Managing projects — Balancing between people and projects

In the last sixty years, organisations have more and more using projects to achieve their strategic goals. According to a report released by the World Bank in 2012, 25% of the global economic activities nowadays are organised as projects. Projects, therefore, are often set up to accelerate the normal rate of change in an organisation but make them not easy to plan, control and steer. For this reason project management can be used to reduce the risk in a project, where the risk emerges in various forms such as financial, budget or planning risk. Many industries are carrying out for that reason more project orientated tasks to keep up with their competitors and “adopt projects as a vehicle for change.” (Turner and Müller, 2003) This demand of constant change, challenges businesses that are still linear, hierarchical organized, silos based and therefore not prepared for the upcoming challenges.

On the contrary, an article by the Harvard Business Review showed that around half of all projects fail and lead to demoralized employees. (Matta, 2003)

People want to do a good job, work in engaging teams and build meaningful products but often they fail.

What is project management?

While there was project management since the early times of mankind, the modern sense of project management began in the 1950s. (Haughey, 2014) Large organisations, mainly in the field of construction, military and engineering, started to apply their own tools and techniques. The Dupont Corporation, for example, invented the “Critical Path Method” and the US Navy the “Program Evaluation Review Technique” for its nuclear submarine program. These projects were characterised by two factors: high uncertainty regarding the costs and time that was needed for terminating these projects with success.

Over the last decades, many project management methodologies were discussed and developed. Project management methodologies can help structure and organise the resources internally and externally in a complex project. Choosing the right methodology depends on the project goals and the stakeholders that are involved and can be difficult to choose. Therefore it is important that project managers but team member as well understand the advantages and disadvantages, so they are able to switch between the methodologies for each project. I will focus on two main methodologies: Waterfall and Agile.

One is not better than the other and it is important to understand that simply applying project management will not turn every project into a success.

Waterfall methodologies

The waterfall methodology originates in the manufacturing and construction industry and was described by Dr Winston W. Royce in a paper around the 1970s. The waterfall methodology requires a detailed set of requirements that are defined in the beginning of a project such as project goals, responsibilities and timeframes. Waterfall organises the project in “a series of sequential phases that have to happen in sequence, and each phase cascades into the next.” (Cobb and Books, 2011) After the requirements are set, the project goes from one phase to the to the next phase until it reaches the last step and is completed. While the phases can be different, the process stays the same. Royce describes this process “that as each step progresses and the design is further detailed, there is an interaction with the preceding and succeeding steps but rarely with the more remote steps in the sequence.“ (Royce, 1987)

The biggest advantage of this sequential and linear workflow is the simplicity for team members to understand and implement the methodology. The waterfall methodology is a useful methodology when project goals can be defined precisely, in the beginning, client goals will not change during the project and if there are no current or future uncertainties. The client, therefore, knows exactly what to expect and has a clear idea about the outcome, budget and time which he can communicate internally to other stakeholders.

Although the waterfall methodology has some great advantages, there are also some disadvantages: The methodology is not able to adapt to change once a project has started and needs a stable environment from the beginning to the end of a project. Changes by the client, market or team will cause high additional cost if the defined requirements change. If the requirements are wrong, there is no process to adapt to these new requirements rather than to start from scratch. (Royce, 1987)

Agile methodologies

From the mid-90s, the rise of the internet has created a new environment for organisations with global competition, fast-changing consumer needs and increased complexity. This change resulted in “a greater focus and demand for operational effectiveness and efficiency.“ (Azzopardi, 2016) The requirements towards project management methodologies, therefore, changed dramatically. The agile movement has to be seen as a rebellion to the classic waterfall methodology, which is associated with bureaucratic and slow processes that are not able to adapt or change. Waterfall and Agile “have generally been seen as opposing viewpoints, and the rhetoric on both sides still remains essentially confrontational.“ (Boehm and Turner, 2004)

Agile is a preamble to many different project management approaches like Extreme Programing, Scrum and Lean Development and is more an ideology rather than a methodology. The Agile Manifesto from 2001 defines four rules of how an agile process is structured: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Working software over comprehensive documentation. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan. (Beck, 2001) This mindset creates a methodology that focuses on the ability to respond to change and an evolutionary development. One of the biggest advantages of an agile methodology, like Scrum, is the evolutionary, incremental or iterative way of work. It allows reacting to changes during the process, and the ability to follow new trends or developments in the market and industry under tight deadlines. Agile methodologies embraces these changes and sets priorities which then later can be reorganised by the project team or the client.

