And the Project goes to…

Dave Barrett is trying to make his welcoming remarks at ProjectWorld 2002 in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. He blathers on about the growing importance of project management in the enterprise, sending many people back to sleep (it’s only 8:45 a.m.) when suddenly a man stands up in the audience,

heckling.

“”I’m sick of it,”” he says. “”I’m going to project meetings, project breakfasts, project lunches, project dinners, project drinks!””

Another man steps up on the other side of the room. “”Hold on there, big-headed executive,”” he said (and he’s right, the guy does have a big head. Think film critic Roger Ebert with a moustache). “”This show is trying to help people here strive for excellence, strive for perfection, in their work. Some of them even know what they’re doing!””

Okay, so it’s all a setup, with real-life project managers playing the parts. But everyone laughed, because they did a great job of bringing the frustrations of this field to life. A lot of their dialogue exaggerated the issues, like the length of status reports (“”When did Tolstoy become a project manager?”” Big-headed executive asked). But ProjectWorld wouldn’t exist if there weren’t some truth behind the fiction.

The show, according to Barrett, is thriving. When it started at the Toronto Marriott Hotel five years ago, 200 people showed up. This year, 2,600 people had registered before Wednesday.

I should probably mention that Computing Canada is the official media sponsor of this year’s show, but that doesn’t mean I was any fan of project management platitudes. More than almost any other sector of IT, it’s full of them. Earlier this week, for example, I attended a morning seminar featuring a Meta Group analyst called “”Enterprise Portfolio Management: Keys to Driving an Effective Project Portfolio.”” The speaker was lively enough, but I heard nothing new. He seemed too caught up in definitions and semantics. “”Many organizations I talk to don’t have a common agreement over what a project even is,”” he said, distinguishing it from a program (which is a group of thematically-linked projects). He stressed the importance of recognizing project management as a profession — as usual, many in the audience failed to identify the Project Management Professional designation. I flipped through a couple of slides in my printed copy of the presentation and saw things like, “”It’s all about balance,”” and “”Encourage taking . . . and managing . . . project risk.”” I left before the coffee break.

It’s not about the technology; it’s about the people. Fail to plan, plan to fail. How many more times do these messages have to be drilled into people’s heads, I wondered? Even the experts admit that none of this information is new. It just seems like so many gurus get rich off recycling them for the next generation of business leaders.

I entered ProjectWorld’s keynote session, therefore, with grim expectations. The speaker, Patrick Lencioni, has written a number of “”business novels,”” which is even more dubious. Five minutes in, however, I was hooked. A former executive with Oracle and Sybase, he went past the cliches and offered clear, real-life examples of where he had seen project leadership go awry. For example, he had worked with one charismatic chief executive (who sounded very much like Oracle’s Larry Ellison) who once tried to cut costs by banning any office moves, then had his own office completely rebuilt so that it could accommodate his oversized furniture. This is an example of project leaders who value status over results, he said.

The Meta Group analyst had tried to achieve the same effect, but he took the more difficult approach of concocting a fictional scenario using members of the audience. Technically, he was a good speaker, but it didn’t resonate as well as Lencioni’s war stories.

If there is value in these sorts of conferences, it is not necessarily dependent upon the development of new techniques or approaches. It requires better illustrative examples of where failure happens, and how those are turned into successes. These stories, not mere catchphrases, provide the best education for today’s project managers. Our industry is filled with legends, but maybe more fables are what we really need.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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