Project management guru offers tips to control crises

The project that should be top of mind for most organizations is figuring out why so many of their other projects go awry.

This is the one piece of advice Michael Stanleigh wishes more companies would listen to.

Stanleigh is the president of Toronto-based Business Improvement Architects and a director at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. His consulting firm recently published a report called “From crisis to control: A new era in strategic project management,” which was based on data gleaned from senior level executives around the world.

Business Improvement Architects spoke to 50 executives in person and received 750 responses to an online survey. About a third of the respondents were Canadian. Stanleigh openly admits that most of the advice he dispenses is obvious and should be second nature to anyone with a good business acumen. The problem is, the big picture gets lost and the details take over.

Stanleigh spoke to recently about how companies can get the picture back in focus. How did you approach this study?

Michael Stanleigh: We were focusing on questions like, “What was the strategic mandate for setting up project management offices? What would be the bottom line results driven by the project management offices?” and so on.

What was surprising were the results of the research. It told us what we were looking for, but it told us much more. It was really quite profound. It was more around the culture within the organizations. It was not around setting up project management offices, but much more around how projects are being managed throughout the entire process. It was around the strategic alignment of projects. So many of the organizations admitted they had projects that really were not aligned to corporate strategy and clearly wouldn’t add any return on investment. Some of the key recommendations focused on the need to create the culture for the management of projects to examine all projects currently on the books and to prioritize only those that are aligned with corporate strategy.

ITB: Were you finding these things were not clear to people when they set up a project management office?

MS: We asked them questions like, “What were some of the first things that you did?” Rather than saying, “We tried to identify all the projects, prioritize them and align them with strategy,” they said, “We designed training, we designed tools and templates, we built Web sites.” Rather than focusing on what they should be doing, they became very task focused instead. Yet when I asked them what their mandates were, 82 per cent of them said, “More successful projects.” Sixty-six per cent said, “Organizational improvement.” Another 64 per cent said, “To help build a project management-oriented culture.” They were implemented for the right reasons, but they failed to deliver.

How broadly applicable are your project management recommendations?

We tried to make it as broad as possible as far as sector goes. It wasn’t specific to public sector, private sector or any kind of industry. We tried to focus it as being not IT. Obviously, there are many PMOs that are IT. One of the outcomes of the research is the PMO needs to get out of the IT department or any other department in which it’s based, like engineering. It needs to be a corporate-wide initiative, not a departmental initiative. It’s OK to start there, but they’re overall goal should be to make this organization-wide.

ITB: Some of your recommendations seem fairly obvious: plan ahead, organize a budget, get corporate buy-in, etc. They’re standard approaches to any project.

MS: Absolutely. I think that’s what’s always a surprise. All basic management requirements that they should get together, all basic things around how an organization should operate always seem to be missing. Management seems so odd, though, in that all of a sudden there’s this endeavor that organizations are undertaking, but they’re allocated to a department or group of individuals . . . but they’re not setting the culture forward. They’re sitting back and saying they’re not successful, and they look for blame, they look for crises and they look for excuses.

ITB: How rampant is this mismanagement?

MS: There are recent public examples. The Ontario government was sued successfully (by EDS) for $63 million. They were sued for a computer system that was supposed to be put in place. They were trying to create a single system for the justice department. I knew of that project in its initial stages. When I heard about the project and some of the problems I said, “You know, you are really not following a clear process on how you’re managing this.” It would mean understanding all the customer requirements and stakeholder requirements, making sure that there’s a quality plan in place, a communication plan and so on – the obvious things. In order for me to go in and consult and get this thing back on track would have cost them, I estimate, $50-75,000, which they thought was way too much at the time.

What we’re noticing is that corporations are losing billions in wasted project spending, but it’s being hidden from management and investors. It is obvious, I agree. But are they doing anything about it? No.

ITB: What does it take for people to start observing the basic tenets of project management?

MS: I think it’s unfortunate, but they seem to need to go through a disaster first. They need to reach a crisis and then they sit back and say, “Oh my God, what are we going to do differently, because we can’t afford for this to happen.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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