Project Management as a Microcosm

Companies today, recognizing they face serious cultural, behavioral and management challenges, often look to project management as a quick-fix band-aid that can alleviate – or even eliminate – many of the problems in the organization. Unfortunately, this approach is exactly backwards. The way project management is conducted is a direct reflection the larger management behaviors of the company; a project is in fact a microcosm of the organization as a whole.

Like a sample under a microscope, the management challenges of the organization come into sharp focus in the project environment. The biases, preferences, decision-making styles and hierarchical challenges are all magnified in intensity. Warts and all, the problems of the organization become clear to those responsible for or affected by the project, while the myopia of the organization as a whole just intensifies.

What is interesting about this phenomenon is that the organizations that most often look to project management for a quick fix are those that are the most managerially dysfunctional. They behave like a junkie, believing that one more hit and they will be able to put the problems of the past behind them.

Take as an example the management team of an IT department that cannot make a decision for fear that their customers will not approve. Decisions are delayed until the last possible moment, in an effort to avoid making an incorrect one. Customers are constantly sounded out on their preferences and opinions, and regularly assured that their top issues are IT's top issues. Yet decisions are only made when forced, and even then are made on the basis of what will be perceived as most popular rather than what is right. The result is frustration on the part of the customers, combined in equal parts with irritation, annoyance and a sneaking suspicion that IT will tell them anything to appease them and make them go away.

Enter the project team that is brought in to resolve a particular customer problem, in the belief that project management will solve the organization's failure to otherwise make decisions. As the project team identifies and starts to try to resolve problems, the IT management team digs in and resists changes that it believes will be unpopular. The customer organization, finally getting some attention, weighs the project down with every wish list item ever documented. The other customers are up in arms because their priorities are being ignored in favour of someone else's. And the project team is bound up in management inertia as it tries to clearly establish requirements and manage scope in an environment where they simply cannot get a decision.

The reality is that projects become mired in the same management miasma as the organizations in which they are created. Without addressing the underlying problems of the organization, projects cannot hope to be successful. Failure of the organization to effectively prioritize will result in a lack of prioritization in its projects. Failure to ensure sufficient resources and skills at an organizational level result in resource allocation and availability issues at the project level. Failure to place an emphasis on plans and budgets in an organizational context results in rudderless projects without direction or boundary.

There is no question that project management has its own challenges, issues and barriers to success. Many of the largest barriers, however, begin as organizational problems. Many of the immediate challenges and hurdles encountered at a project level are not in fact project management problems – they are general management problems whose symptoms have simply festered and spread.

To change, then, first requires recognition of our organizational demons as the diseases they are and resolving to eradicate them. The management team must recognize and acknowledge the organizational challenges, and the degree to which they are responsible for creating them, and commit to actively taking steps to address them. Project management can in fact be an enabler in this change process, but only in an environment where the problems are acknowledged and the project manager has the authority to confront the source of the problems head-on and challenge the behaviors of both the organization and the management team. This takes a great deal of fortitude on the part of the project manager, and even more humility on the part of the management team.

At the end of the day, project management is not a band-aid solution to an organization's management problems. But it is an excellent means of placing them under the microscope and seeing them for what they are.

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1 Comment

  1. This is really an excellent article! well done. My suggestion to these struggling companies would be to integrate software that will help the project manager do their job. This is not a band-aid. I consider it to be a metaphorical neosporin. It will help heal the cuts that where inflicted by poor management. I have integrated Communiclique's Collaboration software into my company and it has really helped improved the management structure of my company.

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