I cannot count the number of times that I have been introduced to a person that their company referred to as "one of their best project managers." I always ask myself, "What are the criteria to be the best project manager?" When I interviewed these people and asked them to tell me about their successes, the discussion usually centered around just one project. And then, it is often just the end results and deliverables that they discussed. Of course, this may have been their favorite project from their history of many successes, or perhaps it was the only project that was truly regarded as a success. People have a tendency to accentuate the positive and avoid discussions on anything that can reflect upon them in a negative manner.
Sometimes, we seem to be afraid to understand or admit what is probably reality as see from the following two statements.
- You show me a project manager that always makes the right decision and I will show you a project manager that is not making enough decisions.
- Likewise, you show me a company where all of their projects are completed successfully, and I will show you a company that is a risk-avoider and will probably be a follower rather than a leader in their field.
Part of the problem is the way that the firm defines success or failure. Unfortunately, too many companies define success in terms of customer satisfaction and the quality of the deliverables. While there is some merit to this, my concern is with the use of the organizational process assets. Having poor organizational process assets or using them improperly can still lead to customer satisfaction and quality deliverables. Repeating the same mistakes over and over again to placate a customer doesn't mean that it will always work and that you are successful. The end doesn't necessarily justify the means, and on a repetitive basis this could lead to a stream of failures.
Another issue is human behavior. Any single project can be driven to success with a sledge hammer, brute force, the use of formal authority and overzealous and unnecessary executive interference. But what if the success of this project had a detrimental effect on other projects that sacrificed their resources to make this project a success? What happens if the people on this project refuse to work again for this project manager? Once again, we have the failure of success. Care must be taken in how we define success. Perhaps project management success should be defined as a stream of successfully managed projects where the organizational process assets were used correctly. There is a difference between overall project management success and success on an individual project.
The greater the number of individual successes, the greater the tendency that a company can become complacent and miss opportunities for improvements. As an example, consider a project manager that has had two or three projects in a row that were considered to be successful. For the moment, let's forget about whether the successes were blind luck or exceptional project management performance.
As the project manager begins to close out his/her current project, the team is debriefed to capture lessons learned and best practices. My experience has shown that the greater the number of prior successes, or the stronger the project manager's reputation, the greater the tendency that lessons learned and best practices will be examined only from the things that went well on the project. Best practices can be learned from what went wrong or even failures, as well as what went right. Yet the more successes we have lead us to believe the mistakes we made may have been a fluke, and there was nothing to be learned from them. When the truth finally appears, the results can be devastating.
Sometimes, we can learn more from failures than successes, but the greater the number of successes, the greater the chance that critical mistakes will be hidden. Too much success can lead to failure if we become complacent and refuse to examine both good and bad performance as part of continuous improvement efforts. My experience has been that companies that have colossal failures or enter bankruptcy seem to improve their project management performance at a faster rate than those that believe that they are already successful. When survival of the firm is at stake, improvements occur rapidly.
Success can be a form of blindness that permeates all levels of management and nobody realizes that they may be infected with a blinding disease until they see the competition making inroads into their market share. Executives are blinded by the number of successes and the size of their holiday bonuses. This could lead management to misbelieve that the current portfolio of project is sufficient to prepare the firm for the future or that they have a superior project management methodology that will endure for the next several years. They could also falsely believe that the competition cannot catch them. Project managers see their successes as opportunities for career advancement and workers see this as job security.
There are tell-tale early warning signs indicating the failure of success:
- Continuous improvements in project management have slowed down significantly
- People refuse to discuss mistakes made and what can be learned from them
- Mistakes are often hidden from all levels of management
- Bad news, if it does exist and is reported, is filtered as it proceeds up the chain of command
- There is a high degree of complacency in the way projects are managed
- Project management methodologies are becoming more rigid than flexible
- The project manager is provided with very little freedom in how to apply the methodology to a particular client's needs
- Everyone uses exactly the same metrics for managing projects
- Budgets for training and education in project management are diminishing
Perhaps the real issue is, "Who is looking out for the future of project management in the firm?" My belief is that an organization must have a central group responsible for the management of project management intellectual property. This group is often the project management office, project management community of practice or the project management center of excellence. If this group is doing their job effectively, then they should have metrics in place to show that their actions improve the overall effectiveness of the firm. There should be expertise in the group on how to differentiate project success from project failure. The group should also possess facilitation capability in how to effectively debrief project teams and capture those critical best practices needed for continuous improvements. The group can and must correct the blindness before it becomes critical.
© 2011 allPM.com