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The Perils of Being a Good Project Manager
By Susan Peterson

What could possibly be wrong with being a good project manager? After all, we joined PMI so that we could learn more about effective project management. We take courses to continue to improve our project management skills. We may even observe other project managers in order to see firsthand what works and what does not work in successfully managing projects. In this month’s column we address some of the challenges when projects actually do come in on time, on budget and meet performance criteria.

“This Can’t Be True”

Sometimes people, even the project sponsor, do not want the project to succeed. I was involved in a situation in which the top executive of an organization had reluctantly agreed to initiate a major project that would impact the entire company. However, he never missed an opportunity to question positive reports about the project’s progress. Recognizing his strong inclination to undermine the project, I led off a steering committee meeting by saying that the project was meeting its goals and was on time and on budget. This executive grumbled, “If that’s true, it’s the only project in the company that is on track”. He then proceeded to pick at every statement that was made to see if there were any miniscule areas that had problems. While it was not a comfortable situation, I reminded myself that he really wanted the project to fail and that his doubts would continue throughout the project. Fortunately, the other key people in the organization knew that the project was critical to the growth of the company and did everything that they could to ensure the success of the project. I met separately with these individuals on a continuing basis to address the actions that needed to be taken to overcome the negative attitude of the sponsor.

“You Won’t Mind Losing a few People, Dollars, Etc.”

For some unexplained reason organizations may feel that a project that is proceeding successfully is “fair game” to be “raided”. By this statement I mean that a good project manager may find that his/her project is subject to losing people, budget, or other project resources. Sadly, some project managers operate perpetually in a crisis mode. They are always out of money, need more people or are faced with “insurmountable” obstacles. Rather than recognizing that these individuals are poor project managers that should be removed from the projects, some organizations continuously rally to the cause of these people. Project managers whose projects are progressing successfully may have requests to transfer key people from their teams to these struggling projects. They may have to defend keeping their assigned budget rather than “baling out” mismanaged projects. In these types of situations it is crucial to have strong justification for all planned resources in order to fend off panic raiding of successful projects.

“We Never Hear Anything About Your Project”

At one point in my career I managed several successful projects for an organization in which other projects were perpetually behind schedule, over budget and never met expectations. Shortly before I left this organization for a more positive environment, another project manager said to me, “We never heard anything about your projects”. She continued by explaining that my projects did not have angry people and that the projects concluded on time and within budget. Therefore, she said that no one ever “made a fuss” about the projects. I had to agree that while my projects had major visibility, they were never subject to scrutiny due to negative outcomes. I often felt that it was a source of embarrassment to the organization that projects could actually be effectively managed. For years the prevailing attitude had been that no project could possibly succeed. Once it had been demonstrated that projects could be well managed, this organization could not accept success.

In conclusion, good project managers cannot be complacent. While it would appear that successful project management should be a treasured target accomplishment, there are always those people who cannot fathom that projects can actually accomplish what they are intended to do. After all, various sources state that as many as 60% to more than 80% of all projects fail. Therefore, when a project succeeds, it must be a “fluke” or “something must be wrong”. Good project managers must be proactive in addressing threats to their success. May your new year be filled with the best of projects and outcomes!

© 2008 Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. An overview of her program and project specialties is available at PMI – San Diego Chapter. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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