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Improving Project Management Performance

Improving Project Management Performance

Effective project management is the lifeblood of many corporations and improving project management performance is a critical goal. However, the Project Management profession is going through some very significant changes right now as a result of the influence of Agile that will cause us to rethink what “project management” is and to more clearly define the value it provides.

Improving Project Management Performance

I was recently asked to provide consulting services to a company to help them develop a new SDLC for their projects with a goal of improving project management performance. There’s potentially a very fundamental problem with that:

  • Most SDLC’s are based heavily around a traditional plan-driven approach to project management, and
  • The fundamental nature of project management is changing significanttly and rapidly at the current time and a modern project management approach may not even involve a formal SDLC

What’s needed is to develop a more modern and more effective project management approach. In this new environment, simply replacing an existing SDLC with another SDLC is not necessarily a good solution and may not go far enough. Developing a more modern project management approach can significantly improve your company’s overall performance. It basically requires moving away from what I call a “Cookbook Project Management” approach.

What Is “Cookbook Project Management”?

What is "Cookbook Project Management"?

What I call “Cookbook Project Management” involves:

  • Following a standard SDLC process that has well-defined phases with entry and exit criteria that may be defined by standard checklists to itemize what needs to be done in each phase and
  • Each phase may also require fill-in-the-blanks document templates to guide the project manager in completing the requirements for each phase. 

That approach has been commonly used in project management for many years:

  • The advantage of a “cookbook project management” approach is that it provides a standardized, well-defined, and repeatable project management approach that can be applied to all projects
  • The disadvantage is that it can be somewhat mechanical and inflexible and no longer works in many modern, complex project management situations where a more flexible and adaptive approach may be needed

What Is the Problem?

A typical traditional plan-driven project management approach that has been widely-used for years has been heavily focused on delivering projects with well-defined requirements within an approved budget and schedule. The value proposition of project management is primarily to manage the project to deliver the defined results under budget and on schedule. That approach assumes that it is possible to accurately define relatively detailed requirements upfront prior to the start of the project. It still works, to some extent, in situations like the construction industry where there is:

  • A fairly low level of uncertainty that allows clearly defining detailed requirements prior to the start of the project
  • A contractual relationship between the client and the project team. In this type of environment, the client approves some well-defined requirements that must be met and the project team commits to delivering those requirements within an approved budget and schedule.

There are some significant potential problems with this approach:

  • There have been many situations where a project has met its cost and schedule goals but failed to deliver an acceptable level of value to the client because the requirements were not complete or correct and it is too difficult to change requirements after the project is in progress
  • In addition, force-fitting all projects to a standardized SDLC process can be very inflexible and inefficient compared to fitting the project management approach to the nature of the project

Those are the primary reasons why an Agile Project Management approach makes so much sense. An Agile Project Management approach puts an emphasis on delivering value to the client and fitting the project methodology to the nature of the project rather than using a standardized approach for simply meeting cost and schedule goals. That is not to say that meeting cost and schedule goals is not important but it is only one component of value and may or may not be the most important goal of a project. Developing a broader emphasis on producing value will often require blending an Agile and traditional plan-driven project management approach in the right proportions to fit any given situation. It is particularly useful in situations where:

  • There is a high level of uncertainty that makes it difficult to define detailed requirements prior to the start of the project with some level of certainty and/or
  • Creativity and innovation is needed to maximize the value of the solution

Companies are looking to gain competitive advantage in a very dynamic and rapidly-changing environment and a much more modern project management approach is needed to facilitate that transformation.

How Did This Problem Evolve?

This problem has evolved over a long period of time:

  • For a number of years, traditional plan-driven project management was the considered to be the only way to do projject management
  • Agile began evolving with the publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001; however, PMI did not recognize Agile as a legitimate form of project management and focused primarily on the PMP certification that is heavily-oriented around traditional plan-driven project management
  • In 2013, PMI developed the PMI-ACP certification which, for the first time, recognized the importance of Agile as a form of project management
  • Since that time; however, Agile and traditional plan-driven project management have been treated by PMI essentially as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. It has been assumed that there is a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” and no way to blend the two approaches together
  • It is only recently in the last year or two that PMI has begun to try to develop a more integrated approach for blending these two domains of knowledge together but it is a big challenge because it takes a much higher level of skill and it no longer fits in a well-defined “cookbook” approach

What Is the Solution?

