PROJECT MANAGEMENT : People Process & Performance – How to get the recipe right?

Is it people or process? Leadership or learning? Attempts to analyse consistent success factors in the project management (PM) cycle – those that ensure it meets its “on time, in budget” mantra of completion perhaps reveal profession heading into the self-conscious development phase of teenager.
There’s that same sense of tenuous transition. One minute PM is being touted as the true template for all successful management – the next it’s lamenting its own failure to really penetrate the ‘adult’ corporate world as core competency worthy of proper organisational support.
Meanwhile there’s increasing awareness of its potential financial contribution (both positive or negative) to corporate wellbeing and recognition that project management ‘success’ has more dimensions than can be measured by simple ‘time’ and ‘money’ criteria.
Okay – project X was delivered on time and within budget but meantime the market has moved on, the company strategy that spawned it has done u-turn and, somewhere along the line, the quality promise has turned to cabbage.
There’s also growing recognition that the ‘people’ dimension of PM – good communication, cohesive team, inspirational leadership, strong negotiation skills etc – is often more important than the ‘pro-cess’ aspect or methodological ‘toolkit’. Producing comprehensive risk register is certainly useful skill but it’s often the human factors that make the difference between flight and failure.
There’s no question project management is an evolving discipline. That it has moved on from mainly method and compliance-based approach is good news, notes ProjectPlus managing director Iain Fraser.
“All that did really was create more enemies than supporters of project-based management – as well as introducing an extra level of bureaucracy within organisations that no one had patience for. So I think the profession has matured past that. What we’re seeing now is the need for deeper understanding not just of the ‘soft’ skills but of business skills – so the benefits of project-based management are better integrated into the business.”
It’s vital for project relevance to keep an eye on the business case, agrees TPG Academy director Amanda Schulze.
“Longer projects can take year or more and in that time the business environment can change and you don’t get the same benefits.”
That said, she’s worked on very few projects where the business case gets regularly reviewed and notes that changing direction mid-project can be tough call for those involved – especially if their bonuses are linked to completion. Hence the need for some form of project assurance role – to check project relevance, quality and deliveries in terms of anticipated outcomes.
Schulze, who’s recently arrived from the United Kingdom to run TPG, which specialises in project and programme management training, says there’s much stronger focus now on tracking and measuring project benefits – and creating greater consistency of PM performance by standardising methodologies (see box story “Setting PM standards).
Meanwhile, the rapidly changing business environment has tended to increase the expectations on project managers to adapt their skills in line with project needs. Dianne Bussey of FACT Solutions sees current PM trends as using what’s needed when it’s needed to provide more flexibility.
“As project teams have different skill sets, personalities and stakeholders, different project approach needs to be identified each time – project management is no longer tick-the box-discipline. When I see projects in need of support, it usually means going back to the drawing board and determining the original intention/objective and defining project approach that will support that unique project.”
Her views are backed by recent research that suggests the importance of matching leadership styles to project type. Carried out by two European academics and sponsored by the PMI (Project Management Institute) it notes that research efforts have generally gone into improving project planning techniques – to little avail.
“The majority of projects are still too costly or delivered too late if they are delivered at all. Why, then are project results not improving.”
Its approach is to look at whether project manager’s leadership style (measured in IQ, EQ and MQ – management – dimensions) influenced success and which styles are most appropriate for different types of projects. Turns out that the EQ bit – the emotional competence – best corresponds to better project results.
At more detailed level, the important competencies proved to be conscientiousness, sensitivity and communication. There are also differences depending on whether the project is engineering/construction or IT. For the latter, the most important PM competencies are self-awareness and the ability to communicate and develop resources.
So, to some extent, it’s picking horses for courses.
Australia-based Living Planit has pioneered “soft systems” PM approach because managing change in soft environments – such as the public sector requires different approach. Its pioneer and Living Planit managing director Lesley Bentley (also national VP of the Australian Institute of Project Management) says ‘hard’ or methodology-based methods can prove problematic.
“Our approach, underpinned by systems theory, incorporates project management as problem-solving methodology and provides framework for managing change.”
Even if you’re talking similar IT projects, you can’t just use exactly the same approach because the people involved are different, says Bussey. Good communication, both with the project team and other stakeholders is vital to keep ensuring everyone’s expectations are still being met during the course of the project, she says.
“It is really important that you continue to communicate. When I see these lists of five things that can go wrong with PM, I just want to say – communication, communication, communication etc – because that’s what it comes down to.”
In terms of people or process skills, it’s matter of both/and, rather than either/or, says Iain Fraser.
“We’ve seen push into softer skills but there’s also growing demand for legacy technical skills – good scheduling, integrating schedules with cost budgets etc – because those skills are in increasingly short supply. So I think going forward, there’ll be more of balance between those technical and leadership skills.”
One of the primary attributes for project management is still having plan and executing on it, notes Panu Raea, who facilitates NZIM training courses in project management. Ensuring your project has senior management buy-in makes it less likely to die an early death through lack of resources.
“Anyone leading project has to be able to communicate with all stakeholders – that also means having the skills to negotiate when things aren’t going as well as they might.”
While he sees general management as much broader area than PM, he believes the latter can teach you lot about leadership.
“It’s all about people and relationships. You need to have insight into the strengths and weaknesses of team members so you can use their skills to the best outcome for the project – and that really applies to managing anything.
“As part of the PM course, one of the things I work on with people is developing their team through the process – so they can step up into other roles.”
As those leading projects mature their own skills, so the industry in general continues its maturation process. Because Bussey’s company provides PM services and training across Asia Pacific, she notices that where PM is still “young” discipline, the methodology toolkit approach still rules.
“It does provide that sense that ‘we know what we’re doing’ – you can haul out the folder on how to set up scoping and structure charts, to compile the issues and risks registers. These are good PM tools but the profession has grown to point where they are just the tools and the key thing i

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