Blog: Fixing Problem and High-Risk Projects

There is a reason we do not teach classes on fixing failing projects. Many a cynic feels that we simply do not want to teach our trade, however, our reason is far nobler—we should be teaching prevention rather trying to create white knights to save the day. It is the same philosophy as building a fence at the cliff's edge rather than an emergency room at its base. Our language is replete with idioms telling us to look past the symptom and address problems at their root cause. 'An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure' or 'a stitch in time saves nine.' Please, feel free to supply your own in the comments. Unfortunately, most of our businesses loathe this philosophy, waiting to address an issue until it is irrefutably broken.

It was such an innocuous question, "Working on an article; what is the biggest problem you see with project governance at orgs? Can you comment?" Can I comment? Really? That is like cheese to a mouse. Where could I start—bureaucracy, draconian process, poor executive sponsorship, disengaged leaders? Plenty of fodder, because they all lead to project failure. I fired off, "Creating an over bureaucratic morass stifling innovation & implementing process instead of cultivating leaders." Then the maelstrom started and it went directly to the gap between the executives and projects managers. Naomi Caietti, Robert Kelly and I had a great conversation. Most of the thread is below.

After nearly 30 years of project work, I struggle to understand the role of a project management office (PMO). Even though, I have written of the pros and cons, and read a plethora of articles, opinions, and how-to guides little has been done to convince me that the PMO is reducing project failure. It seems to be nothing more than a tool to fill a void in leadership? Even the acronym, which is so widely thrown around, has little meaning as the "P" has no less than four meanings. It is an executive's crutch for their lack of understanding in how projects work. These, like other, unattended holes in the corporate accountability create opportunities for new and greater bureaucracies and empires that further obfuscate accountability.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) implementations fail at an alarming rate. For the last fourteen years, numerous independent parties have come up with the same dismal statistics. In fact, your implementation probably will not meet your goals either. The graphic above does not bode well for anyone heading out on that journey. To be sure, configuring the software is significantly more difficult that it appears at first glance. As much as one wants to blame Salesforce, Microsoft, or some other software vendor, though, the trouble lies much closer to home.

For the astute onlookers it is easy to tell when the implementation is going the awry. It is the argument over who is going to drive the project—IT or Sales and Marketing. Unfortunately, these are the wrong people to have in the discussion.

Image PMO not equal to LeadershipLet me be perfectly clear, I hate PMOs. It matters not if you call them project management offices, program management offices, or portfolio management offices, they only spell one thing—poor leadership. Now those of you that know me, have heard this enough times that your eyes are rolling back as you mumble, "Here he goes again. Who set the bait in front of him this time?" However, I have confused people with a couple of PMO articles that might seem contrary.

People. Process, then Technology

From her corner office, the new executive decried, "Decentralize the PMO. Let each department be responsible for their own projects." Maybe she had made a pact with another executive for some other bit of power, or it could be she lost a power struggle and the PMO had to go, or possibly she has little regards for project management thinking it is a mechanical, blue collar discipline that methodically follows a recipe to execute each project. Bottom line, she is missing the point of the Project Management Office (PMO)—it is all about business goals. Unfortunately, for the company, decentralized PMOs provide little if any value. They are similar to distributed teamwork—an oxymoron. The concept is illogical.

Yesterday, I received an email from a Dad promoting a fundraiser his adult son is conducting—a Wounded Warrior Project. His Marine son escaped being on the receiving end of the project, but he is surely haunted by memories and guilt. I do not know this young man; I can only imagine his pain. Any of us trying to live through the loss of a son, daughter, or buddy who is only starting their life intimately knows this expansive, indescribable void. This young man is trying to bring good from the nonsensical events around him—he is growing into a leader.

Back in the eighties, I was working for a large aerospace company cutting my teeth as a systems analyst. My bosses were a little older than I am now, and they loved talking about the days before cubicles, pontificating on how personal computers were inferior to mainframes, and reminiscing about the days of the BOMARC missile. It was their way of telling us thirty-something kids that they were in control and we needed to respect their position. Then, as now, information was king and these pterodactyls were not letting it go. To earn the stripes, one had to partake in the tribal rituals, smoke cigars during three-martini lunches, and attend your boss's parties. They saw no value in email let alone the boondoggle shop floor automation project I was part of. In two words, communication sucked.

Road sign to high-road or low-road

A friend of mine alerted me to an article in a PMI Community post titled Is Manipulation Ethical? From the title, I thought this would be neat read. However, the article was pretty swallow. How foolish to think that a 650-word article would address an issue that has plagued philosophers for a few millennia. The initial reaction was to the manipulative title, which was deceptive. It led me to believe the article would supply some profound knowledge. The short treatise failed. To its credit, though, it made me think. On the second pass, I decided that I disliked the article. In fact, its thesis—manipulation is ethical—is morally wrong.

Last week I gave a presentation at the San Diego PMI Chapter's Tutorials conference. Flanking both sides of my ten o'clock presentation in the leadership track was Steve Romero. His two presentations were on IT governance. His energy, insight, enthusiasm, and passion (not to mention being the IT governance evangelist for CA Technologies) made him an excellent selection. And, what is so news worthy about that? Nothing. However, for someone that has little regard for adding one more layer of management to solve a problem, I was surprised that I sat through both of his presentations. He provided a three hours of information on governance—both PMOs and PPMs—crammed into two intense and valuable hours.

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