Some IT organizations invest a great deal in the processes and disciplines of Project Management.  As well they should – much of an IT Organization’s work is performed through projects.

Various approaches are deployed to bring consistency and effectiveness to Project Management disciplines – Centers of Excellence (CoE), Project (and Program and Portfolio) Management Offices (PMO), certifications (such as PMI), and so on.  But there’s a dirty little secret out there…

Many Projects Are Managed By “Amateurs”

By “amateurs,” I mean people who are operating outside the supposed disciplines, processes and standards of the PMO or CoE.  There are several reasons behind this:

  1. In some cases, it is simply a result of project work being deliberately flown ‘under the radar.’  I’ve consulted to IT shops where this is actually an effective way to get things done. It goes hand-in-hand with an “ask forgiveness, not permission” culture!
  2. Sometimes it is because the thing isn’t recognized as being a project until it is well underway – or maybe complete – or maybe never!  This is an issue that was recognized by the wonderful Jerry Weinberg in his early books on project management.
  3. In other cases, it is wanton disregard for the recommended (or even mandated) standards.  “These standards don’t apply to me.”  “They are too onerous for this particular project.”  “I don’t need them because I know what I’m doing.” And so on.
  4. In a few cases, it is sheer ignorance – not being aware that what you are doing IS project management, and would better be performed under the auspices of the rules and guidelines at play.
  5. One important driver of “Accidental Project Management” is inflexibility in the “official” Project Management methods.

Not All Projects Are Created Equal

To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, “Not all projects are created equal!”  Some deserve more rigor and discipline than others.  And some deserve different types of discipline.  For example, while many projects are most concerned with deliverables, budgets, resources and so on, planned against target dates, others deal with “softer” and more organic situations, where “emergence” is the key property and where planning by target date is unrealistic.

For example, a project that plans for, “30% of the IT organization will participate in the IT Strategy Wiki by July 31” is not a valid planning approach.  Social activities work best through a “pull” approach – let’s identify the things that can be done to encourage and facilitate the “pull” and plan those.  The 30% participation may be a reasonable goal and outcome, but it is not a planning parameter in the sense of traditional project management.  To plan assuming that date will be reached is sheer guesswork, and anything else in the plan that depends upon this milestone is at risk.  I guess you call call the planning approach for these more emergent based needs, “Do while…” rather than the more deterministic, “Do until…”

Increasing Project Discipline Without Communism

So, what, if anything, can be done to reign in the Accidental Project Manager?

  1. First, decide if it matters.  Identify the real problems that loose project disciplines cause.  One problem may be that it’s the beginning of a slippery slope.  It sends a message that we “have standards and disciplines you should follow, but… (nod and a wink!) it’s ok if you choose not to follow them!  Another problem is that you may have bad projects – projects that suffer through not being well (or consistently) managed, or projects that should not be undertaken.  I often see a cause of waste and dysfunction in my clients in projects that should not be going on, rather than projects that are badly run.  A big problem is the implications ‘out of control’ projects have on resource management.  You just don’t really know what people are working on, and what availability they may have.
  2. Second, if you decide it does matter, determine why it is happening?  Don’t make a big deal of this – you may drive the behaviors underground.  Rather, do an informal poll – water cooler chats – ask people to ask people – try to get a sense of why people act outside the “official” practices.

Chances are you will find root causes to be:

  • Ignorance (lack of awareness and training)
  • Inflexibility in the “official” practices (‘sledgehammers to crack nuts,’ for example)
  • Lack of bandwidth in the PMO (“they just don’t have time to help me!”)
  • Poor “official” practices (“too bureaucratic, more designed for the benefit of the PMO than for those trying to manage projects!”)
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