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Cargo Cult Project Management

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During World War II, the Allied forces occupied many of the Pacific islands.  Up until that point, the inhabitants of these islands had never seen manufactured goods.  With the military occupation, goods such as sunglasses, chocolate and coca-cola literally fell from the sky.  To islanders unfamiliar with manufacturing or powered flight this bounty was a delivery from the gods. 


After the war, the airplanes and their cargo went away.   Wanting the gods to return, the islanders took action.  They made airplanes out of wood, radio sets out of bamboo and coconuts.  They painted military symbols on their bodies.  They talked to their coconut radios.  They waved palm-frond flags and lit torches on dirt runways.  Oddly enough this did not work.  Even more oddly, they kept at it for years.   

Are we building coconut and bamboo PMOs and expecting a Project Management reformation? 

You may have experienced this phenomenon.  You are at a company and they have a PM methodology.  They are using forms and procedures.  There are even people with the Project Manager title. However, the benefits and results that come from project management are not there.  I suggest that organizations like this are suffering from “Cargo Cult Project Management.” 

Too many of us use project charters.  We create “Project Management” jobs.  We produce a methodology but nothing really happens.  We do not get all those great project management benefits.  Why is this? 

PMO Directors have told me that they cannot call their organization “the PMO.” Usually because a previous failed attempt left everyone bitter and disillusioned.  We can all sympathize.   Imagine how the palm leave waving natives felt when they realized it was turtle soup for dinner - still.  Just like these natives, executives and managers did a lot of work and saw no results.  It is no surprise that they are disillusioned.

How did this happen?  More importantly, what do we do about it?  In my opinion, there are two contributors to this unfortunate state of affairs.  First, we are placing too much emphasis on the trappings and appearance of project management.  Second, some well-meaning person thought that they could be eating chocolate and drinking coke if they just insisted everyone create project charters and go through phase-gate reviews.  I think the latter is our biggest problem, so let’s look at that first.  

I, and others, have written about building PMOs by starting with people followed by processes and then tools.  Sunglasses, bottled soda, ice cream and powered flight are the products of an industrial society.  Schedules, charters, status reports, and yes - even a phase gate review or two are the products of a mature project management culture.  Like the Pacific Islanders, many of us start with the tools, and get no result.  Coconuts will not call down airplanes full of candy.  A twelve-step methodology will not create on time, on budget, on scope project delivery.  There is no shortcut to a great PMO – sorry about that.      

We have an unhealthy fixation with the physical aspects of project management.  The forms, tools and reports are not project management.  They are the products of project management.  PMOs have gotten a bad name because too many started at the end.  This is an understandable temptation.  Management is demanding results - “do something”.  So we create a methodology, implement a tool and voila – Project Management!

While “something” happened that looks like project management. It may even feel like project management.  Unfortunately, it will no more produce great project results than waving palm fronds will bring canned peas from the sky.  That does not mean all is lost.  

There are those who have implemented tools and succeeded.  I think that if you look carefully, these successes fall into two categories.  In one, vendor and the organization collaborated for a complete solution.  The two partnered and built all the necessary components of success.  This is like having a personal coach, or crashing a schedule.  The growth is much quicker and there are fewer false starts. 

In the other instance, the final layers of project management were built on a rich, welcoming environment. A disciplined, controlled culture is fertile ground for project management.  In these organizations, the addition of tools and methodologies is a logical progression.  Unfortunately, these are too often the exceptions.  What do you do if you look around, find everyone standing on dirt runways with palm fronds and expecting you to deliver their next shipment of Nikes?

The first step is to assess what is going on.  Resisting the impulse to act is essential (at least for a while).  Remember, acting is probably why your predecessor is no longer in the company directory.  You probably represent the last chance project management will have at your company.  If you fail, then you and project management are out the door - no pressure there.  Oh, do not laugh at the people running around with coconut headsets saying “Roger, Wilco.” 

After you understand what is going on, cut, cut and cut some more.  Get rid of everything that is wasting time, or money in the name of “project management.” You can figure out what these are by observation.  This will make you popular if you do it right.  Get rid of those meetings where everyone signs off on a meaningless document.  You don’t have to kill everything, some you can just let die and others you can leave for later improvement.  It may be that everyone enters time in 40-hour blocks every week.  At least they are entering time, and that is something you can build on.   

After you have cleaned house a little, you are left with the people, processes and tools that are producing and valuable. Now, enhance and consolidate.  Improve what is working.  Bring everything into a consistent whole.  Call this your methodology if you want. However, please do not confine project management to a series of steps or forms. If you confine PM then so will everyone else.  Things get more complicated from here, but at least we have stopped waving palm fronds and prepared for an industrial revolution of our own.  I can taste the chocolate!


Read 7503 times Last modified on Sunday, 13 December 2009 19:41
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