Published here July 2015.


Musings Index

Bridging the Business/Project Divide

Not so long ago, my friends at Gower Publishing sent me an Email promoting one of their books that they thought might interest me. It's title is simple: "Bridging the Business-Project Divide" by John Brinkworth. This struck me as a fascinating topic for a book.

As a taster, the Email included Chapter 1[1] as an excerpt. What follows are some extracts from that chapter that I found of particular interest, as I shall explain later.

The Business Viewpoint

"There are two mindsets in operation these days in most organizations. They relate to the two worlds of:

  • 'business as usual', which this book will refer to as 'business'; and
  • project management, which involves the delivery of a change using a project approach."

'Business' for the purposes of this book covers any sort of organization or enterprise. It can be private sector, public sector or charity. What is significant here is that the organization is focused on delivering something on an ongoing basis.

"This expectation of a continued existence, with business stretching out over the horizon, leads to a particular way of seeing and running the organization. Organizational structures are established and people have roles that create, support and manage the products or services. A career path develops, with the opportunity to gain skills and expertise in a particular area and over time be promoted within the organization to take on more responsibilities.

"There is an expectation that there will always be a CEO, a Finance Director, and a Head of Sales."

The Project Viewpoint


"Projects are different. They have a start and a finish. The people undertaking the project may not have worked together before the start of the project. The project will have a particular objective. It exists to change something. The project is undertaken by a team, brought together for the purpose, and its outputs and changes are delivered to a client and in some cases a set of users.

"The key point about a project is that the project is not part of the business-as-usual operation for the organization.

"The project team are subject to different pressures from the business team. The members of the team need to be assembled, they need to have clarity on what is required to be achieved, and they need to get hold of the means to effect the desired changes and make their deliverables. The project has a cost — each day it exists, it absorbs money that the organization would otherwise have used elsewhere. This puts a time pressure on to the project. Some projects have 'immovable deadlines' [while] other projects have deadlines that could slip, but would involve additional costs and considerable loss of face for their sponsors."

The Divide

"This split has a number of effects. The business part of the organization often houses the recipients of the project. This can happen in a number of different ways. They may be the users of a new computer system or they may be the subject of a restructuring, with some staff being made redundant. In addition, some of them can become involved in the project. The degree of involvement will vary, they might be consulted about the requirements for the change, they might be part of the team testing the new system or they might be recruited as 'change champions' to help get their colleagues to work in a different way.

"These interactions sit at the overlapping boundary of the two worlds. Both viewpoints can have difficulty appreciating where the other team is coming from. What is obvious and normal to a member of the business team (e.g. you cannot make a change during the busiest month of the trading year) would not necessarily occur to a project person. What is clear to a project person (e.g. that changing the requirements after agreeing them will delay the project by a number of months) may seem unreasonable to a member of the business team.

"These differences of perspective can then be magnified by the time pressure that faces all projects. Delays, challenges and differences of opinion, whilst resolvable in the cold light of day, can be blown out of proportion during the heated process of keeping a complex project on track whilst not disrupting the business into which it is going to deliver.

"So what can be done?"

Comment on accountant's view

Good question, and that is what this book seeks to address. And I am sure that most experienced business managers and project managers will, on their respective sides of this divide, be very familiar with their corresponding descriptions. But what struck me is: Why is there this (great) divide? From whence comes the driver or drivers?

I have worked in the public, private and charity sectors each for some years, and in different industries although to be honest, not in any high-tech industries. Nevertheless, I suspect that in the high-tech industries the challenges identified are no different.

I believe the root cause can be traced back to the accounting profession that is structured to meet mandated corporate governance practices. According to Wikipedia:[2]

"Accounting is the measurement, processing and communication of financial information about economic entities. It was established by the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli, in the end of the 15th century. Accounting, which has been called the 'language of business', measures the results of an organization's economic activities and conveys this information to a variety of users including investors, creditors, management, and regulators."

In other words, accounting is all about what money has been spent, on what it was spent, and doing so to the nearest penny as a matter of record. Whereas project management accounting is all about what money is going to be spent, where and when it is going to be spent, and doing so to an estimated accuracy of, well let's say, plus or minus 15%.

And that information must be provided as soon as possible to enable any needed corrective action. This gives rise to two entirely different attitudes. The first requires dedication to historic accuracy, while the second requires dedicated experience, intuition and urgency.

Moreover, the life span of the accountant's viewpoint is the annual report cycle with fixed dates year over year. Once the books are closed at yearend and the results reported in the annual report, any "overages" in what was booked compared to the annual budget, even assuming that they can even be compared, are largely forgotten. The new year's accounting becomes a whole new ball game.

Comment on the project managers' view

The accountants speak in terms of documented data for a specified calendar period, and no effort should be spared to achieve accuracy no matter how long that might take. The project manager's view is the project's life span with a highly variable "done" date that may well cross over a yearend accounting cycle. Moreover, project personnel speak in terms of estimated amounts, "as best we can tell" and the urgency of obtaining current status data is paramount for purposes of arriving at those "best estimate" amounts. Thus the languages of the two are entirely at odds.

It's the "Are we there yet?" syndrome at work. The kids in the back seat spend their time looking out of the back window of the car while the driver is trying to do their best to choose the best route to get to where they intend to arrive. Nevertheless, it is the kids in the back seat who determine the speed of the journey and often the route and destination as well, even though everyone is travelling in the same car.

No wonder the two sides have difficulty communicating. But worse is yet to come. As our quotation notes, accounting dates back to at least the 15th century. Project management, while it has been de facto for centuries has only recently been formally recognized. As a consequence, when it comes to organizational control, that control is firmly held in the hands of the corporate accountants, even if a project is set up as an independent entity.

Indeed, to the best of our current knowledge, a formally accepted project accounting system that captures and provides the type of information that a project manager needs in real time, has not yet been established. And that, we think, is largely because classic accounting gets in the way! Books of accounts balanced to the nearest penny, simply do not mix with estimated forecasts, probabilities and risks.

Project management has still a long way to go, so that project managers, in the meantime, can only do their best and take to heart the many recommendations offered in John Brinkworth's book.


Perhaps what we need is a legislated project accounting system that establishes a common language, is timely, and transcends annual accounting with integrity.

1. Brinkworth, John, Bridging the Business-Project Divide, Techniques for Reconciling Business-as-Usual and Project Cultures, Gower Publishing Limited, Surrey, England, 2014, pp1-4
2. Wikipedia: accessed 6/11/15

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