It is time for a next generation of project management

Ian Rogers believes traditional practices are demonstrably failing in business change and ICT projects. It is time for something new.

©iStock.com/James Thew

©iStock.com/James Thew

In 2013, I found myself managing a large project for the first time in several years. At first, it did not go well. I was trying to apply project management practices that were a bad fit for the type of project. The people in the project could not work with my approach.

I realised some things about the tool bag of practices that I had brought with me:

  • They did not adequately address business change
  • They were not a good fit for ICT
  • They did not address the critical social aspect of managing projects
  • Most of all, the world had moved on but project management had not

I made some changes in that project that helped it to succeed, but the problem is not just me. As an industry, we need to develop a next generation of project management practices.

Traditional project management is good, but not good enough

Many project managers will find this statement challenging. As a profession we try very hard to get things right. We have reams of best practices, standards and qualifications. Our professional associations are very active in trying to make us effective and relevant. Most large organisations take project management very seriously, making large investments in methodologies and training. Objectively though, the results are not great. Outright project success is rare, especially in large projects. Disastrous project failures are common. The people managing these projects are highly dedicated, educated, intelligent and capable. Something is missing.

The problems with project management have become more noticeable in recent years, but they are not entirely new. I started managing projects in the 1990s, gaining many project management qualifications and accreditations by the early 2000s. I applied that knowledge and experience with some success over many years, mainly in ICT and business change projects. Like most people, though, I found that projects rarely run to time and budget. Prompt and demonstrable realisation of benefits was very rare, usually only happening for small, contained initiatives. Becoming increasingly frustrated, without really understanding why, I made a conscious decision to escape. Then, when I came back to project management, the problems fell into place in my mind

So what is wrong with project management?

To understand, look at where project management came from. Its origins were primarily in the construction and manufacturing industries, especially defence and aviation. Those industries deal with tangible realities, facts, figures and physical equipment. Our management practices have that DNA: they are logic-driven and process-oriented. Unsurprisingly, traditional project management is most successful in the industries where it originated. Big problems arise when we apply those practices where they are a poor fit.

I believe we have undertaken a global 20-year experiment in the dogmatic application of construction and manufacturing project management practices to business change and ICT. That experiment has demonstrably failed: software is not concrete, people are not machines.

  • Software is infinitely flexible; that is its value. If you treat software like a block of concrete that will be poured and set for years, you destroy its value.
  • People are changeable and unpredictable; that is their power. You cannot predict, plan and control what people will do in the way you can for an item of plant. If you try, as project managers tend to, you disempower your team and defeat your project.

What has to change?

Project management practice is lagging behind the modern world. The pace of change in society, technology, the global economy and industry has increased. The world is also becoming increasingly flexible. For some reason, we have treated the emerging profession of business change management as something different to project management. Project managers and business change managers are two different professions, often seemingly at odds with each other. In my view, project management needs to absorb and adopt business change management to the extent that the two disciplines should merge. In particular, we need to recognise that business change is not a linear process. As recognised in Lean Change, change is iterative, experimental and can go forwards or backwards. As project managers, we need to be more flexible.

Frankly, we project managers are just too slow. All too often projects commence with a good concept but by the time we deliver, that concept has become irrelevant. The term ‘agile’ is over-used, but we really do need to be much more agile in our approach. We have introduced agile approaches into project management but, being project managers, we have tended to make them bureaucratic and control-oriented. True agility does not just mean iterative software development. It means experimentation, putting changes into operation and seeing if they work. As project managers, we need to be more agile.

Most of all we need to be better with people. People are what make projects succeed or fail. We need to make projects social entities, communities of genuinely engaged people. Our communication needs to be constant and proactive. As project managers, we need to be more sociable.

At CSC Consulting, we are developing a next-generation project management approach that is right for our industry, right for all stakeholders and right for these times. It will be flexible, agile and sociable. I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the topic as a contribution to this, this is a change exercise after all, and we’re using a Lean Change approach to test the market. Connect with me on LinkedIn or through our website

About the Author

Based in Melbourne, Ian Rogers has been Principal Consultant at CSC Consulting since early 2014. He has 25 years’ experience of project and program management; PMO set up, management and control; business strategy, strategic analysis and transformation.