For an upcoming episode of the Project Management Podcast, Cornelius Fichtner asked me to answer this question: “What is the number one challenge that project management is facing today and how do we best address it?” Here is my response:
The number one challenge that project management is facing today is relevance, and here’s why I say that. I have the real privilege of intersecting with hundreds of organizations around the world. If only you could see the body language of people walking into, say, our Essentials of Project Management workshop. Often they’re in the workshop because they were volun-told by their management to be there! I just don’t often hear people saying, “Awesome! We’re going to learn about project management today!”
Interestingly, when people leave at the end of the workshop, we regularly hear comments like, “I really enjoyed this! This was so much better than what I expected! I can use this stuff!”
As much as I’d like to think it was brilliant facilitation, I know better! The problem is that expectations were so low coming in! Why? Because most people see project management as relevant–for someone else! “It’s for those people over in IT, right?” Or, “PM? Yeah, that’s for those really big companies. It just wouldn’t make sense for us.” Or my favorite: “Oh, we’re agile so we don’t need a process!”
Project management is often viewed as too academic–good in principle but not relevant to me. It’s the classic Person in the Pew syndrome who listens to a sermon and says, “I know someone who needs to hear this!” instead of realizing the message was for me!
The challenge for project management is for people to understand it is completely relevant any time we want to go from idea to delivery. Ultimately that’s what project management is all about. It’s not process for the sake of process: it’s about delivery. The problem isn’t that project management is an immature field of study. Let’s face it: we’ve managed projects since at least the pyramids or The Tower of Babel! The problem is that we often don’t see project management for what it is: applying the knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to help us deliver. Us. All of us.
So, how do we lead the charge for relevance in our organizations, especially when the culture isn’t exactly tuned to this mindset? It’s tempting to think we have to change the culture first. I walked into a company some years back and saw their credo on the wall. One line in it said, “We will plan less and execute more!” I thought, “Hmmm…. this will be an interesting environment to teach project management!” And yet the class went great. When we truly understand how relevant project management is, we can find ways to adapt it into the culture.
But isn’t it better if we change the culture first? Chances are you’ve heard of author and Harvard professor John Kotter. He’s been a brilliant voice on leadership and change for decades. I interviewed John on The People and Projects Podcast earlier this year. John’s classic teaching on leading change puts culture change last, not first. This correlated with my interview with Dr. Ed Schein, the MIT guru who invented the term corporate culture. Talking to Ed was like talking with Yoda, and yet even Yoda agreed that if you try to change culture first, you’re efforts will be dead on arrival. I won’t elaborate here, but the good news is you don’t have to change your company culture before project management is relevant enough to make a difference.
So what do we do? First, make sure you have a firm understanding of how relevant and practical project management really is. If you still think it’s about Gantt charts and Microsoft Project and filling out forms and creating PMO kingdoms, you’re in trouble. When you realize that it’s not a matter of if change will occur on your project but just a matter of when, and when you can progressively elaborate your plan so the gap between the plan and reality is minimized, you’re well on your way to seeing project management as your friend, not a foe.
Second, instead of trying to change the culture, find where the culture is most dissatisfied. A clear principle of change is that if people aren’t dissatisfied, they’re not likely going to change. Pilot some adapted project management processes to address where there’s dissatisfaction. Where a little more planning and coordinated management of change shows value, highlight the benefits and then do it again. As people see how, for example, a little risk planning helps you become better problem finders instead of problem solvers, the culture can, over time, change.
Third, commit yourself to being a learner. Just being a regular listener to Cornelius’ excellent podcast shows you’re already on that path. But I want to stress this because, quite frankly, I regularly run into people who say they have 15 years of project management experience but they really have one year of experience repeated 15 times! They aren’t committed to
continually refining their skills, learning from past mistakes, and actively networking with people in the field. Commit yourself to being a master at this craft. And teach those around you as you learn, which is certainly a key responsibility for any of us who aspire to be effective leaders.
So here’s my bottom-line: Project management is relevant any time you or your organization needs to deliver. It’s when we see how relevant and practical project management is that we will see even greater contributions made. Get on board with that mindset, find strategic places to showcase the value, and commit yourself to keep getting better. It’s a bright future for you and project management as a trade as we do this together.