Here’s how to tell if you’re headed for project management success or failure.
Robert Burns famously wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and while he was addressing a mouse in his poem, his words sum up the day-to-day struggles of IT project managers. The key to successful project management is being able to not only to balance the “triple constraints” of time, resources and quality, but to identify red flags that could signal an impending project disaster.
“The most important thing to remember is that regardless of how well you plan, how much you build in contingencies for all the expected ways things could go sideways, something else, something you didn’t expect, will always happen. Something is always going to go wrong. If you can acknowledge and accept that, and then understand that sometimes these things aren’t in your control, you’re in a better position,” says Tushar Patel, senior vice president of marketing for project and portfolio management solutions company Innotas.
Red flag: focus on output rather than outcome
There are signs and signals, though, that can indicate when a project’s in trouble. One of the easiest to see is a focus on output rather than outcome, Patel says. Project managers must first determine what the desired outcome of a project is, and what value that project will bring to the business, and then make sure that all the steps along the way — the output — are contributing to that larger goal the organization wants to accomplish.
“PMs are supposed to look at output: project completion schedules, budgets, resources, but if you’re completely focused on those, you’ll miss the bigger picture of how your project fits into the larger business strategy. It’s like if you’re taking a road trip and, at the end you say, ‘Great! We only had one gas stop and one food stop, and we made fantastic time,’ except you ended up in Southern California when you were trying to get to Seattle,” he says.
Project managers bear the burden of proving to the larger business and the C-suite that they’re not just a cost center, but provide value to the organization, says Patel. An undue focus on IT project management as a major cost center is another red flag, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“You have to focus on showing your business leadership that the costs you’re incurring are directly in alignment with and furthering the business’ goals,” he says. Let’s for example, say you’re a project manager tasked with helping the company expand internationally and open an office in Brazil, then you have to first think of everything that entails: renting or purchasing office space; purchasing and deploying infrastructure, setting up internet connections, hiring talent and making connections with customers. Then, you need to draw direct correlations between what you’re spending and how that aligns with the business’ goals of succeeding in a new, international market.
“In this example, if your project goes over budget on infrastructure, you have to be able to argue that, say, shipping and deployment costs are higher in Brazil, or that you’re purchasing higher quality networking equipment so that you’re directly in line with the organization’s strategy,” he says. Proving that project management isn’t just a cost center but a critical, strategic value-add is incredibly important.