Jack Vinson recently discussed the issues of project management methodologies. Project Management, he says, is really about “getting things done”. Which is exactly the problem.
Project Management has become a way of “getting things done” as opposed to “Building a House” or “Creating an Operating System” or “Improving the Maintenance Process”. Four hundred years ago, my current cultural ancestors built some remarkable structures for the worship of their God and the symbolizing of their economic status called Cathedrals. These giants public works (the entire city paid for them, regardless of religiousity) got done with surprising few failures. Certainly fewer than the 50% rate the IT Cortex claims for IT projects. And they did it without any project management methodology as we know it.
Therein lies the rub: they didn’t care about “getting things done”. They wanted to “build a cathedral”. Often, it wasn’t even a particular type of cathedral, since they ended up having to solve construction problems as they went. They weren’t checking things off their charts or lists. They were building a cathedral.
When Project Management goes sour, it does so because it becomes more about completing the items on the list rather than accomplishing the end goal. Software engineers have made this such a regular lament that you have to believe it has entered into folklore as a song cycle. We create these lists with reason, because there are many things that need checking and rechecking to make sure that they didn’t “fall through the cracks in the plan”. A slew of NASA problems come easily to mind in this category, things that they had on the list to check yet missed anyway.
There is a part of the project management mentality that is all about checking off items. And that comes naturally, too. In construction, without the checklist you have no recourse against the recalcitrant subcontractor who shortcuts the work. The list is there to penalize the subcontractor for not accomplishing the goals. This often leads to working to spec when doing something different would be in the best interest of the end goal. You cannot get rid of the checklists, but you can’t say that it always serves the goals.
Maybe there’s no way out. But it strikes me that “getting things done” is often simply a small man’s way of controlling what he doesn’t understand. When used to accomplish the goals, Project Management can be a strong and useful tool. Used outside of proper fitting management (sponsor’s Time Span of Discretion should be greater than the timespan of the project, including rework), project management simply becomes another paper-filing exercise.
You knew I would end up talking about manager size, didn’t you?
Image Credit: New York-to-Paris automobile race: [Automobile stuck in snow]. Photo by Spooner and Wells, Inc. Library of Congress #2004670703.