Project Management Tools Aren’t the Answer

By Ned Johnson, Director, Project Management, GTB

Ned Johnson, Director, Project Management, GTB
Ned Johnson, Director, Project Management, GTB
When Xplorex IT Magazine asked me to share my perspective on project management technology I quickly thought of many examples I have seen where these technologies simplified and streamlined communications, minimized the amount of time project team members get bogged down in mundane project tasks, and truly gave the team more time to focus on the work required to deliver successful projects.
But in no time at all several projects also came to mind that I would consider failures that relied on the same tools and technologies. This is no surprise. Research into project success rates today tells the story that too many projects, across many industries including IT, are still failing. If you doubt this, just consult the classic “Standish Chaos Report” which has been published annually for years, or The Project Management Institute’s “Pulse of the Profession” report. Each study points to signs of improvement over the past decade, but there is still a tremendous amount of waste and expense from poorly executed or failed projects. We must ask ourselves one question. With such great project management tools and technologies that allow for unprecedented levels of collaboration and information sharing available today – often at very low cost – why have project success rates improved only slightly over the past decade?
The reason is simple – it’s the people and how they work together that is at the heart of successful projects, not just the project management technology used.
The best planned and executed projects are those where the team – or the people actually doing the work – collaborate deeply. They spend time in focused conversation to collectively define the work required to deliver on project objectives and goals. Project Management technologies are a tempting way to breeze through the need for deep collaboration among project team members, but often end up turning the initiative into a race to close tickets, report status or check boxes.
Let’s for a moment consider the tale of two project kick-offs.
In the first scenario, at the project kick-off meeting a project team arrives to a well-organized conference room, there is also an online virtual conference room setup early for remote participants, and all details are in order. Rules have been established and are shared about the team meeting cadence. The PM has issued user IDs for the collaboration system, a folder structure has been setup for files and more. Next it is communicated that a project timeline has been established based on historical data and a completion date has been defined for the team.
The project team members nod politely, appreciate the thoroughness and organization, but have fundamental unanswered questions about why the project exists and how it interacts with other initiatives for the client. In fact the team has no clear idea of how success will be measured.
Finally, the PM closes with a reminder of when status reporting is due, highlighting where in the tool this will be accomplished. At the end of the meeting, all project team members really know is that another meeting will be setup soon to establish the work plan.
On the surface, the project seems very well organized. But that level of organization in the end won’t hide the fact that from day one of the conversation a plan was dictated and not defined by the team. In addition, more emphasis was put on reporting and the tool than on collaboration and understanding project objectives.
Now let’s examine a different scenario. In this case, at the kick-off the project manager introduces everyone then guides the team members through a conversation with clients and key stakeholders about the purpose, goals and constraints of the project. She also continuously pushes the conversation further to dig deeper into topics, so the project team truly understands goals and objectives. She also ensures each project team member’s voice is heard. She then asks the question, “is there anything you think that might prevent us from being successful?” This simple question uncovers challenges early, helping the client and key stakeholders to address them promptly and not be surprised later. In no time the project manager has established herself as a strategic leader and strong advocate for both clients and project team members. A real leader who has people rallying around her.
Next the project manager announces, “tomorrow’s session will focus on collectively defining the work required to deliver on the goals and objectives that were outlined today. I will bring the notecards, tape and markers.” After a series of follow-up sessions where notecards and markers are the highest tech items in the room, the project manager has a detailed plan – developed by the team and agreed upon by the client – from which to manage the team. Then and only then does the project manager share how the team-developed plan will be online with tasks assigned to their owners and that the same tool will be used as the guide for ongoing progress reviews and reports. The team is on board, after all it is their plan and the project manager just made it easier to follow.
The difference is stark. In the first scenario, things are organized, the tool is stressed but there is lack of vision or mission. Nothing is done to develop camaraderie among the team. In the second, purpose and collaboration are the primary focus and the project management tool is introduced simply as a natural extension to support the team-developed plans.
The project management literature and my years of experience in the field tell me that issues with project performance will not be fundamentally improved with project management technologies, but only with a focus on developing project managers who have a strategic mindset, know how to build teams, and can be a strong voice of the project.