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1 September 2009

The culture of dishonesty

By Andrew Clifford

IT project management is submerged in a culture of dishonesty.

I am a rubbish project manager.

I can define work, run teams and meet deadlines well enough. But when I have worked formally as a project manager, I have been decidedly second-rate.

After years of pondering my failure, I have concluded that the reason I am a rubbish project manager is that I am just too honest.

There are four parts of project management I struggle with: hiding behind formalities, false certainty, deliberate omission and not finishing.

I am no good with the formalities of project management: plans, resourcing, sign-off, change control. No sooner have I started on a project plan than I see problems with it, and take the project in another direction. I am very open, and discuss this with my sponsor, but I tend to forget to follow up with all the right formalities. When things go wrong, I have not protected myself enough, and I get the blame.

If I am not certain about things, I let on. If I am asked how long things will take, and how much they will cost, I say what I know. "Somewhere between six weeks and one year, somewhere between ten thousand and a million." I never give the sponsor a warm glow that they are dealing with somebody who can see the future.

I blurt out the limitations of the work. "We are just doing the integration, nobody is looking at the reporting." Get me to run a project, and you will get a big list of all the things I am not doing.

Although I mess up lots of things, I am OK at meeting deadlines. If I am given a firm date, I assume it is there for a reason, and focus on delivering the core of the solution on time. But as often as not, I miss out half of what they wanted.

I am not being facetious when I say that I am a rubbish project manager. I come across as vague, lightweight, blameworthy. Project management requires special skills of communication and brinkmanship, gradually coaxing commitment from the sponsor. Project management is a dance: I keep tripping over my neurotic honesty.

If you are a project manager, should you follow my lead and be more honest? No, not if you value your career. In most environments, you have to manage the truth and cover your back.

But if you sponsor or commission projects, or manage project managers, be on the lookout for dishonesty. Do not ask for certainty, and certainly do not believe it when you see it. Look beyond the project formalities, and ask "So what?" What do all those plans, budgets and procedures really mean? Ask the awkward questions, like when can the old system be decommissioned, not just when will the new system be built. Do not impose firm deadlines unless you have to, but if you do make sure the project manager knows it is real, and check they are managing to it.

We reap what we sow. If we want to improve on our dismal project success rates in IT, maybe we should start by being a bit more honest.

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