Rethinking Project Management

No project director, manager or team leader can say without qualification that he or she has not been challenged or blindsided by unexpected events in the process of developing an information technology application. When building applications, we must live in constant vigilance for new problems.

Nevertheless, the accepted approach to systems development is to always be positive. The very nature of positive “no problem” thinking, however, gets us into trouble. We do not tolerate bad news on a project, no matter at what level. When the reality of a glitch in our planned work appears, it is our nature to think this cannot be happening; there must be a misrepresentation of the facts.

Then the process of review, analysis, and reflection begins: Why did this occur? What will it cost in extra development time? Can it be easily fixed? Is this a problem the boss should know about? Can we keep it within the team, do an easy fix, and avoid presenting the bad news to our peers in the project control group?

Here is where the element of human frailty rears its ugly head. The inherent culture of projects is to emphasize successes and achieve milestones, thereby enhancing peer acceptance. At project review meetings, Charlie is always on target, no problems, has a great team and will implement on time within budget… until the truth comes out that the problem he and his team have hidden for two months will now cause a serious implementation setback. It was not an easy fix. It should not have been hidden.

Problems are easiest to solve when they are first identified. Over time they tend to grow, eventually presenting a massive roadblock as inertia, cover up, and eventually panic takes over. This suggests we should encourage a culture in which problems are identified and dealt with expeditiously.

An Alternative Approach

Now let us consider a different model of project management – one in which team members feel compelled to share the problems and challenges of systems development. In this model, the responsibility for project managing does not rest with the project office, project manager, director, etc. It is a team responsibility. If the project fails, the team fails.

In order to take this approach, a climate must be engendered that makes team members feel part of the overall management scheme. Every team member, whether it be a business analyst, programmer, project manager, or director, should be able to communicate and escalate a problem or potential problem as soon as it is discovered. They should be able to identify and load the problem/issue into a live, continuous issue-management system that should be a contemporaneous adjunct to the official project management/status control system.

Some project management applications allow for contemporaneous issue management. Whether you use the existing facility or implement a secondary issue management system is irrelevant. The main theme should be the use of the system at every level.

One of the key characteristics of the issue management system should be the ability to age issues. This is similar to the aging of accounts receivable, and in like fashion presents the possibility of a “bad debt” scenario for the application, with similar consequences. The issue should not be cleared unless someone a level up from the person assigned to resolve the issue has signed off as to resolution. The issue should remain alive and red flagged at every project status review session. It should be in neon lights, not hidden.

We need to foster team successes with a renewed project culture of full participation, empowerment, and openness. Let us take the fear factor out of project management, and treat problems as opportunities for team solutions, innovation, brainstorming and team building.

We must develop a spirit within the project team of “no surprises”, tell it as it is, and take action to focus the best talent available on the issue.

Nolan Yearwood is a former CIO and Deputy Commissioner of Metropolitan Toronto. He is a Principal of GLC Ltd, an Information Technology firm specializing in senior level project management assistance. He can be reached at: