At one time or another, most of us have been part of a project that took months longer than expected or was deemed an outright failure. Perhaps no one took ownership of the project or maybe it came down to underestimating the time and cost to complete the plan.
Project failure happens more often than you might realize — in part because there are no formal processes in place to manage it from start to finish.
According to the the Project Management Institute’s Pulse of the Profession 2018 report, ‘champions’ of project management — those who use projects to fuel their success and continue to mature their project talent, capabilities and culture — have a significantly higher project success rate (92 per cent) than underperformers (32 per cent).
They also waste less money due to poor project management — 21 times less — than underperformers, according to the report. But too much money is still being wasted, in part for failing to “bridge the gap between strategy design and delivery.” Many projects peter out or downright fail. Even if they do get off the ground, they may not achieve the desired results (or there isn’t any method in place to measure those results).
So can a professional project manager solve all these issues? While no single person can guarantee a project will get off the ground, as the research from PMI indicates, a project manager can significantly increase the likelihood of success.
An art and a science
Project managers are dedicated solely to the art and science of managing projects — which is why there are a host of certifications (such as PMP, or Project Manager Professional) to hone these skillsets. They’re responsible for planning and defining the scope of the project (including resource planning), estimating costs and timelines, developing a budget, setting a schedule, monitoring and reporting on progress, and providing documentation.
They also provide leadership: keeping team members on track, communicating with stakeholders, working with vendors and business partners. The end goal is to complete the project, preferably on time and on budget, and meet the project’s objectives.
What project managers do best, however, is manage risk. Despite one’s best intentions, projects can go off the rails, a key team member could quit the company or funding priorities might shift. To increase the success rate of a project, someone needs to manage that risk, both formally and informally, throughout the duration of the project.
Breaking bad habits
Without someone who understands the full scope of the project (and who has the buy-in of executive management), project tasks are often underestimated. And without focus, team members might not be sure what they’re supposed to be doing (or when, or why). Budget estimates and delivery timelines might also be overambitious — which often means team members end up working weekends and evenings to meet unrealistic deadlines.
“Surprisingly, many large and well-known companies have reactive planning processes. But reactivity — as opposed to proactivity — can often cause projects to go into survival mode. This is when teams fracture, tasks duplicate and planning becomes reactive, creating inefficiency and frustration in the team,” according to an article on The Digital Project Manager.
A good project manager will also apply lessons learned and “break bad habits” when delivering projects. “Project managers use retrospectives or post-project reviews to consider what went well, what didn’t go so well and what should be done differently for the next project,” the article continues.
“Work in the gray”
If you’re thinking about hiring a project manager, you have options. Thanks to the gig economy, you don’t have to hire a full-time staff member. Indeed, more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of organizations report using outsourced or contract project managers, according to the PMI’s 2018 report. But, “implications for organizations include the need to offer sufficient training and onboarding for these professionals.”
For ongoing needs, a full-time project manager who understands the ins and outs of your business and industry can be a true asset. Look for a project manager with relevant designations and certifications — and someone who demonstrates leadership capabilities.
What sets a project manager apart is his or her ability to “work in the gray,” according to an article for CIO.com. “This is a must-have skill since the majority of projects, regardless of type, industry, size or complexity, will have gray areas you will need to navigate at some point. Issues with external constraints and complexities, remote project limitations, conflict and ambiguity — these and other uncertainties will almost certainly be encountered.”
Who should take the reins?
The Project Designer offers a flow chart to help you decide if you need a project manager. Essentially, if your schedule is “already maxed out,” and you can’t take on another project without help, then you might want to consider hiring a project manager. If you have the time and inclination (say, you’re still in the development phase of your business), then you may want to take the reins, at least until the business scales.
Keep in mind, though, that bringing in a project manager halfway through a project — one that might be flailing — isn’t a fail-safe. “When executive stakeholders finally recognize the project needs professional help, it is often too late to rescue the project and maintain the original timing. Providing a project manager upfront mitigates the risk of cost and schedule overruns,” writes Andy Makar, an IT program manager, in a blog for Liquid Planner.
He points out, however, that working with a project manager doesn’t guarantee success. But, “you will be guaranteed communication of project issues, delays and solutions based on years of experience.”