I’m once again privileged to have been invited to participate in the second Project Management Flashblog (#PMFlashblog) initiative, this time coordinated by Mark Phillipy (who runs the excellent blog, The Sensible Project Manager). This time the theme is Project Management Around the World and this is my contribution…
There’s a hill behind my house in Spain. The views from the top towards Alicante are stunning. The locals call it “ataque cardiac colina” (Cardiac Hill). I’ve just walked up it in search of some motivation for this post – I’m not as young as I once was. My career has spanned 30 years, yet for the first 10 of those I never once met a project manager.
Before then I’d been involved in delivering all sorts of complex, technical stuff working in the IT department of a major bank in the 1980s. We didn’t have project managers in those days. They just didn’t exist in my world. We had no email, no instant messenger, no cellphones, no social media, no Internet, no SharePoint, no Microsoft Project, Word, Excel or PowerPoint – no PCs, in fact. We would talk to each other. Face to face, mostly. Sometimes on the phone. Everyone knew what their role was. We didn’t write everything down or obsess about covering our arses. We all trusted one another to do our jobs. And most of the time stuff worked.
We did mess up from time to time. Sometimes spectacularly. We once mislaid tens of millions of pounds after some dodgy code I’d written and not tested correctly messed up the ATM network. And the bank’s first forays into internet banking weren’t great either. We hooked a website up to the old legacy banking systems, increased the number of users from a few thousand staff to hundreds of thousands of customers, and wondered why the thing wouldn’t perform, and we’re surprised when customers complained that systems were only available during office hours.
Clearly some level of project management would have helped avoid some of those earlier failures – thorough business analysis, considered requirements, comprehensive impact assessment, proper design, robust testing, managed implementation and post-live support would all have increased our chances of success.
Project management is not a recent invention and clearly it was being applied to the more major undertakings in the bank at that time, but it wasn’t ubiquitous and wasn’t applied consistently and systematically to every single change.
A New Project Management Paradigm
Today, in a more risk averse, litigious world, things have gone the other way. Projects are defined much more broadly. Everything is potentially a project, regardless of size or complexity. Project managers, many of them well-used to running large, complex projects, all too often now find themselves running tiny projects that can sometimes be anything but. The more projects you have, the more artefacts you need to produce, the more governance you need – the greater the overhead, the greater the cost.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. It reduces delivery risk and creates opportunities for people to break into the profession by getting their hands dirty on much smaller, less challenging pieces of work. Much better than being thrown in at the deep end and being asked to run something complex, unwieldy, risk laden and doomed to failure from the off. Additionally, in a world where everything is a project, and everyone is a project manager, you can also get an oversupply of labour, especially in a downturn when companies are shedding staff and aren’t investing like they used to. That can only be good for business when confidence improves and companies start hiring again.
So the project management paradigm has changed in the last 30 years. Depending on your perspective, that reduces risk, raises costs, improves governance, creates bureaucracy, depresses salaries, creates opportunities for career development, or helps you drive a harder bargain when hiring in the help.
After a long weekend in the sun I have to go back to work in the UK in the morning. For now though, from the top of a hill in Spain, this is my perspective on the state of project management in Europe today.