Is there any “science” in project management?

“Project management as profession” remains a fraught subject (initial post here, survey here, survey results here).  I doubt it ever will, at least not fully like law, medicine, or academia.   Furthermore, I believe that because project management is essentially a social science — i.e., a discipline about human action — we will have persistent trouble in trying to settle debates with evidence and experimentation.

To that end, Jim Manzi provides a useful summary of the epistemic challenge faced by social sciences — what they do, don’t, and could (eventually) know.   He sets up the problem in this excerpt below:

[W]e have no reliable way to measure counterfactuals—that is, to know what would have happened had we not executed some policy—because so many other factors influence the outcome. This seemingly narrow problem is central to our continuing inability to transform social sciences into actual sciences. Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior….

As they say, read the whole thing.

More on bridging the PM/Executive communications gap

I hope I didn’t scare you off the latest PM Network (September 2009) with my recent lament about a column (my lament is here).  The piece assumed that we still needed to convince PMs that they had to be business savvy. 

In fact, this issue is chock full of articles that assume PMs get that and want to get savvier.  One piece — Talking the Talk — hits on a number of recent Crossderry themes.  It echoes an earlier post about bridging the PM/Management Gap (here), but it speaks to the executive who wants to improve his/her communications with project managers.  The opening grafs hit the main challenge:

To the executive ear, project managers seem to be speaking an entirely different language.  “A lot of executives think project management is all Gantt charts and paperwork, so they tune those conversations out,” says Eric Morfin, partner, Critical Skills Inc., San Diego, California, USA 

My suggestion: take this article and use it to shape your exchanges with executives.  If you have a executive mentor,  “how to leverage these ideas” would make a great subject for your next chat.

Don’t PMs get that they’re “business” people yet?

I saw a somewhat depressing article in this month’s PM Network about the need for project managers to get business-savvy.  Not that there’s anything wrong with what Gary Heerkens writes (the article itself is here).  What saddens me is what this article implies about the mindset of project managers:

  1. Too many project managers don’t see “business understanding” as part of their job.
  2. This expectation isn’t explicit enough in PM job descriptions or how PM performance is managed.
  3. PMs seem to want the title, but not the responsibility. 

IMO, a project manager who can’t participate in business discussions can’t meet the substantive requirements of whole swaths of the PMBOK Guide.  How can a project manager participate in charter, scope, and change control discussions without knowing the business?  Otherwise, aren’t they really project coordinators, assistants, etc.?  As Gary notes (and understates):

Basing choices solely upon technical or functional considerations means all of the critical inputs required to make the best possible decision aren’t being considered.  Project managers who do not understand the business aspects of their projects are destined to make subpar decisions from time to time.

Is forensic science isn’t a science, can PM be a profession?

I enjoyed this Popular Mechanics piece on the problematic foundations that underpin forensic science — CSI Myths: The Shaky Science Behind Forensics.   Per the piece’s header:

Forensic science was not developed by scientists. It was mostly created by cops, who were guided by little more than common sense.

In fact, I was reminded of the debate that we’ve had about project management as a profession (here, survey here, survey results here).  The article reinforced just how far we have to go to true professionalization.

While we have many common sense PM practices, how many of them are demonstrably linked to project success?  Which are the most important and why?  The Value of PM is still pretty fuzzy

PMI and Agilests?

Cats and dogs, living together...

Cats and dogs, living together...

Greg Balestrero — CEO of the Project Management Institute — recently posted (here) on his experiences at the Scrum Gathering in Orlando.  In my experience, Greg and the PMI staff have been very eager to foster a better relationship among the various methodology camps.  Per Greg’s post,

[t]he intent of the visit was to bridge the gap between the Scrum Alliance and PMI. But I guess the real reason we attended was to dispel the myths that surround the PMBOK® Guide and Agile practice. There is a widely held opinion that the PMBOK® Guide and Agile don’t mix… they can’t be “shaken, nor stirred” together. 

Please read the post…it gives an interesting perspective on how to build alliances among disparate points of view and how to overcome misconceptions.

Why get involved w/ industry associations?

One of the reasons I’ve been remiss in my posting is that I’ve been preparing to host the Spring 2009 executive forum of PMI’s Global Corporate Council.  My SAP colleagues did a great job helping me host and this forum was particularly productive.

“Networking” is a pat response when one talks about joining or leading industry groups.  What exactly that means came home to me after discussions with my counterparts from Siemens, Joe Sopko and Kevin McDevitt.  On two topics, just a few minutes of conversation helped me confirm the validity of one approach (on how to augment on program management content) and introduced a better metaphor (for the architecture of our new methodology).

