Project Management Methodology: Repeat Successes Not Failures

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
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It’s important for project managers to understand the Project Management Methodology in their organizations. Here are the five stages organizations go through as their project methodology evolves and reaches project management maturity:

1. Ad-hoc projects
2. Increasing density
3. Resource overload
4. Initiation control
5. Consistent success  Project Methodology Main Page

Knowing how the project methodology stages evolve in an organization can help you be consistently successful with your projects. You can adjust your work efforts (or job hunting) to make the best of the situation.

Project Methodology Stage 1 – Ad hoc Projects

In this stage, there are only a few projects and project management is a relatively new way to get things done. Everyone on the project team reports to the same boss, who’s also the project sponsor. Projects aim at producing benefits within the unit or department. Successes are frequent because good weekly meetings that foster nurturing and commitment in the team are all that’s needed. Sure there are deadlines to meet and other work to do but the boss decides what’s most important for everyone on the team to work

The Weekly Team Meetings Go Like This

Project Manager: “We’ll go around the room so I can find out what everyone decided to do last week. I also want to get your ideas about things we should do on the ‘Paper-less Project’ this week.”

Team Member A: “I think we should add a training class about going paperless!”

Project Manager: “Great idea! Everyone will enjoy that and I think it will really help.”

Team Member B: “Can we also print up big colored posters that tell everyone to “Save a tree, do it on the PC?”

Project Manager: “Excellent! I’ll show the boss these ideas then we can go ahead. We’re a great team with good ideas. No wonder they want us to do another project after this one.”

The sheer enthusiasm people have for the rare opportunity to work on a project makes up for any project management sins. The scope of the project lets the PM work without many project management tools or techniques. People managing projects in this stage can’t understand why PM’s in other organizations have any problems at all. They don’t see any need to learn project management best practices. Organizations may stay in this first stage forever and enjoy high success rates as long as their projects don’t go beyond installing simHow project methodology evolvesple or “canned” solutions. But early successes and competitive pressures usually trigger more projects.  And some of the new projects span functional boundaries and aim for more significant business results. That’s when the organization’s methodology moves to the next stage.

Project Methodology Stage 2 – Increasing Density

As the organization moves into this stage, more managers and executives are initiating projects. The projects are reaching for more significant business results and they involve multiple decision-makers and stakeholders. Defining and controlling project scope becomes a challenge. Projects now include people from across functional or organizational lines. Many people are on several projects simultaneously. This creates conflict for people working on multiple projects. They must balance their project work and their “real” jobs.  Contention for resources also increases. The first line managers in particular are in demand on multiple projects. But they still have departments to manage.  Project managers face the challenge of leading larger teams whose members represent different organizations.  Cross-functional authority problems occur since the project managers don’t have skills in managing matrixed people. The ad-hoc project methodology is inadequate for projects with larger teams and scopes. Consequently, project failure rates rise.
The response to the increased project failure rate is micromanagement by executives and the PM’s. That style makes the projects much less rewarding for team members than in Stage 1.

The Weekly Team Meetings Go Like This

Project Manager: “Did the user sign off on the specifications yet?”

Team Member A: “Yeah, I’ve got 46 pages of them and I’ll be getting more specifications for the next two weeks. This has gotta stop – the requirements keep growing! I have no idea what this project is about and neither does the user.”

Project Manager: “What this project is about is finishing 90 days from now. We’ll figure out the rest as we go. I’ll give everyone new “to do” lists each week.”

Team Member B: “Bill and Marcy got pulled off to work on their boss’s #1 priority project . So I won’t be able to start my stuff until they come back. Can you revise the schedule to give us more time? I’m on six different projects.”

Project Manager: “Oh sure, that’s real likely. The VP ripped my head off last time I even mentioned being late. I’m sorry but you’ll just have to do the best you can. Remember this is a #1 priority project.”

Team Member B: “Yeah, everything’s a #1 priority.”

When the pain of project failures gets too bad, executives respond by training their project managers how to use better techniques. This has some limited benefit but the project managers face an executive group that still operates in the Stage 1 world. They start as many projects as they want whenever they wish. As failures continue, the response is to scale back the large cross-functional and strategic efforts. Decision makers try to dodge the inability to work across functional lines by appointing co-project managers from each functional unit to run projects. Their attempts to avoid authority, priority and resource allocation problems are unsuccessful and failure rates continue to rise. The newly learned project management techniques have little impact on success rates. Executives focus on due dates because they have no other objective control points in the project plans. The unaddressed issues of resource allocation and lack of prioritization cause team member workloads to rise beyond reasonable levels. Executives launch new projects of all sizes without any assessment of their business value or resource demands. The need for strategic, cross-functional results and the scale and density of projects continue to grow, leading us to Stage 3.

