Why Isn’t Project Management Easy Anymore?

I remember when project management was easy! Not easy to deliver the project – that has always been hard work, and will continue to be so. It was easy because the project was all you had to focus on. The project manager had inputs, deliverables, time and a set of resources. Project management was about managing those elements to produce the desired result or finding a solution if those resources were insufficient.

In short, in the old days we had:

  • Control over the resources on our projects
  • Projects that were locked-down early in the planning in order to facilitate clear deliverables
  • Projects that had the standing within the organisation to command resource allocation
  • Project sponsors with the power and the will to clear the path for the project
  • A clear organisational desire for the project to proceed.

This model worked throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, and even into the early 2000s. Projects were envisaged, planned, resourced and operated outside business-as-usual activities. They were temporary organisations within the business and had clear, unambiguous interfaces with the rest of the organisation. Resources would be allocated to our projects and return back into the organisation when the project was completed.

As the projects neared completion a buzz would develop, delivery dates were anticipated, training began and the ‘new’ thing would be introduced to the organisation and become the new business-as-usual.

But times have changed.

During the last decade there has been a shift in the organisations we work for. I suspect this comes from the pressure on organisations to be leaner and to account more for every cent spent, meaning that there are no longer resources available to pull onto projects without impacting elsewhere. It also reflects the pace of technological change which requires the organisations to make more changes than ever before, and faster. This means that there are more projects running. They often have a wider scope than before, touching more of the organisation, and are not as clearly defined as they used to be. The result is that organisations try to concurrently use the same resources to deliver business as usual and projects. People very often are working on two or more things at the same time.

So now, the people who used to be available to work on projects are already deployed. They have day jobs. In addition, projects no longer stand-alone but are tasks that must be achieved alongside business-as-usual and using the same resources.

The project management world today:

  • Do not have control over the resources for the project
  • Need to negotiate for resources when they are required
  • Must be able to estimate project time based on partial involvement of resources
  • Understand that their resources are working on a number of different tasks at the same time
  • Must manage a project knowing that it has the same, or lower, standing than other business activities
  • Must work to a scope that is likely to change through the life of the project
  • Are still expected to deliver clear, unambiguous certainty about outcomes and delivery
  • Cannot rely on sponsors as they may not be empowered, may be ambivalent about their role and may have external reasons for wanting the project to under-perform – leading to them not fighting for the project manager.

This means that the project manager has evolved from someone who manages a simple equation of inputs, deliverables, resources and time, to an entrepreneurial politician who must negotiate with the organisation about each element of that equation.

This has been acknowledged by the PMBOK, which now includes a tenth area of knowledge called stakeholder management. I have also acknowledged it in my own practice by choosing to only work with project managers who have a very flexible approach to the tracking, recording and ordering role (scheduling, tracking, reporting, etc.). These PMs are also skilled at the campaign side of project management, influencing across all levels of the organisation to get people to willingly do what the project requires to move it towards success.

Unfortunately very few project managers are highly skilled at the campaign side of project management. This is due to a selection bias in the past, favouring project managers who were good at tracking, recording and ordering; and training that has not yet evolved to teach the campaign necessities of project management.