If you have been using a “Cookbook Project Management” approach (which is quite common) and are interested in improving project management performance, simply defining a new SDLC may not be sufficient.  It may require a totally different approach and a new way of thinking that may or may not follow a well-defined SDLC at all. In this new environment, rather than force-fittling all projects to a standardized SDLC process, it is probably a better solution to fit the project management approach to the nature of the problem. This can require a significant commitment to create a totally new project management environment:

  • Companies need to recognize the strategic importance of an effective project management approach to their business and make a commitment to developing an overall enterprise-level project management strategy that is well-aligned and well-integrated with their business
  • Project Managers require a much higher level of skill. Instead of mechanically following a well-defined process, they need to understand the process at a much deeper level in order to select and tailor a project management approach to fit a given situation. This is a big challenge that goes beyond any PMI certification that is currently offered and many project managers are not well-trained for this new role
  • Business Managers must play a much more active role in the project. Instead of an “arms-length” contractual relationship between the business sponsors and the project team, a much more active and collaborative approach may be needed to help develop and further elaborate the project requirements as the project is in progress. In order to do that effectively, any business manager who participates in the development process has to understand how the process works and the role that they play in the process. It is no longer a matter of approving requirements prior to the start of the project and then sitting back and waiting for the project team to complete the delivery of the project.

How To Implement A Solution

The best approach is for the company to take a leadership role in defining an approach to fit their business and projects rather than relying too heavily on external consultants to determine what that approach should be. The benefits of that approach are that it helps the company understand the project management approach and why it makes sense at a much deeper level. That enables the company to fine-tune it as needed to fit their business.

A key goal should be to train project managers to develop a much deeper understanding of the principles behind what they’re doing rather than simply mechanically following a well-defined SDLC.  That enables them to develop a project management approach that is well-designed to fit the situation rather than force-fitting all projects to a standardized SDLC.

Naturally this approach is heavily dependent on training of both project managers and any business managers who participate in projects. The Agile Project Management Academy has developed a complete Agile Project Management training curriculum consisting of (7) courses that is designed to fit this need.  At the current time, over 150,000 students enrolled in that training worldwide and it has been very successful. There is also an abbreviated version of the same training for business managers so that they can develop a fundamental understanding of the process and what their role is in the process.

What Does a Typical Implementation Look Like?

Here’s what a typical implementation looks like:

  • The company appoints someone to lead and sponsor the effort from both a project management and business perspective.  (The business people need to be involved in this to develop a collaborative approach that makes sense for their business.  Ideally, it should not be limited to a project management perspective)
  • The Agile Project Management Academy provides a sufficient number of licenses in bulk for training for all of the company’s project managers as well as licenses for an abbreviated set of training courses for business people who need to be involved in projects
  • To get everyone on the same page, a kickoff meeting is held to discuss the objectives of what is intended to be accomplished with everyone involved
  • The people who are enrolled in the training have a goal of completing the training and using what they have learned in the training to develop a project management approach that is well-designed for their business
  • Coaching is available to help with this process as the students are completing the training to answer any questions and to facilitate discussion about how to apply what has been learned in the training to their business environment

Overall Summary

The Project Management profession is changing rapidly and significantly as a result of the influence of Agile. In this new environment, project management can play a very strateigic role in improving the company’s performance. However, it may require some significant new thinking about the very nature of “project management” is:

  • Project Management is no longer primarily focused on administrative tasks of managing budgets and schedules
  • The emphasis in today’s world needs to shift to a broader focus on producing value. That is not to say that meeting cost and schedule goals are not important but it is only one component of value in producing an overall solution

This calls for a significantly expanded project management role that requires a lot more skill. I like to compare it to the difference between a “cook” and “chef”:

  • A good “cook” may have the ability to create some very good meals, but those dishes may be limited to a repertoire of standard dishes, and his/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals may be primarily based on following some predefined recipes out of a cookbook.
  • A “chef,” on the other hand, typically has a far greater ability to prepare a much broader range of more sophisticated dishes using much more exotic ingredients in some cases. His/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals is not limited to predefined recipes, and in many cases, a chef will create entirely new and innovative recipes for a given situation. The best chefs are not limited to a single cuisine and are capable of combining dishes from entirely different kinds of cuisine.

This presents a huge challenge that is not easy to address but the benefits of addressing it are significant. It can dramatically change the nature of your project management approach and develop a much more dynamic and synergistic approach for your whole company.

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Additional Resources

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