What’s the Value of Project Management?

I recently participated in a discussion on Quora where someone asked the question “What’s the value of Project Management?” The person who answered the question did an excellent job and his answer was spot-on in the context of traditional, plan-driven project management; however, I think there’s a need to rethink that in the context of Agile Project Management.

What's the value of project management?

His answer to this question centered on the fact that “project management is about change” and that is absolutely correct. It went through a scenario of a typical company that builds widgets:

In the Widget Company, everyone is consumed with building widgets and building them as efficiently as possible. That is what “process management” is all about.  However, suppose one day the CEO of the company went to a widget convention and found that other companies were building much better widgets for half the price. That’s where project management comes in – when you have to make a change such as introducing a new product to remain competitive.

For that reason, project management is the lifeblood of many companies – it is what keeps the company competitive and on the leading edge of the markets they serve. Great companies have to continuously evolve to remain competitive and sometimes that might require significant change. An example of that I like to use is American Express. American Express started out over 150 years ago in the railway express shipping business shipping boxes on rail cars. If they had continued in that business, they might not be doing so well today but they have continuously adjusted to changes in the market and technology over that period of time.

Let’s go back to the Widget Company example – suppose that after coming back from the widget convention, the CEO of the Widget Company determined that:

  • He didn’t want to just adopt a “me too” strategy and build the same kind of widget that everyone else was building
  • He wanted to go beyond that and build something really unique and innovative that would go well beyond what the rest of the competitors had to offer
  • And, he wanted to get it to market quickly before any other competitor could develop a similar product

Suppose that no one really knows exactly what that means in terms of detailed product requirements for whatever the new widget is? That’s where Agile Project Management comes in. It works best in situations where it is difficult to define detailed requirements for a product before the project starts and where you have get started quickly and get something to market as quickly and efficiently as possible. In that situation, rather than taking time to define detailed requirements before starting the project, you would start with a vision of what the product should be and take an incremental and iterative approach to continuously refine the product as the project was in progress.   That’s exactly the kind of effort that an Agile Project Manager should be able to lead.

When you ask many people “What’s the value of project management?”, many people will think that the value of project management is being able to plan and execute projects to deliver well-defined requirements within a given cost and schedule. That is a very common image of the value of project management that has been well-ingrained into many project managers for many years. In today’s world, I think we have to broaden that notion. Simply managing projects to meet cost and schedule goals may be important but it isn’t sufficient in many cases.

Technology is changing rapidly in many areas and that makes it difficult to adopt a traditional, plan-driven approach to project management because it just isn’t feasible in many cases to develop detailed project requirements for a project before it starts and being competitive often requires a much more aggressive and dynamic approach. That calls for a more Agile approach and the value of project management is really about bringing about change using whatever project management approach is most appropriate to fit the situation.

That’s a broader view of the value of project management that I think is much more consistent with the world we live in today.