Solving business problems and improving business performance requires proper project management skills. However, having effective project management skills alone won’t guarantee success.
Successful projects rely on another subtle element that is often overlooked: Project Management Discipline.
Project Management Discipline
We emphasize the importance of project management knowledge for effective execution throughout our products. However, there’s another subtle element that is equally important: Project management Discipline.
In other words, while having the right tools is important to any effort, it’s what you do with them that matters. To draw a parallel, consider the difference between using correct grammar and being effective at interpersonal communications.
Using correct grammar does not make someone an effective communicator; just as having project management knowledge does not necessarily make an organization effective at project management.
Only when an organization can employ project management discipline in an effective way results are really achieved. We believe that effective project management discipline is a much more difficult topic to capture, discuss, and teach.
Knowledge vs. Discipline
Often, when talking with customers we find that they believe they are ineffective at project execution. This is a common theme that we hear time and time again. Yet, nearly every organization seems to have someone with the title of Project Manager.
This poses an interesting question: With so many project managers out there “why do so many believe that they are ineffective?” The answer may not always be obvious.
Project management is not measured by a position or a person, but rather by a set of project management processes and people that together create a project management capability. Project management processes include issue management, risk management, resource management, timeline management, budget management, and scope management. However, even effective project management skills do not always equate to project management discipline.
It takes more than processes and governance to be effective. The degree to which these processes are followed consistently and completely determines the level of project management discipline. Achieving project management discipline requires a team of people acting in an organized way to achieve a common objective.
It requires visibility to accurate information and trust in the project team members to do the right thing with the information provided. It may sound simple, but ask anyone who has worked on a large project and they’ll tell you that the politics of the organization and the ability to gain insight into accurate information can be significant obstacles to success.
In fact, if you look at the top reasons why projects fail, you’ll find that most of the reasons don’t lie in project management Knowledge. Look deeper and you’ll begin to see a theme; project management discipline is more art than science.
The Five Keys to Project Management Discipline
A set of five keys to project management discipline is targeted at influencing the behaviors of the project team. Together with effective project management skills, addressing these items will dramatically increase the probability of project success.
You’ll note that just as the main reasons that projects fail are related to human nature and interaction, so are our keys to project management discipline. Project management processes can drive value only when the appropriate culture, mindset, and behaviors are in place.
- Lining up the troops
Try this in your organization: Ask one of your project teams to articulate the objectives of their initiative. Ask different members of the team.
Don’t be surprised if you get glazed looks, varied answers, or a vague response such as ‘we’re implementing software.’ Unfortunately, organizations often fail to clearly define or communicate their project objectives. As a result, the project team may not be entirely aligned with the intended project results.
Before starting any project or program, a very clearly stated objective must be in place and a mandate needs to be set. The mandate must outline the objectives of the effort, the importance of the effort relative to other priorities, and the measurements that will be used to judge success.
Additionally, the source of the mandate must come from high in the organization and must be supported by the affected stakeholders. This takes some time and effort – but may be one of the most critical steps for successful execution.
Most large efforts require that people from across the organization, and perhaps outside the organization, come together to work as a seamless team.
Therefore, it is a prerequisite to identify all the stakeholders, influencers, and recipients prior to issuing the mandate. If the director of marketing says one thing, and the director of technology applications says another, then the mandate is not solid and may result in varying behaviors from project participants.
The mandate must be clear and well understood by senior leadership and impressed upon middle management.
Most organizations do very little in the way of establishing clear objectives and communicating a mandate “which can be surprising, as it is a critical element of success.
Dwight Eisenhower said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want to be done because he wants to do it.” That is tough to do without clearly communicating what you want to be done. Our advice is to take time to line up the troops.
- Buttering the bread
Most people in an organization truly want to do the right thing. The problem is that too often their behavior is driven by what’s in it for them. Employees know who butters their bread: They take cues from their bosses as to the behavior that is required for raises, promotions, bonuses, and positive performance reviews.
If a large project involves people from multiple departments, then it becomes critical to ensure that the cues being delivered all line up with desired behavior and outcomes.
Additionally, specific incentives should be put in place that lines up with the outcome of the project. These steps will go a long way in establishing, supporting, and encouraging the behavior required to be effective.
If possible, organizations should reassign people to the project team, assign clear responsibilities, and establish project-based performance reviews to be delivered by the leadership of the project.
This is the best way to ensure that project team members are executing against the project mandate. Project team members will go to great lengths when they know who is buttering their bread.
- Establishing a common language
Work with different companies and project teams and you’ll begin to realize that each one has its own language. Consider this sentence: “The biggest risk on the project is integration.? A statement like this is made all the time, but the words mean different things to different people or organizations.
To the technology manager, integration may refer to how well applications share data. Meanwhile, the human resource manager will interpret the term integration as how well different groups of people work together. Unfortunately, the language differences don’t stop there.
Other commonly misunderstood terms that are prevalent among project teams include design, integration, phase, step, team, work-stream, and testing. These words almost always require further definition as they mean different things to different project teams and individuals.
We’re not going to define all the words necessary to run a project here, as they can vary greatly and require context for each project. However, we do recommend that each project team spend time creating and publishing a common language.
Each deliverable should include a definition of various terms that are used. The larger the project “the more time and effort that must be spent to establish and maintain a common language.
- Middle Management
Projects can be very complex. They consist of a broad set of activities that must be highly coordinated. It is for this reason that projects require the appropriate management structure and organization.
Depending on the size of the project, the organization required will vary. However, one thing is common. Division of labor and clear roles and responsibilities are critical for success.
Too often, organizations try to execute projects with highly capable people, but without the appropriate management structure. Putting a project manager in place with a group of highly capable people may not even be enough. Projects require appropriate middle management.
For every major thread of activity, someone needs to be in charge. This person is responsible for the management of the thread. She is responsible for the consistency of the output of the thread, management of issues and risks of the thread, and integration of the thread with other activities.
This is the reason that football teams have not only a head coach but dedicated offensive and defensive coordinators as well. Too often, organizations try to run a project with good players, but no dedicated middle managers. The result, regardless of how good the players are, is a disorganized and ineffective project.
- The bad news principle
Simply put, effective project teams are highly collaborative. This attribute is critical for projects of all sizes and complexity. However, a collaborative project culture can be tough to create, measure, and maintain. one simple way to gauge your team’s collaborative culture is to review the issues and risk log: what’s not there can speak volumes.
Let’s face it; every project will inevitably have its share of risks and issues. All too often, however, organizations have a culture that inhibits or discourages team members from raising legitimate issues and risks. As a result, some issues and risks don’t make it to the project management logs.
Our belief is that bad news doesn’t get better with age. Project management discipline requires a culture that encourages the identification and mitigation of risks and issues. The project manager or executive should shape that culture by rewarding and recognizing team members who actively collaborate to identify and resolve project risks and issues.
Effective project management knowledge is very important however, Project management discipline requires the organization to address the human aspects of team behavior. Ultimately, the behavior of the team members and stakeholders has a significant impact on the probability of success of the project.