can honestly say where I’ve gone wrong on projects, it’s because I didn’t get the basics right (or was denied the opportunity to do them properly).  Additionally, people are often required to work both on the technical delivery and project manage.  It’s possible (though rarely advisable) to do both, but frequently companies do not acknowledge that they are asking someone to wear multiple (sometimes conflicting) hats. 
  1. Projects often aren’t treated as projects, but as pieces of work. Very often, pieces of work that are projects do not get treated as such.  I once worked on an enormous project, which had been given to a senior manager to deliver.  When I was brought in, there were 20+ people working on it and not a single project manager (though they clearly had the budget for several).  Upon joining the project, I sketched out a vision, anticipated benefits, and some objectives over the course of a few days and people were absolutely amazed. This is not rocket science.  Companies need to do a better job of recognising projects and engaging project professionals (or better yet providing training to existing colleagues who want to deliver projects) to deliver them. 
  1. Not everyone on the project team is a project manager. And nor should they be.  I think project managers often need to do a better job of explaining things like benefits and objectives to the wider team.  Why on earth should an engineer, or comms and marketing manager also be expected to have an Association of Project Management qualification?  They shouldn’t.  It’s incidentally one of the main reasons I wrote the book – to help non-project managers understand some of the key concepts so that they can perform better on project teams. 
  1. People are so results-focussed they want to see immediate action and resist planning. I have genuinely had conversations with clients where they’ve said words to the effect of “Nevermind why we’re doing it – just DELIVER SOMETHING!” I’m really only paraphrasing slightly.  Companies want to see action and results without realising that planning is an action that yields results.  They then get very sniffy when the project falls apart because no-one’s really clear on what they’re supposed to be doing.  At the same time, some people will make a cottage industry out of planning (see point 1).  There’s a time and a place for it.  Good project managers will do just enough planning that they can get people started quickly, whilst still being comfortable that time and resources are not being wasted. 
  1. It actually doesn’t make sense to most of us. This realisation has been a long time dawning for me, but what might seem self-evident to you or me, really isn’t that obvious to everyone.  Or even most Also, just because people have worked on a number of projects does not mean that they ‘get’ project management.  I’ve often had to force myself to work on the basis that people do not actually find projects as intuitive as I would naturally assume.  It pays to be conscious of the fact that not everyone has an understanding of projects. 
  1. People just don’t bother with (or forget to do) the basics.  The reason I’m so passionate about the link between vision, benefits and objectives is that they really do make all the difference between project success and failure.  But coming up with a vision seems a bit woolly.  Writing out benefits and objectives (or heaven-forbid, a business case) seems overly bureaucratic.  It’s not sexy, so companies get bored with it and lazy PMs simply don’t do it.  It ought to be stating the obvious that it needs to be done (should actually be mandatory before starting a project), but it never ceases to amaze me how many organisations are happy to skip over it in order to get the delivery.  People love a spade in the ground.

It will come as no surprise that as a project management professional, my solution to most of these issues is for companies to take their projects more seriously and employ (or train) properly qualified people to do them. Of course, I would say that.  But if you were to ask a builder why so many DIY building projects go wrong, I expect they’d reach a similar conclusion – that it’s a skilled business that too many people think they can do without first teaching themselves the basics.  And they’d be right, wouldn’t they?

Needless to say, this is just my perspective.  I’m always interested to hear others’ perspectives though – why do you think companies get projects wrong?

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