I recently watched a video called “The Expert” about the challenges of being a technical expert in a corporate project environment – the video has been labelled a “comedy” but for anyone working in a large corporation or for an external project management consultancy it is a revealing insight into why so many projects go wrong (and why project managers can themselves be to blame) so it is painful watching.
The traits and behaviours that project managers exhibit in the early stages of getting a project off the ground can determine the outcome of the project and in the video the project manager takes his lead from his senior manager, who just wants to please the client even when the proposed project is ill-defined.
For a project to be successful it needs a project manager with the skills (and courage) to guide the project right from the start and, whilst the aim is to deliver what the client wants, the client may need guidance in translating their ideas and objectives into an achievable goal that will actually deliver something with business benefits.
Of course, a client’s perception of the final deliverable will give a project the stamp of approval, or not, which is why many PMs may be reluctant to voice their concerns about the aims of the project but, if the deliverable simply does not make sense what would be the benefit to the client? Ultimately not taking technical concerns seriously at the initiation stage will never result in a successful project either from the client’s perspective or the project team’s perspective.
Many project managers will have come across a scenario where there are only vague project objectives and inherent problems with the requirements that are not being addressed; situations where the client has not, and will not, make their aims and requirements clear yet expect the project to start with this poorly defined set of requirements and expected benefits. Even worse the client and senior management view any questioning of the requirements and benefits as obstructive behaviour rather than as an attempt at clarification designed to improve the outcome of the project.
In scenarios such as these it may not be the direct responsibility of the project manager to deal effectively with the situation but it is certainly going to affect the outcome of the project so it should be the PMs responsibility.
A project manager should have a vested interest in improving the situation by listening to the technical or business experts’ concerns and using tact and diplomacy to talk through the real aims and requirements of the client. Unfortunately, if the PM is a “yes” man (as in the video) he/she will not. Another thought-provoking snippet lately was the report from MIT Sloan Management Review revealing that “yes” men are a common cause of project failure because they are reluctant to report bad news or disagree with senior management. But, in the end, it is most likely to be the project manager’s reputation on the line.
So just what can a project manager do when faced with a project that has; ill-defined and poorly thought-out requirements and when senior management and clients refuse to see any problems with the project aims or requirements?
- Try and understand the client – their difficulty in articulating their needs in a realistic way may be the result of a lack of understanding of the true aims of the project or simply a lack of technical understanding – they could themselves be “yes” men. But if the project is to be a success then the project manager needs to work closely with the client and to raise difficult issues when necessary. This may require a certain amount of diplomatic hand-holding, advice and guidance but without this the project is doomed from the start.
- Assist the client in defining their requirements in a realistic way; don’t make the mistake of assuming the client can do this themselves. It may not be part of a PM’s job description to gather or document requirements but sometimes this is the only way they will be done clearly and accurately, and in a way that will deliver business benefits to their client. Never forget that the aim of every project is to deliver some benefit and if that cannot be articulated then what is the point of the project?
- Do not embark upon any serious project work until you and the client fully understand the requirements and the aim of the project; doing so will simply waste time and effort. Even if you are under pressure from your own boss you must get the foundations right – after all it will be your reputation that suffers when the project is a failure. Instead work closely with any subject matter experts if you do not have the relevant technical or business knowledge and listen to what the experts have to say.
Take a look at the video…