Project Methodology Stage 3 – Resource Overload

Here project failure rates climb. Often 70% fail to deliver the scope, on time and within budget. The Stage 3 organization launches so many projects that staffing requirements are three times the actual available resources. Blame avoidance is rampant. The organization begins to lose their best staff members who are tired of the failures, confusing assignments and 70-hour work weeks.

Organizations respond to the crisis by assembling “best practices” groups to try to bring some consistency to the project management process. The usual result is a paperwork nightmare of project and developmental controls with countless forms and reports. Compliance is low and cursory at best. They install subjective tracking and reporting systems, like the red, green and amber light systems. These are certain to fail since they provide very little information and encourage ridiculous optimism in reporting as people try to avoid blame.

The Weekly Team Meetings Go Like This

project methodologyProject Manager: “Is anyone in red light status?”

The project team members look at one another as they all deny being behind schedule. They remember the angry tirades from the project manager and executives the last time someone reported an overrun.

Project Manager: “I haven’t seen the documentation for task #167’s work.”

Team Member B: “Do you want me to write the code as well as the documentation? There’s no time in the schedule for me to do both.”

Project Manager: “Just put something down on paper. That’ll keep the standards committee off my back.”

Team Member B: “What a stupid waste of time! I’ve already got five other projects to work on and I’d like to get home before 10:00 p.m. at least once this week! ”

Project Manager: “Hey, I spend my nights doing variance reports and project narratives that some 9 to 5 pencil-pusher designed to show off his or her project management expertise. Just copy and paste from other projects. No one reads this stuff anyway.”

Organizations move out of Stage 3 only when the pain from recurring project failure becomes excruciating enough for senior management to give up their privilege of initiating unlimited projects.

Project Methodology Stage 4 – Initiation Control

This stage starts when executives realize that they must:

  • Control project initiation
  • Set priorities
  • Control people’s workloads and allocate their project hours based on project priority
  • Actively manage the project portfolio
  • Regularly rate each project in terms of its cost versus the business value produced.

Executives learn to manage within the resource limitations and accept the fact that everything can’t be a #1 priority. They implement a project methodology across the organization that minimizes paperwork and produces hard-edged data for quantified decision-making.

Micromanagement begins to fade as project managers hold team members accountable for clear and measured end results, not To Do activities. The PM’s think more about quantifying the end results they must produce. They also have the tools and techniques to anticipate problems and manage “out in front” of their teams. They don’t just focus on last week’s problems. Additionally, they can quantify the time, cost, risk and quality dimensions of their projects and present trade-off options to the decision-makers.

The Weekly Team Meetings Go Like This

Project Manager: “Well, our project has been dropped down one priority level to free resources for a new project. You’ve all gotten your new schedules and you’ll see that our project is now scheduled to finish 6 weeks later than the original baseline completion date. I’ll keep this meeting short. I just need to meet with Bill to work out a problem. The rest of you are in good shape so you can go.”

Bill: “You want to talk about the variance on task #224?”

Project Manager: “Yes, where did we go wrong on the estimate?

Bill “We got a little too optimistic on the time it would take to interface with that legacy system.”

Project Manager: “Okay, that happens. Can you give me 10 hours of overtime over the next two weeks? That will cut the overrun in half and I’ll add some other resources to the successor tasks to recover the rest of the slippage.”

Moving out of the crisis of Stage #3 is not easy. Organizations need high levels of compliance with a consistent protocol and controls. These give executives the data for assessing each project’s business value, setting priorities and managing resource allocations against those priorities.

Project Methodology Stage 5 – Consistent Success

The last tier of the project evolution comes when all levels of the organization use a consistent methodology and everyone knows their role. This includes a consistent and integrated method of processes and controls that are scaled so they’re appropriate for the size of each project. They measure and track quantified dimensions of each project and manage resources to maximize the business value each project produces. first meeting team

The Weekly Team Meetings Go Like This

Project Manager: “Marcy, thanks for stopping by. I want to discuss modifying your achievement and the work estimate on task #56. I need to develop some trade-off alternatives that will let us finish 30 days earlier. If we cut your response time achievement from “90% of inquiries handled in 60 seconds” to “60% of inquiries handled in 60 seconds,” how much can we lower the work estimate and duration?”

Marcy: “I’ll need to think about it but that would let me cut out 6 inquiry types so we might get a 30% reduction in the hours and duration.”

Project Manager: “Great. Can you give me a final commitment by the end of the day? One of my bosses wants to review the options tomorrow.”

Moving to Stage #5 is difficult. Organizations need to shed the restrictions of the rigid management hierarchy. They also need to initiate techniques that require project decisions and problem-solving to be based on hard data and measured business value for the organization. For IT departments and consulting firms, this methodology is the foundation for strategic partnerships with users and clients that are based on business value.

Learn more about our project management methodology.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on