Here is a lesson I learned when doing a project review. I guess I knew it all along but it was certainly brought home to me when I did the review.
A large public corporation had just finished a project. It had been difficult to say the least. It was well over budget and time. The deliverables were not in line with the original scope statement and there was already talk of a “Stage Two”. The project had been particularly political and I was brought in as an independent person to review the project and identify any lessons learned.
In preliminary discussions it was hinted strongly that the problem was the project manager. He had not taken control of the project, and many things had not been done properly. He set adventurous deadlines and did not manage the business staff well. I kept an open mind but there was certainly a perception that the project manager was to blame.
I reviewed the project documentation before starting interviews and it did appear weak. The risk assessment was only done once, and appeared superficial. There was little follow up on mitigation strategies. There was no documented process for managing variations. The schedule updates seemed to be sporadic. There was no Project Plan. Some of the content you would expect to find in a project plan was scattered through a number of other documents and some just missing. It was evident from the documentation project management was weak.
I interviewed the project manager and he was very defensive. He pointed the finger at many people who had contributed to the problems. He claimed lack of support, and lack of authority. Decisions were taken without his knowledge and he was later informed. One example was a major variation that was agreed without him being aware of the proposal. He was told to just go do it. Clearly he was not in control.
As we proceeded, I asked about his previous experience. I was astonished to find that he had never undertaken a project this big. In fact his biggest project would barely be a tenth the size of this project. I asked him how it was that he came to run the project. His answer was that it had been presented to him as a chance to prove his worth. An opportunity to show people what he could do. The break he had been looking for to advance his career. He had no formal training. He had carried out a few small projects but never been trained in project management.
Once I knew this, I could understand his perspective. He found:
- People were not cooperating as he expected them to
- Verbal assurances were never honoured
- Decisions of a critical nature were not being made with his input
- The staff he was given were not up to the job requirements
- The original estimates he was given were not realistic
The worse it got, the more he found people finding a way around him to run their own agenda. He was not only out of his depth. He was set up to fail.
So where did the blame lie? Most people, including myself, have taken on a task and found it was much more complex than we imagined. In some cases we have taken it on because we pushed to be there, and in other cases we were pushed into the situation. In the former case , we may be able to lay some blame at the feet of the person who gave in to our demands to allow us to carry out the task but mostly, we have ourselves to blame. In the latter case, the main person to blame is the person who pushed us into the situation then set us adrift. The project manager was definitely the latter case. He was pushed into the role, his reservations were smoothed over, and then he was set adrift.
My report identified this as the problem, and the person who was Sponsor was the person responsible. What I couldn’t say in the report, much less prove, was that the poor guy was appointed because the Sponsor wanted someone he could dominate and who would not stand up to him over project issues. I recommended the project manager be given proper training and continue working in that role but on smaller projects until he built up his experience.
A year later I had coffee with a person from the corporation and asked what had happened. Unfortunately there was no fairy tale ending. The project manager had resigned, or been forced to resign. It was not clear. The Sponsor had rubbished my report and said I would never work for them again. Stage two of the project had been outsourced and was now causing bitter disputes within the organisation.
I did work for them again. After about three years, the Sponsor had moved on, and I was approached to do some more work for the corporation. Evidently someone had said to the CEO that they needed someone who would “tell it as it is” and I had proved I would three years previously.
The lesson to come from all this is that you need the right resources. In this case it was the project manager but I have seen the same situation in every project role. Not putting in place the right person will come back to bite the project somewhere down the track. The other lesson is to make sure that you have the capability to do the job when it is offered to you. There is an old saying “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. I think it refers to Trojan horses, but in the world of the GFC, it is just as appropriate today.