Lack of skills to blame for project failures

Employers need to better understand needs, train project managers.

Poor management, under-funding and under-resourcing are to blame for the failure of the majority of workplace projects, a new study indicates.

“We know projects are more important, we know billions are being lost and we know (lack of) executive support is the number one factor,” said Janice Thomas, author of the study conducted by Alberta’s Athabasca University. “When you look at project management you see the future of work.” While in many cases the problem may be a culture that undervalues project management, HR has a role to play in improving a company’s project management abilities, Thomas said.

“HR departments need to recognize that project management is a new profession.”

There is a fundamental undervaluing of the highly specialized skills project management requires, and consequently companies often end up putting unqualified people in charge of projects. This is one of the reasons three-quarters of all projects are finished late and over budget, according to Athabasca’s survey of more than 1,800 executives, practitioners and consultants.

Many company executives still view project management as an add-on to an employee’s regular job description and don’t provide the appropriate training or compensation. “There are a lot of accidental project managers,” said Thomas.

Almost 60 per cent of project management respondents said they spend more than 50 per cent of their time on project management duties and more than 50 per cent of project managers receive little or no formal training.

While practical experience is useful, she said, project management is a highly skilled job that in most cases requires formal training.

She compares project management to law or accounting. “You wouldn’t ask somebody to be a lawyer on the side but in many organizations that is what they do with project management.”

To ensure projects are more successful, human resources will need to get a better understanding of this career path, what the key competencies are, what kind of training aspiring project managers need, and how to ensure a good supply of project managers.

B.C. Hydro would seem to be an exception to the common practice of underestimating project management.

The “vast majority” of the organization’s projects come in on time and on budget, said Ray Toscani, manager of B.C. Hydro’s project management group. His group of highly skilled project managers is dedicated full time to overseeing projects around the organization. Anytime the budget for a project is expected to go over $200,000, a call goes out to the group.

Typically, his staff of four will be managing a dozen projects at any time. Right now they are in the very early stages of a project to implement e-HR.

In a lot of organizations, project management gets thrust onto the line managers, but line managers are used to dealing with operational issues, project management is different. “You really don’t need to know that much about the work itself,” explained Toscani. Rather project managers need exceptional communication, negotiation and facilitation skills. As well, the project managers are expert in setting the scope for the project. When the proposal for a new project is made, the project manager does the initial research, talks to people around the organization, reviews the resources and figures out exactly what the company is capable of: what they can get done and what they will need. The project manager will even help build the business case for the project sponsor to get the necessary funding. When needed they will also be able to push back and have frank discussions with an unrealistic project sponsor, often necessary for project success.

It is easy when projects are left to line managers for them to get out of control, said Toscani. “What you end up with is scope creep.” The project sponsor starts to ask for more and more and inevitably the project goes over budget and past deadline.

At B.C. Hydro, it is the job of the project management group to make sure that doesn’t happen. The initial negotiation is essential for setting out exactly what the project will entail. Rather than just adding new components to a project plan, sponsors must follow a formal process where the project manager will review the request and figure out exactly what it will mean for the project. It is one of the reasons so many of B.C. Hydro’s projects come in on time and on budget.

The challenge for the large number of companies that don’t follow such a thorough model will be selling the executive team on effective project management, said Thomas.

Many executives say project management is important, but that it is a concern to be taken up lower down at the operational level. Consequently, when a crisis hits, and there isn’t time to train people or develop other managers, the company ends up buying the support from external providers and hoping in-house staff will learn from them. But that isn’t the way to transfer expertise. It must be taught in formal training.

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