Why Project Management Has Become A Backroom Activity

Many (well okay, many, many) years ago at the start of the ‘redundancy revolution’… (note this is how I refer to the practice of making people redundant, which is most often dressed up as making roles redundant, but from the get-go was used to remove people whose face, for one reason or another, no longer fitted).

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m an observer of action and quickly concluded that no-one on the pointy end of an organisation’s mission was ever made redundant. In my area of Government, that meant the people conducting the industrial negotiations and representing the Government in the Industrial Commission were all spared, while staff in the support or paper-based roles were not safe at all.

I pondered whether this was because the people with “get up and go” simply got up and went onto the front line, while the others held back. Was this a sort of natural selection in the workplace?

Then, in the private sector, I saw it again. The people on the front line – those with a direct connection to the outcome of the organisation who were mostly in sales at that stage – were safe (no matter how odious I thought them to be), while others in less “front line” jobs were soon made redundant.

I decided then, the only place for me was to be on the front line. A natural project manager (and loving it), I decided that projects were the activities that senior executives really cared about.

And it was true.

For many years, projects were the place to be visible, with a direct line of outcome to the organisation’s purpose, goals and results. Execs recruited people to their projects who had the style, ability and capacity to manage ambiguity, work through the organisation and deliver on the wanted outcome.

Then two things happened:

1. The administration of project management

The project profession started to become organised and sought to pursue a large membership with qualifications. An industry sprang up around the education and accreditation of project managers, and the administration of projects became much more important than their delivery.

Project managers were given a licence to focus on cost, time and scope, and to defend themselves with paper evidence that they’d done their jobs even if the project failed. The consequence, though perhaps unintended, was the commoditisation of project managers as, largely, administrators. People once attracted to it no longer found it quite so appealing and others who wouldn’t have cut it in the initial stages of project management suddenly became the core of the profession.

2. The unit of production theory

Along came the efficiency experts who espoused the human as a unit of production theory. It’s a compelling theory suggesting that people can be allocated to several outcomes at the same time; can report to different people at the same time; are fully productive for all of each and every day; and that what they work on at any given time is what the organisation would have them working on.

Against this advance in thinking, projects moved from being key activities sitting outside the normal activities of the organisation to being fully integrated within normal activity. We now have projects being managed by administrators in a world where the very skills held by the initial project managers are needed more than ever if projects are to deliver what the execs actually want.

But worse, and for good or bad, right or wrong, administration has always been seen as a back office function of lower value than the functions associated with delivering clear outcomes to the organisation.

So which role has filled the void? It’s a good question. It varies from the sponsor, to the rare human who has survived the impost of administrative credentials, to, well, no-one.
But with the increase in failure, the profession’s dedication to a growing pursuit of qualifications, valuing process over outcome and the loss of confidence by senior execs in the profession, project management has become a backroom function.

And I think that’s sad on many levels.

If you want to succeed, then break the mold and step up to the plate to own the outcome. Work in, and through, your organisation using its politics and always with a clear line-of-sight to the outcome and how it advances the purpose of the organisation.