Do We Really Understand the Problem?
By Paul Ayers, Cloud Enterprise Architect, Oracle
Too often I see technology being perceived as the answer without really understanding the problem. It sounds so simple but IT has an almost hypnotic attraction, which needs to be countered by the focus on a business outcome.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see technology’s potential to deliver efficiencies in our workplaces. Over the years, all businesses have invested in some level of technology, in search for the Holy Grail of efficiency. Many have been left scarred with numerous stories of failed attempts along the quest. The reasons for these failures have been varied and are never usually caused by just one thing. However, one area that usually gets caught in the searchlight is program and project management. This is not surprising given these disciplines are exposed to the whole investment process including the sharp-end where the pain becomes most obvious – project delivery.
It Has An Almost Hypnotic Attraction, Which Needs To Be Countered By The Focus On A Business Outcome
Now don’t get me wrong, I have seen many a case where project management was a significant contributor to a project failing. But usually it is the result of number of factors that all conspire. Let’s face it, if project delivery was simple, we would have fixed it by now. Unfortunately, it still continues to plague all enterprises.
Perhaps understandably, the normal organizational reaction to a major project failure results in a renewed focus on project management. This results in an investment into more (or more experienced) project managers, a renewed interest in project methodologies and, of course, new tools. It also sees the development of, or further investment in, an improved capability of a program and/or projects office(s).
It is interesting to observe that in most of these cases no effective measures are put in place to monitor the overall improvements from introducing program/project offices, so the executives who approve the funding in the first place, have no idea whether that investment paid off.
What this indicates is that they have reacted to an issue and have actioned what is seen as a logical fix. But they normally forget about the monitoring of the actual results. I’ve seen few organizations actually monitoring the number of successful projects (however success is defined) over time and then linking them to a particular capability investment.
Perhaps, this is because there are many other factors involved that can influence project outcomes both positively and negatively. Factors such as: the experience and skills of the project team, clear scope, organization culture, more engaged/experienced senior responsible officer, and/or simply more executive focus on the project. Nevertheless, measurement is still a key tool, which many boards are not leveraging. Too often they lose sight of what the role of the board is, and what problem they are trying to solve.
Over the years, I have seen many large organizations investing heavily in a program management capability. This is the group that controls the funding via the allocation of the organization’s capital budget. Projects are initiated on a priority basis; each tasked to deliver the benefits outlined via their business case. These projects are given a scope and budget and the project manager (PM) is assigned and a Project Board is given the task of oversight. The program board is usually kept abreast of their investment via monthly project reports (normally via the projects board for larger organizations). Such a model is considered best practice and ensures oversight over the company’s project based investments. It can also provide a useful escalation point for the inevitable project issue that arises and gives the executives (who are usually on the board(s)) some control over the direction.
But this model, in reality, is dogged by inaccurate project reporting (also known as project managers managing upwards) and inexperienced executives who do not have the skills to ask the right questions. I also don’t see the buy-in from these executives who should have a greater stake in the outcome. They are too far removed from the running of the day-to-day project and it can be convenient to blame the PM or his/her team for any failures.
On the other hand, I have also seen program boards who do have experienced executives and good quality project reporting (vetted by the Project Board) but the focus is usually squarely on project governance. Again this is good in theory but the downside of this focus is they lose sight of the outcome they are trying to achieve. I see project after project being implemented that hasn’t met the user’s needs and/or was delivered within organizational silos and, even in some cases, delivered the same capability using different (often duplicated) technology. However, they have been delivered on-time and on-budget, so are regarded as successful.
Technology is about enabling a solution, which will help fix a business problem and not just about delivering the project on-time and on-budget. It is important to always keep this in mind so you don’t get caught up in the IT hype trance.