PROJECT MANAGEMENT SuperProjectMan – Are project managers the new superheroes?

Someone once described project management as the art of getting your underpants on before your trousers. Even if you don’t have to be Superman to get the basics right, project management can pack powerful punch.
Iain Fraser, managing director of specialist project management services consultancy Project Plus, catalogues the topline organisational benefits as less wasted time, money and materials; lower risk; and more empowered people. More specifically, it can deliver key outcomes such as the ability to get product to market earlier.
Long-time Auckland University lecturer and Scope Services managing director Rob Verkerk says it’s hard to pin down the exact benefits of taking project management approach to business – because organisations can’t quantify what would have happened if they hadn’t done it. But, he notes, “a review of 80 companies over 10-year period in the ‘Top 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum’ supports the contention that the implementation of professional project management can cut costs in an organisation up to 10 percent and improve the bottom line up to six percent.”
So it’s not surprising, then, that senior managers have cottoned on to the notion that project management should step out of its box and go mainstream. That’s now happening big time.
Verkerk, who over the past 12 to 13 years has taught project management to 4000 to 5000 people, says that when he first started teaching the subject to business in 1994, students were mainly looking to specialise in project management.
“Nowadays,” he says, “it is quite common for organisations to put their whole second or third tier management levels through project management course. This greatly increases bandwidth in terms of the number of people who can do the project management task. But it also widens the range of quality of project managers and exposes issues of poor performance that may have been lost to sight in the prior line management environment.”
One of the great attractions of project management is that it spotlights accountability for success.
“We seem to be heading to where senior management take advantage of introducing the competency of project management to wide range of managers within the business to sharpen up delivering wide range of non-routine initiatives,” notes Verkerk. “They then call in professional project managers to take on the big ugly change initiatives that require more than general competency.”
Or more simply put: If you’re after bit of DIY around the house you may do it yourself. But if you’re really looking for high quality professional dining room you’ll call in the professional painters.
Project management is now just core competency for any manager – or mechanism for getting stuff done, as Verkerk calls it.
If, as he goes on to say, project management is an exercise in operational efficiency, where exactly does its value lie? Verkerk reckons value stems from the business outcomes of projects, as estimated and documented in the business case for the project.
So when senior management sign off on business case, he says, it’s logical that they would expect to receive the proposed benefits of the business case, if they pay the proposed cost.
Logical maybe. But these managers may be heading for disappointment. Many projects fall short. Verkerk says the likelihood of receiving the proposed value is less than 50 percent. Over in the United States, Massachusetts-based project and value performance company The Standish Group has been tracking project success rates for some time now. Surveying some 8000 projects pop, it checks out project success rates against some pretty basic criteria. Was the project finished on time, to cost and to scope?
The results make sobering reading. Back in 1994 only 16 percent of projects surveyed got the big tick from Standish. Four years later, that had jumped to 26 percent. By 2003, 34 percent of projects surveyed were measuring up to promised performance – figure which slipped back to 29 percent year later.
Admittedly, this research focuses specifically on IT projects, says Verkerk, “but what organisation isn’t deeply involved in IT nowadays? So the value of project management is that it raises the likelihood of receiving the expected benefits of investment decisions – maintenance and progress.”
A couple of years back, global management consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers had been puzzling over the same sorts of issues. What, it wanted to know, is the link between an organisation’s handling of programme and project management and its end performance as business? Were companies that took the available methodologies more seriously – through “optimised processes” including regular analysis and continuous improvement, for example – more likely to reap benefits than organisations favouring “unreliable processes” such as sporadic use of techniques, no training and little organisational support?
Plotting these approaches on “maturity” scale, PricewaterhouseCoopers went worldwide in its search for answers.
It was, the company claims, the first time such questions had been asked of global business audience.
The responses did indeed prove correlation between how seriously organisations took their programme and project management (their maturity levels) and the end project performance.
They also discovered quite considerable room for improvement and desire to do so. Most organisations were not satisfied with their current maturity level. Project failures were often consequence of “aspects that are organisational” – ie, over which individual project managers had little influence. And staffing projects with majority of internal resources, as against external ones, was better guarantee of success.
“An organisation that excels at project management becomes an agile organisation that knows how to deal with and drive change,” the survey summary concludes. “Leading organisations use project management to consistently position themselves ahead of the wave of change.”
Such comments clearly hit the spot with Project Plus’ Fraser who in his work with the organisation’s diverse client base – everything from both central and local government agencies, to large corporates and smaller entities – sees signs of maturing grasp of the benefits of project management.
New Zealand may have one of the world’s highest percentages of commercial entities that are quite small by international standards, he says, but we are very active in using project-based techniques.
Local project managers are maturing in their outlook, he says. Couple that with an increased willingness from leaders and boards of directors to tap into the smarts surrounding project management, and the benefits are feeding back in more efficient and timely manner than they had in the past.
A visible sign of progress is that in the past 10 years project managers have continued to move up the organisational chain to the point where far more of them are now senior leaders, says Fraser.
By themselves, though, Verkerk cautions that project management skills will not enable manager to forge path to the top. Project management, he says, is competency that any manager needs to have to be able to effectively deliver results. “It is one more arrow in the quiver of any manager looking to present themselves as fit for advancement… Past certain level in management, operational efficiency is just hygiene factor.”
Professional project managers tend to have fairly flat career path, he observes. They go from project to project once they’ve run up an initial learning curve. “It lends itself to people who like that sort of life. The more advancement-minded tend to look for particular project success to use as stepping stone into the senior ranks. But to be successful they’re going to have to augment that operational efficiency with strategic, marketing or similar business skills if they wish to get very far.”
Looking specifically at organisational project management, local on

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