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Project Management is Dead…long Live Project Management!

Douglas Duncan, Vice President - Chief Information Officer, Columbia Insurance Group
Douglas Duncan, Vice President - Chief Information Officer, Columbia Insurance Group

Douglas Duncan, Vice President - Chief Information Officer, Columbia Insurance Group

What is the success rate of technology projects in the U.S.? The world? If you google that question, you will get more than a half-billion results. The numbers vary, but many of the studies/surveys indicate most projects fail, and that “waterfall” projects fail more often than do “agile”. Is the project approach to accomplishing business goals outdated? Do the economic, social, and technical challenges of today preclude the success of our traditional tools and methods?

I will jump ahead to the conclusion and firmly say the answer is NOT to abandon the project management approach. Three key observations support this view: project management is akin to human nature, many projects should die, and nothing else works better.

Project management is akin to human nature

Project management did not start with Henry Gantt or the Apollo Program. It did not even begin with the construction of the Pyramids or Great Wall. Project management has been around since humans developed the capacity to plan for the future and make connections between cause and effect.

We do not start campfires by throwing boxes of matches at piles of logs, nor do we create software by writing random strings of ones and zeroes, nor is it true that 10,000 monkeys typing for 10,000 years could write the works of Shakespeare. Caveman Joe was more successful when he had a plan for how to track, kill, and bring back home a nice, tasty bison. Caveman Zog just waited for the bison to throw itself onto his cooking fire. This is why you do not have a Zog in your family tree.

In early life we learn many things through trial and error. Try something, observe the results, and if it does not work, we try something else. Fortunately, we then learn to detect patterns and can predict cause and effect. Our brains begin to model the future which allows us to predict the outcomes of actions we have not done before. We learn to plan before we act, and we can positively influence future results.

  Project management has been around since humans developed the capacity to plan for the future and make connections between cause and effect 

Many projects should die

Ideally, would we like to have 100% of our projects completed successfully? Not really, unless 100% of our projects are well defined, and if we learn nothing new in the execution of the project that changes the equation. However, projects can and do go awry due to imperfect planning. Sometimes we learn our approach, or even the goal itself, has changed enough that the project can no longer achieve what is what designed to do.

The project management profession has greatly improved the quality and timeliness of project deliveries over the years. However, whatever the planning and preparation, one cannot think of everything. People make mistakes, outside events create challenges, staffing levels can drop, and other unplanned events may derail a project. There is a fundamental tendency for the project team to want to show they are strong and capable and that they will get the project done no matter what. Persevering may be the right thing, but this is the time to re-evaluate the project and determine if the forces that pushed the project off course have changed the equation of why the project was needed.

Equally important for reconsideration mid-project is to ensure the goal itself has not changed. Priorities within an organization can shift, sometimes we learn new things while in project execution which cause a fresh look at why the project was initiated. Whenever a project stops making sense, it is time to sharpen the axe and consider cutting it short.

Nothing else works better

Obtaining a good result is more likely to happen when you think about a desired outcome and work backwards to develop a plan with organized activities designed to achieve that result. If project management is such a normal part of human behaviour, then why do we not do it better?

Remember, planning for the future is all about modeling. We try to predict that B will happen if we do A. Our needs have become more sophisticated since our last bison hunt, but our innate abilities have not. While we cannot turn a switch and be intrinsically smarter, we can do a better job in applying our project management methodologies. We can be more thoughtful, more thorough, and more timely in making our decisions.

We should also be more realistic and be open to killing off a project that is no longer aligned with the desired outcome, whether that is because of fatal flaws in the execution, changes in the priorities, or learnings that take place during the life cycle of the project.

A project successfully executed can be a beautiful thing, but a project lurching on after it should have been stopped is a drag on the people and the organization. Project Management is the art and science of knowing the difference, and the courage to say so.

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