Teaching what works

Last week I was in the office of a senior executive in one of Australia’s icon companies. We were talking about projects and he said, “I’m over project management, it doesn’t work. Even when we send people on courses we fail. Please don’t talk to me about project management or project management training!”

I wasn’t there to talk about training, but I was there to talk about project management. I took a deep breath and reminded myself – ‘tis better to understand than to be understood’ and asked for an explanation. If he hires a builder, he said, it's because he wants something done, finished. He isn’t interested in the hammer the builder uses, the latest nail gun or an incredible jig for making sure the mitres fit snugly. His frustration still obvious, he said “Project manager after project manager tells me about their skills in earned value management, or estimation or scheduling, or even how they use the definitive project management tool.

“They don’t get it; I want them to deliver something, yet no one asks appropriate and insightful questions about what it is I want to achieve. They seem to think the sum of all their technical ability will lead to the outcome I want.

“Don’t give me a project manager, just give me a person with enthusiasm, energy, determination to deliver, and a good brain – they’ll beat a project manager every time.”

It wasn’t always thus. Twenty years ago the people he described as having energy etc were the people in project management. The tools were there to assist them, not as independent justification for the state of progress.

We’ve lost our way. We train, educate, certify and fail. About 15 percent of projects are a success - we should be studying what’s going on in those projects not finding ever-increasing ways to justify failure. Our fascination with tools and methods and algorithms is not helping.

There is, and should be, only one definitive definition of success. That’s when the boss, client, sponsor says its successful. If we can’t work out what that is then we shouldn’t be in project management.

The proliferation of training courses hasn’t improved the success rate of projects. Certification hasn’t increased the standing of project managers. Are we heading in the wrong direction?

If we want to be taken seriously we are going to have to re-evaluate what we are doing, how we are doing it and focus on what works in relation to delivery. For our projects to succeed we need to be doing and teaching what works.

Diane Dromgold is managing director of RNC

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