Current project management doctrine tells us to measure project success as more than just meeting the triple constraint. The same approach isn’t always used when it comes to evaluating project manager performance – the emphasis remains on meeting scope, schedule & cost.
A project manager who frequently completes projects by violating approved baselines is not the model we should aspire to. However, if all we do is look at what was achieved and ignore methods, relationships, approach and style, then we are marginalizing the critical contribution of soft skills to a project’s success.
This myopia might originate from the rationale that you can only manage what can be measured. Less nobly, it might simply be the desire to expend the least effort since it’s usually easier to compare plan to actuals on a set of completed projects than it is to understand how those actuals were achieved.
So what are some of the evils that could be missed if the focus is just on quantitative evaluation?
- Were they a bystander? A project might succeed in spite of the project manager’s performance and the heavy lifting done by sponsors and stakeholders might be ignored or not escalated if the organization culture values “being nice” over “being effective”.
- Was change control frequently used to hide variances? From a purist perspective, modifications to baselines should not happen just because a schedule or cost variance cannot be absorbed. However, there is something to be said about the negative psychological impact to a project team of having to carry the burden of a variance for a prolonged period of time on internal (i.e. not client-facing) projects, so many sponsors give teams a “Mulligan” by treating such variances as legitimate changes. Sometimes, the root cause of these variances is outside the control of the project team and the project manager shouldn’t be held accountable if they took all reasonable measures to avoid them. However, unless we investigate the causes for these variances, a quick comparison of actuals to approved plan would not confirm if the variances were actually caused by poor project management.
- Were they a dictator? Without some attempt to gather feedback from team members and stakeholders, it is impossible to know if the project manager got the job done, in spite of the consequences. If post-project evaluation is conducted with sponsors and if their focus was also on the end result, they may be oblivious to the “corpses” left in the project manager’s wake.
- Did they use good project management practices? In “just do it” companies, it’s easy for a project manager to value visible action over planning and disciplined execution, and while they might get away with this once or twice, once the scale and complexity of a project gets too large, it will catch up with them.
So how can we improve performance evaluation?
Just like project request evaluation, it is a good idea to include a combination of qualitative and quantitative criteria. Asking a sample of past team members and stakeholders questions such as “Would you want to have X as your project manager on a similar or more challenging project in the future?” is a simple way to start to understand the “how” behind the “what”. Analysis of project work products such as issue logs, change requests and risk registers can provide insights into approach and effectiveness. This process requires more effort, but as Ben Franklin put it “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.“.