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20 July 2010

An apology to project managers

By Andrew Clifford

It is easy to lose sight of the basic benefits of project management.

In these newsletters, I have often criticised IT projects and project management. Here are a few examples:

My main criticisms of IT project management is that it focuses too much on the notional achievement of project objectives, or the blatant pursuit of personal and political objectives, rather than the substantive delivery of value from the work. Most IT projects are largely political, very few understand how value is delivered from IT, and hardly any manage the achievement of that value. Some IT project managers are blatantly self-promoting – like the one who admitted to me that he did not want a cheap and easy way to test the system because he did not want to risk his career by running a small project.

However, I think I have made a bit of a mistake and forgotten the basic value that project management brings. For that I owe an apology to project managers everywhere.

What has made me see sense is that we have recently taken on a new manager. Part of her role is to manage our development projects, which, being primarily a software company, is where we spend a good deal of our time and energy. Up until recently we have muddled through managing the projects ourselves, and the improvements of the last few weeks have been a very useful reminder of the basic benefits of project management. This is what we have found.

First, project management frees up the time of technical staff. I used to spend a large part of my time wondering what to do next, and losing time by swapping between tasks. Now I don't. I have someone to worry about that for me.

Second, although we are focussing more on the technical work, we are more confident that neither the big picture nor the little tasks are being forgotten. Both of these tend to get squeezed when you really focus on detailed work, but good project management can look after these without diluting focus.

Thirdly, project management keeps us on track (well, almost). We have an idea of what we need to deliver, when, and gentle but firm reminders to do so.

Lastly, project management helps us to manage the externals. As owners and representatives of the business, we have to keep in contact with partner organisations. However, when it comes to delivery, it is useful to delegate some of that contact to a project manager who can deal with it efficiently.

This may be an oversimplification of project management, but I think it is useful to remind ourselves that the basic benefit of project management is to bring organisation, focus and communication to the work. And to project managers everywhere, I apologise for missing that.

Next: The conflicts of IT

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