Separate the project manager from the technical manager

At least that’s what it looks like, if you use as a yardstick the number of individuals who have received formal project management training. In practice, however, there still is a gap between training and execution. This is not necessarily due to the inadequacy of project managers, but may be due to corporate culture and the difficulties encountered in trying to change it. Let’s look at two of the many interrelated factors that contribute to the success or failure of projects, namely accountability and estimating.

Consider a typical project, such as the implementation of a large converged network or the replacement of a multi-site contact centre. Suppose it requires three technical teams, each with technical accountability for a different part of the project. Usually, each of these teams would have a leader, or a technical manager. Often, one of those technical managers would be given the role of project manager, which is a bad start to any project. The problem is not that one technical manager has been selected over another. The problem is having no separation of accountability. A network designer, or a manager of network designers, should not simultaneously be a project manager. In other words, there are potential conflicts of interest if a person who is accountable for doing the work is also accountable for managing the work. The temptation to hide one’s own problems until it’s too late to recover is too great a risk. The only safeguard is a project manager who neither reports to nor is a technical manager, and the bigger the project, the bigger the separation required. For example, a large project should have a project manager who reports to someone other than the person to whom the technical managers report. This need for separation of accountability is not suitably recognized in all enterprise IT organizations.

Project estimating practices also need more attention in some organizations, in order to eliminate false expectations and achieve better results. Again, the solution is appropriate accountability. It is important that the persons accountable for doing the work are the ones who prepare the estimates for that work. Each of the technical managers should provide an estimate for his or her group’s contribution to the project. These estimates in effect become contracts with the project manager, whose role includes checking the estimates to ensure they are appropriate, reasonable and accommodate the results of a risk analysis. After negotiating with the technical managers, the project manager would produce a consolidated estimate, which then becomes a contract with the project sponsor or client. Best results will be achieved only with separation of accountability between the project managers and technical managers.

Some organizations ignore the need for separation of accountability and pay only lip service to estimating. Departmental labour is not tracked on a project basis and therefore cannot be managed even with the best project managers. While this may please those individuals who are quite happy doing their own thing, it severely limits the project management function. Communications and networking projects will become even more complex, and accordingly much more dependent on good project management. While it is still necessary to train individuals in the practice of project management, it will not be sufficient without improved accountability and more-formal estimating practices.

Ron Scott is principal of Scott & Associates. He can be reached at rs@scottassociates.ca

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