Why effective project management should focus on people, not just processes

By David Bicknell

I recently read an interesting post in the Gallup Management Journal which argued that when it comes to project management, most organisations put their practices before their people.

In other words, they place more emphasis on ‘rational’ factors, such as the process itself, and rather less on emotional drivers that could actually deliver project excellence – actually, just a project success would do! – such as their employees’ engagement with the project and company.

The piece, by Benoit Hardy-Vallee, points out that, “Project management is integral to the business world. Milestones, kickoff meetings, deliverables, stakeholders, Gantt charts, and work plans constitute the everyday world of most managers, whether they are called “project managers” or not. Given the vast experience organisations have with project management, it’s reasonable to wonder why all projects aren’t completed on time, on scope, and under budget.”

It argues that cost and time overruns on IT projects have had a profound effect on national economies, and suggests that one estimate of the IT project failure rate is between 5% and 15%, which represents a loss of $50 billion to $150 billion per year in the United States. In Europe, although the figures look pretty dated, they are still staggering in size: IT project failures  cost the European Union €142 billion in 2004.

What’s more, the piece argues, this trend is here to stay. With an ever-growing need for accessible and integrated data, organisations require larger platforms to manage supply chains, customer relationships, and dozens of other crucial systems.

“Mega-software projects are now common in private and governmental organisations, and development is not slowing down, especially in emerging economies.”

The blog argues that large projects, especially those in the IT sectors, already have a poor record. And forcing team members to adapt to project management processes and procedures only makes it more likely that the project will fail.

It goes on to suggest that a different, more powerful behaviour-based project management might be a better way of  enabling project groups to gain higher levels of emotional commitment and performance from their team members, as well as increased levels of emotional involvement from stakeholders to help improve both engagement and performance.

“A typical project management approach focuses on processes, policies, and procedures. Every task and step is described in detail by a set of rules.  Many companies implement rigid processes that dictate behaviour and use statistical methods to control quality (such as total quality management, kaizen, lean management, and Six Sigma). Process guides and rulebooks support work practices, while quality control systems assess and improve these practices.

“The problem with a single-minded focus on processes and methodologies is that once people are given procedures to follow, compliance replaces results. Everybody is concerned about how to do the job, not about the outcome if the job is done well.

“Companies that take this approach do so for valid reasons: They can’t manage what they don’t measure. More importantly, they can’t let projects run without any direction, hoping for the best. However, by relying on managing only these rational factors, organisations fail to harness the power of human nature by engaging employees’ emotions.”

The article concludes: “It’s time to update project management not with more methodologies, but with more emotional content. Employees’ and stakeholders’ disengagement can make a project fail, but behaviour-based management can make projects succeed.”

Gallup Management Journal

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