Many projects are not completed on time and budget or do not deliver the intended business benefits and value even when they finish on time and budget. The data about this is available in several publications, including PMI’s Pulse of the Profession Reports, as well as research conducted by other organizations. There is also a lot of literature by capable project management professionals, as well as training courses and certifications that provide clear instructions and techniques on how to manage projects successfully. However, the reality is that it is still difficult to get projects across the finish line successfully, even when following directions by the book and checking the boxes. And even experienced Project Managers struggle with accomplishing this goal. Why?
Here are some thoughts based on my own experience, and I welcome other views that can help provide a more comprehensive answer to this question.
Every project is truly unique. This was one of the first concepts I studied while working on my PMP certification, but I learned it the hard way by managing projects. What worked last time will not necessarily work this time. The problems and solutions you are dealing with are new and are not the same as the ones on your last project. The issues you will run into are not going to be the same as the ones you saw before. And you may be using new tools or technologies and different methodologies. The end-users, customers, and team members are likely not the same ones you worked with on previous projects. Their personas, culture, experiences, perspectives, and expectations are probably different from what you’ve seen before as well.
Projects are about the future. Projects are about delivering a result in the future, typically in months or years, and therefore involve many uncertainties and changing dynamics. Project Managers live in the future. They are always thinking ahead, weeks and months down the road, and worrying about what needs to happen or could go wrong between now and the end of the project. Estimation is a key element of project planning, and Project Managers can use the best techniques, but it’s still an estimate and a forecast of future events. Also, things go wrong and change. People leave or encounter unforeseen circumstances, scope changes, priorities get redefined, envisioned solutions may not work as expected, the goal post moves, etc.
Dealing with time. My favorite quotes about time are: “Time is an illusion” (Albert Einstein), “How did it get late so soon?” (Dr. Seuss), and “Time is like a sword; if you don’t cut it, it cuts you.”(Arabic Proverb), which basically means that if you don’t control time, it will come back and hurt you. Project Managers are always trying to rein in and control this mysterious and elusive thing called time. And in most cases, it is happening under tough circumstances, with limited resources and aggressive deadlines. Unfortunately, stopping time or going back one day or even one second is just not possible. Once time passes, it’s gone, and you will have to find a way to make it up.
The pressure to deliver quickly and within a tight budget. Many projects are at risk the day they start a budget and timeline would have already been decided during a sales cycle, business case definition, or project prioritization exercise and are not necessarily based on a proper discovery phase and detailed bottom-up estimation. Once the decision has been made to move forward with the project, then everyone wants it done yesterday. And the Project Manager has a very short time to plan, assemble the team, and kick off the project the proper way. So, she or he is already behind and trying to catch up. Additionally, project teams are always challenged with aggressive timelines to meet high-priority business demands.
Dependency on others. Project management is a team sport, and the game is won when everyone covers their position and performs well. However, the Project Manager is accountable for the successful completion of the project, but she or he is dependent on other people, including the project team, technical and business teams, project sponsors, and executive management, to make that happen. Doing something yourself is much easier than making sure others understand what needs to be done, can, and will do the job. The Project Manager can’t just give orders and expect things to happen. He or she must be able to communicate, inspire, influence, and negotiate very effectively. This requires real experience, special skills, and strong leadership.
In conclusion, some thoughts on leadership and an analogy to project management. I was introduced to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story in a leadership seminar early in my career, and I learned about his attempt to cross Antarctica in 1914 on the Endurance (picture above). Shackleton was an experienced explorer and an exceptional leader, and this was not his first expedition. He had a well-thought plan and assembled a great team, but did not accomplish his goal of crossing Antarctica due to extreme weather conditions and appalling challenges. He did manage to bring back all of his team (27 men) alive, which is a huge accomplishment by all measures and a sign of remarkable leadership. I believe that managing projects is similar to embarking on a long journey in the ocean, charting new waters, dealing with unpredictable conditions, facing the storm, and taking risks in order to achieve something that has not been done before. And that is simply not easy.
For more about my view of what it takes to manage projects, you may refer to my articles on Linkedin “The 3 Ps of Project Management”, and “2 facets of Project Leaders.”