Too Many Hours Spent Hunched Over a Keyboard

Following a method often means using IT tools like word processors, spreadsheets and planning software. But, as Geoff Reiss argues, too many hours spent hunched over a keyboard can lead to a false sense of security and cause project managers to lose sight of the real objectives of their projects.

David Beckham is a beautiful and rich human being. I doubt that many project managers would be happy to see themselves on a 30ft advertising hoarding wearing only their underpants. And any project manager half as rich as Mr B is more likely to be reading Forbes than Project magazine.

But many project managers do have something in common with him: they understand the rules of football. They know the roles played by captain, gaolie, referee and assistant referees; they know what happens if a match ends in a draw; who can handle the ball and some even understand the arcane off-side rule.

But which project manager who can make a football land at a colleague’s feet 50 metres away? Who else displays that uncanny ability to be at the right place on the wing at just the right time?

So whilst both Beckham and many project managers understand the rules of football, Mr Beckham has earned a reputation for being a brilliant team player.


So it is with projects. In place of the FIFA rulebook we have methodologies laying out our rules. If your organisation likes to run projects by the book, that book will be your methodology. But the project management industry is in danger of getting methodologies and the tools that support them out of proportion.

Are we in danger of creating a generation of project managers who have learned that using a database and planning tools is enough to deliver successful projects? Too many believe that they are doing useful work if they adjust their Project Initiation Documents on their word processors, polish the barchart one more time with their planning software and add a few items to the risk register database.

I do not mean to suggest that methodologies and project management IT tools are a waste of space, only that many organisations are letting the use of them get out of context.

Prince2 is a very handy and conveniently sized book to slip down the rear of the project manager’s trousers. The project manager, thus protected, can survive the almost inevitable, post project kicking as long as the book is firmly lodged in place when the project fails. They produce their stage reviews, barcharts and risk registers and claim: “it isn’t my fault, guv”.

Removing the need for blame seems far better than providing tools to avoid it.

One size does not fit all

A side issue of this type of self-protective, survivalist-attitude within a blame culture is that even quite small projects are likely to be subject to every single step and control proposed by the adopted methodology. In the extreme it can cost more to apply the methodology than to do the actual project itself, something that is clearly ridiculous.

But after all, to avoid all of the blame you need to be able to truthfully say that you followed all of the processes.

Most popular methodologies offer a range of processes and it is important to select the right ones for the job in hand. Weak organisations apply every single process to all projects and this quickly causes dislike of the methodology itself.

Better organisations, especially those that run a wide spectrum of projects, sensibly allow their teams to select from a short menu of versions of their methodology on a project by project basis. Clever organisations make the selection of the level of methodology part of their project initiation process. Even cleverer organisations provide electronic templates for their teams to use to create appropriate documents on their PCs. They also use document management systems to organise the storage of the various documents.

I worked with one local government body offering three levels of methodology called Simple, Standard and Complex.

They varied in both the number of steps to be followed and the depth of detail expected. So a ‘Simple’ Project Initiation Document was brief and something that could be tapped in easily by a junior manager using the standard document template on a popular word processor. Whilst complex projects demanded multiple stages, simple ones might have only one or two.

The lowest common denominator

A methodology is the lowest common denominator of project management. It is essential and useful but by no means all there is to our profession.

Many believe that Prince2, APM Body of Knowledge and PMBoK are just like the written part of the driving test. As long as you memorise the contents of the Highway Code booklet you can pass the written part of the driving test with flying colours. You will know important information like what the road signs mean and what speed limits you should observe. But you could probably take a native of the Brazilian rainforest who had never even seen a car through this memory test.

Would our native immediately be safe in a Ferrari on the North Circular at 6pm on a Friday evening? Of course not, he would be scared rigid. He is just ready to start learning to drive.

So it is with project management. By all means get your people to pass Prince2, by all means give them a useful range of software tools but don’t forget to teach them how to run great projects as well.

The missing links

Delivering a method’s documentation alone cannot deliver great projects. It supports and delivers consistency but it is only one of the ingredients needed to make a perfect project pie.

There is so much more to successful projects than can be covered in a methodology but two key gaps are:

1. Methodologies are mostly concerned with what needs to be done, not how to do it.

2. Methodologies barely mention human teams, motivation and leadership.

The adoption of a common method across an organisation only indirectly helps to deliver successful projects. Most of the steps laid out in a methodology will be sensible and jobs that any competent project manager should follow. Of course every project should have clear statement of its objectives at the start. Of course the team should take stock of progress occasionally. These steps were sensible long before methodologies emerged to formalise them.

Rather then helping the projects along, methodologies let the senior management understand how the projects are doing. They are a lot like a spotlight on a ballet dancer. Whilst they don’t help the dancer to dance, they do help the audience see the performance.

Count the documents your methodology demands and note the percentage that actually move the project forward against the percentage that provide some form of check or control. So we need to see take stock of our methodologies, methods and tools and make sure we have them firmly positioned in context. In the nineties many organisations sent their young people away on three-day Microsoft Project courses expecting them to come back as project managers. It didn’t work. Today, in the naughties, some of those same organisations are sending their youngsters on five-day Prince2 workshops with the same expectations. It still doesn’t work.

Prince2 certificates today hang on 30,000 walls and around 2,000 people take the examination each a week (OGC website). This far outnumbers all professional qualifications put together.

I am not proposing that you chuck your methodology and project management tools into the circular filing cabinet that stands in the corner of the office, only that they need to be seen and understood for the value they offer.

So would Beckham D have made a good project manager? Probably yes. He has shown an ability to take a group of eleven resources and address a clear set of goals. He has motivated both the team working on the project and those sitting on the side lines ready to take part if needed. He has met with unpredictable issues and risks and managed them against a strict time scale. He has engaged with his stakeholders and sponsors. He has done all of this many times and, with a few exceptions (when he got a red card) done it all within the rules of the relevant methodology.

And I doubt he ever touched a keyboard in his life. Good luck with your projects.

Geoff Reiss is a freelance programme management mentor and writer.

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