Why are companies “good” but very rarely “great” at project management?

weightlossThere is a remarkable similarity between organizations trying to improve their project management capabilities and someone who is attempting to lose weight.

As personal trainers will attest, significant weight loss improvements are usually made early on but having reached a plateau with the potential of being able to achieve further reduction with continued effort, many clients will stall and some may even rebound and gain back some of the weight they had lost.  Although there is significant empirical evidence of the health benefits of weight loss, the ongoing effort required to lose more than a nominal amount of weight increases in a non-linear fashion, hence many people are unable to reach their original goals.

The same is witnessed with project management – while there has been much research supporting the premise that improvements in project management increases competitive advantage and operating efficiency, few companies capitalize on this and some even end up sliding back to their pre-project management levels of mediocre performance.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m the last person to advocate that all companies should strive to achieve world-class levels of maturity.  Those heady altitudes are best reserved for a very small set of organizations as the significant costs required to achieve world-class maturity must be justified financially.  However, I believe almost any company can aspire to PMI’s envisioned goal of embracing, valuing, and utilizing project management and attributing their success to it.

So what prevents this?

Improvement requires real commitment and effort, both in terms of behavioral change and ongoing investment.  The behavior changes required for successful project management capability improvement are not painless and many executives and mid-level managers are simply unwilling to relinquish their real (or imagined) power to make these changes.  Ongoing investment in capability improvements is also challenging, especially for public sector companies struggling with restricted or reduced operating budgets or public companies striving to meet or exceed shareholder expectations – this is the one advantage that private sector, non-public companies enjoy.  As Richard Branson said about Virgin “Fortunately we’re not  a public company – we’re a private group of companies, and I can do what I  want.

Project management maturity does not exhibit causal determinism.  As there is a lag between improving practices and realizing the benefits of these improvements, you can’t force someone to value project management – they’ll either take that leap of faith and believe in it or they won’t.  If the executive who championed the initiative leaves the company or gets distracted with the latest Big Shiny Thing and if there is insufficient critical mass developed to sustain and further the improvements, project management maturity is likely to die on the vine.

One way to reduce the likelihood of this happening is to take an agile approach to your project management improvement initiative.

  • Engage your executives in prioritizing which practices or capabilities to improve by helping them understand the benefits and costs of each
  • Demonstrate tangible value at frequent intervals to re-kindle enthusiasm in the improvement initiative
  • Develop and implement improvements using a cross-functional/cross-role team working closely with one another

To paraphrase Jim Collins: Few companies attain great project management capability, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good project management capability.

Categories: Agile, Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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