Nothing big, eh?  But how much benchmarking and justification will I avoid because I can say “well, Siemens had a similar problem and they did X“?

PMI CEO’s perspective on the stimulus package

I forgot to link to this Greg Balestrero post (here) on the US stimulus package (then still in debate).  He asks a lot of great questions about whether Congress and the Obama administration have thought through how to make this portfolio most effective.

I’ll focus my comments on Greg’s first two PM-oriented suggestions for the plan (#3 is to accelerate the spending):

First, get the people who know how to manage complex change initiatives — these are not career politicians but are experienced project professionals — who can manage change portfolios… that can get results.

Agreed, but one of the challenges with current legislative practice is that large swaths of the portfolio are fixed by the legislation itself, at least at the Federal level. Some of the more interesting work is happening at the state level. In a recent radio interview, the RI Director of Transportation sounded like he had his portfolio ready to go. In fact, he was ready to pounce on funds that other states would forfeit because their transportation portfolio process wasn’t as smooth.

Second, emphasize the competency of project management, like they have begun to do in many of the governments around the world. But they should not allow “pockets” of excellence to prevail. On the contrary, the governments should leverage the pockets of excellence to develop an enterprise discipline in project execution.

While enterprise-wide initiatives are great, I always wonder how deep they really can go. My experience is that in any organization of substantial complexity, it is hard to cover any but the most generic PM needs at the enterprise level. The differences in line of business, agency, etc. drive variation that’s hard to reconcile effectively.

More on the Value of PM Study… why no ROI numbers?

Last week’s PMI GCC executive forum featured a presentation from Janice Thomas, a co-author of the Value of Project Management study (the study’s preview PDF is here and a 90 minute presentation by the lead authors is embedded here).

Janice elaborated on one of the findings — that ROI calculations were almost never done (my earlier post here).  It turned out that only one of the 64 organizations studied could put together rock-solid ROI numbers.  A number of others could have put some numbers, but didn’t.  These organizations found generating figures on returns onerous — and not worth the effort — because of a three-fold problem:

  • ROI had not been considered closely enough at the beginning of the PM initiative.  In other words, little benefits realization work had been done — few if any KPIs were envisioned or no baseline was established for those KPIs. 
  • PM initiative costs weren’t tracked closely enough.  Amazingly enough, it appears that few of these project management improvement efforts weren’t managed as projects or programs.  Oops.
  • Organizations that didn’t perform projects for a living were more concerned with fixing the basics of PM.  Improving customer satisfaction or project delivery measures was good enough for these organizations.

Executive Support: Demonstrating the Value of PM

Executive buy-in and support: more comments on the first results of the PMI Value of PM study, earlier posts (here , here, here, here, and here).

Value measures should first focus on the tangible (e.g., ROI, better margin) or making the intangible more tangible (e.g., tying customer satisfaction to revenue or reduced escalation costs).  In addition, I would also suggest that one should also look at how much value one’s executives attribute to project management.  Of course, the initiative has to have delivered results.  But many PMOs forget to ensure that senior leadership understands exactly how PM improvement translates to the firm’s bottom-line, top-line, brand value, etc.

One of the most powerful endorsements of SAP’s project management efforts came from the current CEO of SAP America, Greg Tomb.  During our global services leadership summit, each regional leader presents a short presentation on the “whats and whys” of his/her unit’s performance.  When Greg was discussing the excellent revenue, margin, and customer satisfaction results in the Americas, he explicitly credited project management as the foundation for all three.

“Public” and vocal executive references are some of the best intangible value proof points.  Not only was the recognition appreciated by the Americas PMO leadership, it also reinforced the global PMO message to the rest of the global leadership team: project management works.

Why DID we need the value of PM study?

Per a recent comment by Dr. Paul Gianmalvo (URL here, post and comment here), the results of the value of PM study do sound like they simply confirm the value of motherhood, apple pie, and clean living.  As Paul notes:

Yes, project management adds value. Of course it does!!! What alternatives are there?

I agree that the answer is obvious: competent project management is indispensable.  In fact, I believe that outstanding project management is a competitive advantage.  But that fact hasn’t always been obvious to the folks who approve project management: senior executives.  When pitching PMO and other project performance improvement initiatives, too many project management professionals launch into assertions of the value of PM.  I know… I’ve done it and see it again and again.

To me, the stunning results from the study are not that PM has value, but how poorly we still calculate and communicate the returns on our organizations’ investments.  Only 50 percent of PM organizations bother to calculate ROI?  Those must be some confident, complacent, or perhaps foolish PMOs.

When it comes time to show benefits from a PM improvement program’s outcomes, silence is death.

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