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A Project Management Mystery Solved
By James Young

Executive Summary: Do not assume that your company’s management or the project stakeholders have a firm grasp on the methods and procedures of Project Management. It may be that they don’t know what they don’t know about the methods and procedures. Be prepared to develop Project Execution Plan (PEP) even if it is not thought to be relevant. It is relevant in all cases.

The mystery is one that’s confounded me for years. I only recently discovered what the like explanation maybe, and it’s not directly related to Project Management. My blog topics are usually based on a past situation where I violated one of the tenants of the Tao of Project Management, and the resulting chaos that resulted on specific projects. Four projects fell into this category in recent years and I saw these mangy dogs coming towards me, but I let them in the door anyway.

It’s easy to point at specific symptoms that caused each of the four projects to become mangy dogs, but it’s taken a while to understand that they all resulted from a common observable fact. To put it succinctly, upper management was incapable of envisioning or understanding the problem they were creating, or allowing to develop because they did not mandate and participate in or support the development of even a rudimentary Project Execution Plan. This conundrum has puzzled me for years, but I believe I finally understand the root cause, and you need to be watchful. There are many management people who don’t know what they don’t know about project management. Therefore they cannot envision how time spent on planning, scheduling, and tracking will result in maximizing profitability, or actually may even save a bad project from finishing with negative profitability and a disgruntled stakeholder. I’m not saying that the people I’m referring to are dumb. They are not, well mostly not. But they are not able to grasp and understand how and why project management works, rather in the same manner that many people do not understand calculus or quantum physics. These people do not look at project management as being valuable and therefore worthwhile work. This is the only logical explanation to this conundrum.

If my theory is correct, than how can I explain why so many otherwise intelligent people do not understand why PM is essential? The most plausible explanation includes the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Wikipedia definition is; “The Dunning–Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.” The corollary in this situation is manifested by projects being bid and executed with minimal, or no Project Execution Plan because that stuff is just a waste of time. The common wisdom is that it’s better to just get started as fast as possible and put as many resources as you have available on the work. The result of this strategy is that nobody on the team will know how the project is progressing, or even if it will make any profit until it’s finished.

This effect explains many sub-performing and failed projects I’ve observed directly, and that I’ve read about in books and postings. If Project Management concepts and processes are so obvious and requisite to my thinking, why have they eluded so many people I’ve worked with? More importantly, how can I recognize this effect in the preliminary stage of a project, and what can I do to combat the effect if the project is awarded to my team?

One of my previous postings titled “Be careful which projects you agree to manage” comes to mind. It wasn’t evident to me when I wrote that posting that the management people I referred to made decisions that negatively affected projects because they simple don’t know what they don’t know about Project Management. While that may be enlightening, it doesn’t help with executing a project. Therefore, if you cannot disown the mangy dog project then you need to document your situation, and the impact on the project. The “Progress, Plans, and Problems (PPP)” report is my recommendation for a format to capture pertinent data and notes. You will have to decide how far up the chain you will distribute your documentation. Do you share it with the stakeholders? That’s another decision you’ll need to use your discretion with.

Now, if you worked in an organization that maintained a functional Project Management Office (PMO) this entire scenario would be documented. However, if you work in an organization with a PMO, this whole effect wouldn’t evolve to begin with.

James Young is a Senior Program Manager and Organizational Management Consultant specialing in engineering, construction, and project managment. He has successfully executed projects with a total value in excess of $1B. You can check James profile on LinkedIn.

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