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Getting Managers To Recognize The Limits Of Timeline Project Management - Part 1

The Gantt chart, invented by Henry S. Gantt, has been around since the time of World War I. PERT (developed by the US Navy) and its private sector cousin the CPM chart have been around for over five decades. So given this long history of focused scientific-management knowledge, where do we stand in terms of the chances for achieving project success?

A number of studies have been conducted over the years to answer that question. Well known among these are: The CHAOS Report by the Standish Group, The OASIG Survey, The KPMG Canada Survey, The Conference Board Survey and The Robbins Gioia Survey. If we net out the findings of these studies, we arrive at the following picture:

  • IT projects are still more likely to fail than to succeed.
  • Only about one out of five IT projects is likely to bring full satisfaction to the end users
  • The larger the project the more likely that it will fail (meaning that it will be late, run over budget and/or end up not delivering what was originally expected).

If we add to these statistics the off-line comments made by many project managers, it’s clear that at best, project managers tend to have less than a 50 ⁄ 50 chance of real success despite all the tried and tested scientific management tools.

When we consider that the IT spending represents more that 50% of capital expenditures for a company and that as far back as 1995, conservative estimates placed IT project investments at around $250 billion, these failure rates represent a huge amount of cost.

Factors that contribute to project management failures

There are of course many factors that impact the success of a project. Experts agree that the following nine are most common:

  • Scope creep where the users or business continue to expand their demands and expectations of the project after planning, budgets, deadlines and resources have been agreed upon
  • Feature creep where people working on the project continued to add “bells and whistles” beyond the original specifications
    • Shortcuts taken to accommodate
    • Changes in scheduling
    • Changes in budget
    • New restrictions
    • Unexpected skill constraints
  • Inadequate risk management
  • Insufficient understanding of business issues
  • Lack of project participant accountability

A quick review of this list reveals at least one factor they all have in common: None of these things can be effectively avoided or managed by the traditional focus on the aforementioned project management timeline monitoring tools. They are not “machine process performance challenges,” but rather challenges that arise from the dynamics of the people and the organizations within which these projects exist. These dynamics have been speeding-up and becoming more complex in the past few decades. For example, have you seen what can happen to projects in “matrix-managed” organizations that are still struggling with setting up effective matrix controls?

Modern structural complexity like matrix management contribute to the challenge

I witnessed an incident a few years ago that illustrated to me how we corner ourselves in poorly managed matrix operations. A company I worked for was in the process of launching a number of key initiatives. As a VP whose clients would be impacted by each of these projects directly or indirectly, I was asked to sit in on the project planning sessions. Each project manager presented us with a well laid out timeline and milestones. Each project appeared to be headed straight for success, barring some unforeseen circumstance. Each project promised to bring a huge payback in terms of revenue and productivity enhancements. Yet, as I left the meeting, I had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong and that it was staring me in the face.

Since I couldn’t shake the feeling of lurking failure, I immediately read through each of the project timelines as soon as I got them via email. I was partway through the third of the five project plans, when the “gremlin” jumped out at me. I check my hunch by doing a quick calculation and there it was: There were three resources (another name we use today for people) named in each project, who could only complete all of their steps for each project if they could somehow come up with about 800 hours of work time per month (For those of you who don’t have a calculator handy, a 31 day month has 744 out of which most of try to sleep at least one-third). Furthermore, each of these people had a fulltime job. They had a line manager, but much of their work came from various other managers and of course they were in the pool for project work as well. According to Kristin J. Arnold President of Quality Process Consultants Inc ( a Fairfax Virginia based management consultant firm that specializes in helping workplace teams, the most frustrating part about running projects today that she hears from project managers is the lack of control they have over the people responsible for doing the actual work that can make or break their projects.

I believe that we do not need to make a strong case for the fact that a significant cause of project failure today is assisted by the practice of mismanaged matrix management. According to Ronald A. Gunn, managing director of Strategic Futures ® ( and a specialist in strategic management and human resource development issues, the matrix management we see today is said to have been born in the aircraft manufacturing industry, probably Boeing, about 50 years ago. “It’s really in the past twenty years that this form of management has become more pervasive,” states Gunn. Gunn also points out that technology has fortified the life-blood of matrix management, namely communications, and has taken it to a level in the past few years that was unforeseeable just a short-time ago. Couple this fast pace communication with the need for business to quickly act on new projects in order to seize opportunities and/or avoid competitive threats and a lack of effective matrix management maturity in place and you end up with a frenzied environment where, as Gunn puts it, you have frequent “drive-by reorganizations.”

One form of a “drive-by reorganization, according to Gunn, occurs when new work and⁄ or priorities are introduced to an area that impacts previous commitments the resources in that area have to a particular project. Now imagine many of these “drive-bys” happening in different areas of the organization where there are different resources working on a project and you begin to get the picture of chaos. Project managers, of course, find themselves often at the mercy of these “drive-by reorganizations&rdquo that leave them stuck in the critical path, while waiting for a re-prioritized resource to finish another task before working on their project. Needless to say “drive-by reorganizations&rdquo introduce delays, throw projects into turmoil, spread confusion and paralysis, and in today’s world they are not infrequent.

It is clear that to be successful, project managers today need to be able to manage projects beyond the traditional focus on monitoring timelines and critical paths. The good news is that experts in project management and psychology have mapped out solutions that address many of these challenges within our chaotic multiplexed resource constrained world. In PART II of this article, we will see how you can advise project managers so as to enable them to fortify their opportunities for success by adding a few simple people-focused steps.