Jag Venugopal's Blog

May 18, 2009

Selection of Projects by Project Managers

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 10:33 pm

A surgeon of any repute will insist on examining a patient, and reviewing their medical history prior to agreeing to perform surgery. Similarly, a lawyer will not take up a case until he has a broad level of comfort with the client and some reasonable chance of prevailing. Yet project managers routinely take on, or get assigned to projects, without performing their own go/no go analysis for the project. One possible reason could be that project managers are on staff, thus having to do what they are asked to do without murmur. That may be the case, but I believe project managers still can pull the levers of politics, and find a way to avoid projects that do not have a reasonable chance of success. PM’s live and die by their reputation, and the success of their projects. Picking doomed projects, even if done with the best of intentions, is a sure way to commit career hara-kiri.

Assuming that a PM has some way to accept and decline projects based on a certain set of criteria, the question then arises as to what the criteria are. Below, I offer some thoughts on criteria I would use. These are specific to my skills of being a PM on single projects of moderate size and high/medium complexity. Managers of programs, and larger projects may have a different set of criteria.

Criterion No. 1: How big is the project? If all you’ve managed is 10-15 person project teams with six month project durations, then it makes little sense to accept a project with a team size of a hundred, and taking eighteen months to complete. Smaller projects require a smaller span of control, and deliver quicker. The longer the project and the larger the project, the greater the probability of failure. One option for the project manager faced with such a situation is to work with the sponsor to carve out subprojects, one of which they could own under the umbrella of an overall program. ‘Tis better to be successful managing a small project, delivering frequently than to fail on a larger one with a late or absent delivery.

Criterion No. 2: Who are the people? Does your prospective team see value in project management, or are you seen as the person who brings bagels and signs timesheets? Have they successfully worked with a project managed team before, or has it been an anarchic collection of prima donnas running the show? Does your team have the necessary attitude, skills, and domain knowledge to get the job done? Is there sufficient critical mass of knowledge on the team that if you had to let a person go, it would not affect the team’s progress? In other words, will you be held hostage by “irreplaceable” team members?

Criterion No. 3:
What is the level of support from management? If management imposes scope, schedule or resource constraints, do they own up to it in front of the team? Does the overseeing manager/sponsor attend team meetings at least sometimes? And when they do attend, do they tell the team the same things that they’re telling you? Beware the manager that sees the Project Manager as the hatchet man. Sure, you could be one if you were paid enough, and never had to return to the place again, but be very careful in all other instances.

Criterion No. 4: Why do you want to do it? On a tough project, what’s your motivation? Learning? Money? Promotion? Opportunity to make a difference? Is there a reasonable prospect of your achieving whatever it is that you want? This is an important question to ask yourself — if you can’t find the right answer, your personal movitation is not likely to be sufficient to take you successfully to project completion. What kind of sacrifices do you foresee in the execution of this project? What kinds of opportunity costs? Are you willing to make those sacrifices?

Criterion No. 5: Is there a defined methodology? If not, will the organizational culture allow you to adopt one? It doesn’t matter as much what specific software development methodology you adopt (e.g. SPSG, Agile, Feature Driven Development) as it matters that you have one, and follow it. Conversely, is the organization so completely besotten by one methodology that it sees every single project as a nail to be beaten with the methodology hammer?

One sometimes encounters the argument that for a competent project manager, none of these criteria represent insurmountable obstacles. The picture of the ideal project manager which is often conjured up is that of someone whose people skills rank right up there with Dale Carnegie, who can build teams better than Theo Epstein of the Red Sox, is totally self motivated, a master of all technologies and a domain expert. Sure, somewhere, sometime one might find such a project manager. In the meantime, it behooves the rest of us to carefully consider what we’re getting ourselves into.


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