The project is divided into smaller tasks, this allows the team to reduce complexity and makes the project more transparent towards the client. Therefore the team size and resources can be adjusted to the current needs of a project which allows saving money and resources. Testing is part of each iteration so that errors can be discovered early in the process. Due to the fact that the product is created evolutionary, it can be launched after each Minimum Viable Product. This approach reduces the risk of creating a product or service that is outdated by its launch. The agile methodology “requires well-trained and specialised teams capable of self-management, communication and decision making.” (Cobb and Books, 2011) which needs time to build internally.

What is a successful project or a successful project manager?

In traditional models, like the waterfall method, project managers are measured by the outcome of a project such as delivering the project on time or within the defined budget. Success can be therefore defined with the “Iron Triangle” (cost, time and quality). Among other researchers, Atkinson says that “Success can be defined by the outcome of a project or in regards to the process.” (Atkinson, 1999) This additional viewpoint, which adds the perspective of how things get done shows that the success of a project, project team or project manager can be differently measured and is more an ethical question rather than based on measurable facts.

“Success can be the greatest enemy of innovation.“

“While job-task competencies are highly specific to the industry in which they work, the behavioural competencies of superior project managers are mostly generic in nature and apply to a range of other management positions.” (Bredillet, Tywoniak and Dwivedula, 2015) Even if a project reaches all by the client predefined goals regarding budget, cost and time it can be unsuccessful for the team or the organisation. Good or great project managers, therefore, need management skills and personal skills to be successful. (Bredillet, Tywoniak and Dwivedula, 2015)

The skillset needed for effective project management can be divided into two categories: Management skills and personal skills. Management skills give the project manager the tools and methodologies he needs to perform project management effectively. Personal skills focus more on how the project manager guides and interacts with the different team members. In the end, the project manager always works with a team and therefore needs a positive attitude, resolve conflicts, overviews the decision-making process and ensures that all team members are motivated. It is the role of the project manager to define clear tasks, rules and goals for the group itself and for each member to ensure that these individuals work together as an effective team.

Building effective teams

As introduced before, people play a major role in project management. And agile methodologies often fail because people are not introduced to a different way of working alone and performing in teams. A strong interpersonal feedback culture can help teams to work efficiently and collaboratively together in an agile environement. “The purpose of reflecting as a team is for members to express thoughts, feelings and opinions about a shared experience, to build openness and trust in the team, and to draw out key learnings and insights to take forward into subsequent experiences.“ (Hyper Island Toolbox, 2016) Team members are able to communicate their rational thoughts and emotional feelings in a safe and trustful environment. “To become more effective and fulfilled at work, people need a keen understanding of their impact on others. Direct feedback is the most efficient way for them to gather this information and learn from it.“ (Batista, 2013) Honest and open feedback in a safe space allows team members to reflect their own behaviours within the group and can help understand other team members behaviours, feelings and reactions. Agile methodologies with is iterative steps can help implement a scheduled feedback session. The sprints in Scrum allow teams to give regular feedback and allows team member to self-manage the issues that can occur during a project.

Research has shown that team culture has an impact on how team members behave and in the end perform. “Values and norms shared within a work unit promote behavioural consistency among unit members, and this consistency enables them to exert collective efforts toward achieving common goals”. (O’Reilly, 1989) This shared view reduces ambiguities inside the team, creates an identity, connects different team members and in the end generates an effective and more collaborative working environment which is essential for agile methodologies.

It is, therefore, important to invest time in the beginning of a project to think about which set of rules or ethics is applied. This allows teams to reflect about a rules-based system that focuses on the process and not solely on the outcome of a project. Tools like the “Team Canvas” allows team members to reflect what their needs are and let them communicate these needs towards the group for creating rules and shared team ethics.

The more time is invested in the beginning of a project to define the group ethics, the more effective the team works later on.

Project management is about people, how they behave between stakeholders, other team members and the project manager. “At its most fundamental, project management is about people getting things done.” (IPMA, 2016) Project management needs both viewpoints, the managing and the people view. Therefore successful project managers facilitate the project vision and try to speak in the right language to each individual. It is not just about communication, it is more about understanding the different needs and concerns team members have and address these in an appropriate way. “People do projects, and only people. Software, methodologies, and everything else apart from people do not get projects done. People do. So managing people is right at the heart of project management.“ (Nokes and Kelly, 2007)

Agile methodologies can give the project manager a new role by allowing the project manager to be a facilitator between the client and team members. A strong team culture gives a common ground to communicate and discuss. By allowing each team member to bring in his thoughts and emotions, the ground for effective and successful projects and project managers is prepared.