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Does the project manager stand a chance?

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Posted by APM on 18th Mar 2013

On Wednesday 13th March Peter Langley, past chairman and current committee member of the Value Management SIG, made the long journey from Beverley in East Yorkshire to Reading to ask “Does the project manager stand a chance?”. The question was framed around Peter’s belief that poorly initiated projects, within which the outcomes have not been clearly expressed in terms of their values, leave a project manager with a legacy of difficulties that will plague him or her throughout the life of the project.

We won’t have been the first group that has been reminded by Peter that “Benefit” and “Value” are different things, though may be interrelated. In simple terms value is defined by the following relationship:

Value = Satisfaction of Needs 
          Use of Resources

Peter explained that Value should have a link to company strategy and be explicit within the Business Case. However, it is not usually made tangible until after the project has been delivered and can be forgotten as the project team struggles to control cost and time. A number of studies were cited to illustrate the argument which included a National Audit Office / Office of Government Commerce report from 2005 that identified the following common causes of project failure:

1. Lack of clear link to strategy
2. Lack of senior management ownership
3. Lack of stakeholder engagement
4. Lack of PM skills
5. Lack of breaking into manageable steps
6. Evaluation driven by initial price not value
7. Lack of contact with suppliers
8. Lack of wider team/supplier integration

I would agree with Peter that it is vital to address many of these elements during the initiation phase of the project if subsequent failures are to be avoided. It is telling, though that many of these fundamental failings can probably still be identified as the root cause of project failure today…almost a decade on from the original study!

Another report by Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman from 2003 might provide some ideas as to why we seem to find it difficult to fix well-known (if not fully understood) causes of failure. Lovallo and Kahneman postulated that there is an ‘issue of human cognition’: we are by nature optimistic as a species and could never have got to where we are today without being so. Furthermore, managers make decisions based upon a ‘delusional optimism’ that leads them to:

• Over-estimate benefits
• Under-estimate costs
• Spin scenarios of success
• Overlook potential risks

At this stage of the evening Peter introduced an interactive session with the audience forming into small groups to consider the following questions:

What are your experiences in the early phases of a project?
Do you have any ideas for a way forward?
Do you have any proposals for research subjects?

This interlude did enable a lot of discussion and no shortage of feedback, though we were somewhat time-constrained to get full value from it. Peter concluded with an illustration from his time with a Water Utility of a portfolio method where the value of each project was strictly assessed in order to facilitate objective decisions about the projects that should be supported and those that should be terminated. Tellingly, he did report that the methodology had strong support at Director level.

We were left with a couple of recent observations from Tim Banfield, a director at the National Audit Office, that

It has become very clear that the quality of project initiation is highly predictive of project success, and
Our heroes should be the people who start projects right

Maybe we need to stick to our inbuilt optimism to conclude that the project manager does stand a chance, but that his or her chances are greatly improved if the project is properly initiated. 

This event was the first opportunity for the Reading chapter to begin to look at ways to interact more effectively with the members within its catchment of the “RG” postcode. To this end, the attendees were asked to complete a short questionnaire before leaving and it is heartening to report that the vast majority did so.

We did have some competition for people’s time on the 13th, with a local APM event being held in Eastleigh and Project Challenge in London, but of 25 respondents we found that:

There was a roughly equal split between those attending an event for the first time, those who attend occasionally and those who attend regularly.
As expected, the majority were local to Reading, but a reasonable proportion (25%) would have made a journey of 60 minutes or more, either to or from the event, by the end of the night.

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