Friday, May 26, 2006

Cargo Cult Project Management

Maybe you have experienced this phenomenon. You are at a company and they have a PM methodology, they are using the forms, there may even be people with Project Manager titles, but 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.” I doubt I can trademark that, so feel free to use it as your own. Let me indulge in a little history for those who may not be familiar with the term.

During World War II the Allied forces occupied many of the Pacific islands. Up until that point, many of the inhabitants of these islands had never seen manufactured goods. With the military occupation, things like clothing, food, weapons and other manufactured goods were delivered in plentiful quantities. These supplies arrived in airplanes. To the islanders who were unfamiliar with manufacturing or powered flight, the arrival of the good from airplanes seemed to be a direct delivery from the gods. After the war, the airplanes and their cargo, no longer came. In an attempt to get the planes to return islanders made airplanes out of wood, radio sets out of bamboo, and even painted military symbols on their bodies. They talked on the radios, waved flags, and lit up the runways at night, all to no avail.

This is not unlike what happens at some companies today. We use project charters, create Project Manager job titles, and produce a methodology but nothing really happens. We don’t get all those great project management benefits. Some PMO Directors have told me that they are not allowed to call their organization “the PMO.” This is invariably due to an unsuccessful attempt at a PMO which left everyone bitter and disillusioned. I can certainly sympathize with those feelings. Imagine how the natives that spent all day waving palm leaf flags felt when they finally realized that no cargo was coming. Just like these natives, executives and management have been asked to do a lot of work for little or no result.

How did this happen? More importantly, what can be done? In my opinion, this happens for two primary reasons. First, too much emphasis is placed on the trappings and appearance of project management. Secondly, someone tried to implement project management in the wrong order. Let’s look at the second reason first.

You can read earlier articles where I talked about the need to build your PMO through People, Processes, and Tool and in that order. In the case of a cargo cult PMO, someone has started with the tools. Not necessarily a purchased software product, although that is common, but the forms, the meetings, the language and other end products of Project Management. Just like the natives, we started with all the right tools, and got no result. The reason the natives did not get cargo is because there was no infrastructure, no industry, trade or machinery to create the cargo. Similarly, a PM tool without the underlying support of the right people and the right processes will fail.

Next there is this (IMHO) unhealthy focus on the physical aspects of project management, the forms, tools, reports. These are not project management. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that, but some PMOs have gotten a bad name because they tried to start there. This is a huge temptation and absolutely understandable. Your management is demanding that you show results so by creating a methodology or by implementing a tool you can show that something has actually happened. Something did happen and it may look like project management, it may even feel like project management, but it’s no more project management than a coconut headset is a radio.

Now, I am not saying that you can’t succeed if you start off with tools and methodologies. Some companies (the very rare ones) may already have a fertile environment for this. I’ll bet that if you looked carefully at these companies you would find that they already had the right people and processes in place; they just probably were not calling it Project Management. Unfortunately, most places are not like that. So what do you do if you are stuck in this kind of situation?

I think the first step is to assess what is going on. Resist the impulse to act, you probably represent the last chance project management will have at your company for the foreseeable future. If you fail, then you and project management are out the door. After you have an understanding of what is going on, cut, cut and cut some more. Get rid of every one of the forms or tools or processes that is not creating significant and measurable value. You can figure out what these are by observation. If everyone enters 8 hours for a project every day, then your time system is not being used correctly – can it. At this point you are not trying to fix anything - that will come later. Just clean house.

What you will be left with are the people, processes and tools that are producing and valuable. Start here by enhancing and consolidating. Improve what is working. Bring everything into a consistent whole. Call this your methodology if you want, but please do not confine project management to a series of steps to be taken. If you confine PM then so will everyone else. Things get more complicated from here and I’ve already written on several of these topics, so I’ll stop here. The idea is to stop doing the things that do not work and start doing the things that will.

2 comments:

thushra said...

Very interesting post derry.. I just saved this for me...

Over here I see more than 90% of organisations which face this cargo situation ...

olivia jennifer said...

I would say that a PMP is highly respected within both IT & non-IT communities where strong project management skills are required. If you plan on a long term career as a project manager, then yes, even with your level of experience, I would suggest getting your PMP. You can prepare yourself for the exam in one of the leading training providers like http://www.pmstudy.com . You can do minimal prep-work to get 40 PMI® Contact Hours and apply to PMI for PMP Exam before the class begins.