Published here February 2006.


Musings Index

The Way to Get Ahead

Thirteen years ago, that's back in 1993, Dr. Martin Barnes wrote an excellent article on project management entitled "The Way to get ahead".[1] Dr. Martin Barnes is (now) the President of the Association for Project Management (APM), a United Kingdom based organization dedicated to advancing the science of project management and the professional development of project managers, so he should know. His article explained project management with realism and simplicity along lines that we in the capital projects business have known, perhaps intuitively, for a long time.

More importantly, for those days, he demonstrated with clarity how this new management discipline would be essential to corporate survival in a world of accelerating change, and how it would be used increasingly by aggressive enterprises. In short, the mechanics of project management are relatively simple: "First plan, then do", all the while focusing on the future end product rather than on past performance. This in itself is a radical shift from classic enterprise management that stresses annual reports that focus on the past year's achievements with comparisons of current financial status relative to the previous years. Certainly, if you are lucky, you will get a short observation from the chairman on the outlook for the future designed to give stockholders a warm and fuzzy feeling.

But precise deliverables, as in project deliverables, complete with delivery dates, estimate at completion, and so on? Unlikely, because that would give too much away to the competition. But the focus of Dr. Barnes' article was on the people issues and the necessary cultural environment required. Looking back, his article was most prophetic. There has indeed been dramatic change in the corporate world since then and not always in the way many of us would like.

That is because the obstacles to achieving a change often seem to be almost insurmountable. This is especially true of a change in an organizational cultural attitude itself, one that calls for moving people out of their comfort zone. Instead, under the pressures of competition, or survival in recession, corporations lay off whole battalions of executives, managers and workers, only to re-recruit with new goals and philosophies - and new culture - some time later. It may not be a "quick fix", but it is a quicker fix!

Since the early '90s, as Dr. Barnes predicted, we have seen an explosion of projects and hence the need for project management, in all sectors, public, private and not-for-profit. And these projects go far beyond the traditional domain of capital construction projects. They go to the heart of business and service administration. Depending on how you choose to measure success, it seems that the levels of success in these change initiatives often leave a lot to be desired, so we still have a long way to go in the art and science of project management.

But perhaps the source of this disappointment is more fundamental. With assignments in school typically referred to as "projects", may be that is where education in project management should start? As we have long advocated, perhaps we should be looking to our educational system to change its approach and improve its performance in producing people with better understanding and skills in coping with change? It seems to us that lessons in the basics of goal setting, personal time management, cultivating intellectual team effort, and focused and concise communication, especially effective listening, would all be most appropriate at this level.

These are all skills that can be taught and with these skills in place, those subsequently involved in projects in the work place could offer higher levels of competence and projects would be started off at a higher level of expectations. For example, as Dr. Barnes has since suggested:[2] "A good project manager would say on day one 'What is this project intended to achieve? It is not enough to know what it is, I need to know what it is for'." And "I believe very firmly that if a project manager is appointed to a project and has not seen the business case, they should ask for it before a start is made and, if there isn't one, then help the project sponsor to work one up."

Business Case? The latest version of the Project Management Institute's Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge 3rd Edition[3] doesn't even mention Business Case as an input.[4] We do indeed still have a long way to go!

1. Barnes, Dr. M., The way to get ahead, Professional Manager, March 1993, p16
2. Barnes, Dr. M., Why Major Project Fail - Some Personal Observations, in PM Practices January-February 2005, PMForum, (accessed 12/27/05)
3. Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Project Management Institute, PA, 2004
4. On page 67 of the PMBOK Guide, "Business Case" does appear as one of a list of eleven items that "The project charter, either directly, or by reference to other documents, should address ..." (p66). It is the only reference in the whole of the PMBOK Guide text. It is not shown anywhere as an input to any of the Guide's processes.
Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page