Select Page


The 9 Warning Signs of Bad Project Management
By Preben Ormen

Some time ago, I started reading Henry Mintzberg’s book Managing (Berrett Kohler, San Francisco, CA, 2009). It was laid aside due to various distractions. In the meantime, I also picked up his predecessor opus called Managers not MBAs (Berrett Kohler, San Francisco, CA, 2004), which contains a lot of the foundational material developed further in Managing.

I am interested in Mintzberg’s work because he has examined the nature and essence of management – or managing, as he likes to call it. His opinions are controversial and not very complementary to either the general business press, most educational institutions that teach management in general and those that teach MBA programs in particular.

Mintzberg elaborates on the many faults of MBA programs and the graduates. At one point in the book he describes what he perceives as the general attitude of MBA graduates towards management. Or as he calls it “the impression left by MBA education”.

I believe the attitudes he describes are shared by many outside the MBA graduate circles and will appear familiar to many. Therefore, I wanted to capture the list and use it as a baseline indicator, as warning signals for bad management values, attitudes and practices.

So without further ado, here are the nine warning signs of bad management (and I quote Mintzberg verbatim):

  1. Managers are important people who sit above others, disconnected from the work of making products and selling services. The higher “up” these managers go, the more important they become. At the “top“ sits the chief executive who is the corporation (even if he or she only arrived yesterday).
  2. Managing is decision making based on systematic analysis. To mange, therefore, is significantly to deem. It is more science than art, with no mention of craft.

  3. The data for such decision making comes from brief convenient packages of words and numbers, called cases in school and reports in practice. To make decisions, the numbers are “massaged” and the words are debated, perhaps with some added consideration of “ethics.”

  4. Under these managers sit their organizations, neatly separated like MBA programs into the functions of finance, marketing, accounting, and so forth, each of which applies its own repertoire of techniques.

  5. To bring these functions together, managers pronounce “strategies,” which are very special and, however mysterious, can be understood by people who have been taught industry analysis and given opportunity to formulate many of them in case study classrooms.

  6. The best strategies are clear, simple, deliberate, and bold, like those of the heroic leaders of the most interesting cases.

  7. After these MBA managers have finished formulating their strategies, all other people – known as human resources – must scurry around implementing them. Implementation is important because it is about taking of action, which managers must control, but never do.

  8. The implementation is, however, no easy matter, because while the managers who have been to business school embrace change, many of those human resources who haven’t resist it. So these managers have to “bash bureaucracy,” by the use of techniques, and then to “empower” whoever is left to do the work they have been hired to do.

  9. To become such a manager, better still a “leader” who gets to sit on top of everyone else, you must first sit for two years in a business school. That enables you to manage anything.

I have seen first hand the havoc such attitudes can wreak because I have followed in their wake to help clean up the mess.

I have an MBA degree, but had collected some 13 years of work experience before I went back to school. The program chagrined me, because it was very different from what I had expected.

In my case, I had a very clear agenda for my studies and also had a thesis topic already picked out. I worked with my program counselor to create a study program that suited me. This meant taking a lot of courses technically outside the faculty of business administration.

This took the edge off the otherwise too inane to be endured run of the mill MBA classes. Since I had elected the thesis option, I also had fewer courses to take in the first place and more time for independent study.

I was greatly bothered by a lot of the oversimplified solutions used as grading criteria, sometimes by teaching assistants in their early 20s with no job experience worth mentioning.

Since I had no real frame of reference other than my own experience at one particular graduate school – the famous sample of one – I couldn’t really generalize too much.

Reading MIntzberg mad e me realize that my experience was not unique at all. I was just lucky enough to work around some of it to lessen the blow, so to speak.

That said, as we know, and we know this definitively, schools can teach a lot of knowledge and some skill, but typically provide no experience. Without solid experience to temper and inform judgment, bad decisions follow.

I shall return to this topic, but suffice it to say in closing that managing is about more than analysis, finding a solution and then organizing the effort to implement. This is what consultants do and they never call themselves managers except when they function as project managers. And then, more often than not, they carry with them the problematic attitudes listed above.

Thus, the nine warning signs of bad management is highly relevant for the specialized form of management we call project management.

In fact, if we consider that the credo of traditional project management is plan the work and work the plan, we can immediately appreciate that traditional project management is built right on top of the nine warning sign of bad management as if they were the gospel from the great big project management God in the sky.

Small wonder so many projects run into trouble.

Preben Ormen has over 35 years experience with a wide range of businesses, teams and cultures from around the world. He has experience in SAP, IT Governance, procurement, system selection and integration, and peformance and process improvements. You can read more from Preben on his blog, you can follow him on Twitter, and you can contact him via LinkedIn.

Recommended PM App

Recommended PM App