A New Era of Project Management?
When I presented a paper at the APM Conference back in 2008 (there is a good write up of this event in this IPMA newsletter) I suggested that it was time to carve a new direction for project management in 3 key ways:
- Focussing more on people - Concentrating on delivering value - Moving away from following a single project management process
Four years have passed since I gave that talk and recently I’ve been asking myself “How much progress have we made in these areas?” and “What can we expect the future of project management to look like?”
Focussing More on People
At that time I considered one of the key challenges being faced was how to put together highly effective and highly engaged teams. It was my view that pervasive project management methodologies did not sufficiently address this key component of project success. I also recognised that we were seeing significant barriers to effective team work due to several factors including matrix management and geographically distributed teams working across multiple time zones.
In terms of methodologies I think there has been a small shift in the right direction as approaches that focus more on team dynamics (Scrum, Extreme Programming) are now much more widely known about and used. However I think that the concept of team dynamics is still not given a high enough priority by many organisations (and methodologies) despite the fact that many agree on its significant influence on project success or failure (78% of respondents in this study felt that "weak personnel" resulted in "catastrophic" or "serious" consequences for project delivery).
What I did not foresee in 2008 was the rate at which tools that support team collaboration would advance. Even though I had experimented with Liquid Planner and watched Elizabeth Harrin present on how technology could enhance project communication I did not anticipate how widespread the adoption of collaborative working tools would become. Github, a web based collaboration tool for software developers, was only founded in 2008 and now hosts over four million source code repositories. And this is spreading beyond tools aimed at software developers as we see the rise of the enterprise social networks (for example BlueKiwi and Yammer).
Concentrating on Delivering Value
My contention in 2008 was that many projects were focussed on delivering a fixed scope, on time and within budget rather than ensuring they delivered maximum value to an organisation. I suggested that larger projects should actively be sub-divided into smaller projects which could then be managed as a portfolio.
Some customers who I have worked with have been interested in this approach and have preferred to look at a shopping list of possibilities rather than receiving a single price for a large set of fixed requirements. Having a fully costed set of options allows them to decide what to proceed with and in what order to deliver the maximum benefit to their business as quickly as possible.
I have also recently seen an example in action of a customer signing up to a project which would deliver a fixed amount of resource rather than a fixed deliverable. The project was managed using Scrum and the commitment to the client was to deliver as many user stories as possible within a fixed number of two week Sprints. Whilst it is clear that this kind of approach requires a totally different way of working between supplier and customer (and a significant degree of trust), what is also clear is that in this case it provided many benefits:
- The customer felt much more involved in the process and was able to provide frequent feedback to developers. - Because the customer was only committing to two weeks of work at a time they could freely re-prioritise what they wanted developers to work on in order to meet their business needs. - The development team significantly exceeded the expectations for how much functionality would be delivered.
The project manager told me that he felt the approach was giving at least a 100% productivity gain over a waterfall model. And, if that doesn’t already sound too good to be true, he went on to say “the best thing is that the developers love working this way”.
Whilst projects like this currently represent a small minority I think the fact they are happening at all does indicate that an important shift is taking place. Furthermore they provide hard proof that commercial IT projects can benefit from using an agile approach.
Moving Away From a Single Process
In my talk at the APM I encouraged the profession to move away from a one-size-fits-all project management process. I put forward the idea of equipping project managers with a toolbox of techniques they could use, the training to be able to apply them and the freedom to be able to decide which were appropriate on any particular project.
I think there has been progress in this area. In my practice there is certainly great scope for project managers to tailor global processes to make them effective for a specific project. However I also still see evidence that organisations seek the apparent re-assurance that a rigid project management process provides (for example, I have seen Invitations To Tender specifying that a particular methodology should be used). Furthermore most project managers I meet still talk in terms of tailoring a centralised process rather than selecting the most effective techniques from it.
The Beginning of a New Era?
I think the last four years have seen some key changes in attitudes towards project management that I welcome:
- Agile methods are now accepted, although not mainstream. - Adoption of collaboration tools is becoming widespread and enterprise social networking is following closely behind. - Delivering value quickly (whether by using agile techniques or through project portfolio management) is now a normal expectation. - Tailoring of central processes is more widely encouraged.
I think these small shifts in the tectonic plates of the project management profession are important. I think the challenge for all organisations will continue to be whether they can embrace these changes and build on them quickly. Because in another four years time I believe that these small glimmers of progress will have evolved into some key defining characteristics for successful projects:
- Highly agile: significant customer involvement, few fixed requirements and an ability to re-prioritise and change course within days - High performing teams: use of repeatable methods to build highly engaged and productive teams supported by collaboration tools - Value focused: consistently ensuring that all project activities deliver real value to the customer - Processless: the role of project manager will be to enable a team to be highly productive using whichever combination of tools and techniques is most appropriate