Where Should The Responsibility For Project Management Really Lie?

The concept of management by projects is a non-starter. The average company is not a project-driven company, and likely never will be. So why is this an idea that continues to be so prevalent? What problems — real or perceived — do it's proponents hope to address? And if the project-driven organization cannot exist, what business model will surface that will reasonably address these problems? This series takes an in depth look at these questions, and offers insightful and reasoned answers.

As we've previously explored, there are a number of operational barriers to project management trying to successfully exist in the majority of today's companies. This month, we explore what organizations might look like once projects and operations do learn to play nicely together in the same sand-box.

Project management today exists in a bizarrely schizophrenic continuum. At one extreme, there is no defined capability for project management whatsoever. Project managers reside within those business units who see sufficient value to pay their salaries, and they are expected to apply their skills and political wiles to repeatedly wrench success from the jaws of an indifferent and uncaring organization. At the opposite, multiple project management offices compete vociferously for the attention and loyalty of project managers and executives alike, each offering the ‘one true way' as if project management were some new-age mysticism.

What seems sadly lacking for most organizations today is balance. Contributing in large part to this problem is the absence of a reasonable and identifiable home within the company where project management can hang its hat and get comfortable. If there were a Maslow's hierarchy for management disciplines, it would surely say that before self-actualization is possible, shelter is essential.

In many respects, the quest for a logical spot in the framework of the organization has strong echoes of the struggles that information technology departments had for relevance and support a decade or two ago, and for many of the same reasons. When the value of IT began to assume a level of some importance in the organization, one of the greatest challenges became where to put it. The push and pull between a centralized infrastructure resource and a decentralized operational function generally resolved itself with the IT organization reporting to Corporate Finance. While this satisfied no one greatly, they at least shared the qualities of generally not being very much liked or understood.

Now that the value of project management is beginning to be understood, the same questions of where to put it are coming to the fore. Ironically, many organizations are choosing to shroud a mystery in a conundrum – creating project management as an extension of the same information technology organization that only 10 years ago was itself adrift in the uncharted white space of the organization chart. As with information technology before it, project management will not be relevant, valuable or viable until it clearly defines its role within the company, and carves out a space for itself in the reporting hierarchy. To submerge the project management function within the operational business units is to risk drowning it under the weight of ill-defined demands, or starving it of the financial oxygen it needs to breathe and the visibility it needs to grow. Placing it within the information technology function, however, risks severing project management from its roots within the operational units and grafting it onto a support organization that cannot be given full authority or accountability for business results.

As I have argued previously, organizational success is driven first and foremost by operational performance. While project management creates the enablers that allow operational performance to be improved or maintained, it crosses organizational boundaries and does not properly limit itself to information technology, engineering or the core operations units. It must span and embrace all of them in different measure at different times. The idea that project management should be separate and distinct from core operations is one that should be embraced, not concealed.

The proper role for project management, then, is as a separate unit that can be appropriately scaled up and down with the ebb and flow of the organization's needs. It must be held accountable for project outcomes, but funded based upon future needs rather than current operational performance. It must be able to align with the strategic plan, and have the flexibility to engage any and all operational units as necessary in realizing the company's strategic goals. And it must be answerable to senior management, but focused on the people whose success it is measured by: the operational units that do the real work of the organization every day.

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