IT Project Management: Beware Self-Fulfilling Expectations

By John Parkinson

IT Project Management: Is Experience Overrated?

Here is a true story from close to home for me - it involves my niece Angie and the benefits of bringing a young, fresh view to a complex problem.

Angie is an experienced business analyst, working her way into project management. She's invested her own time and money over a decade in climbing the technology world's career ladder from user support to team lead.

She'll be a great project manager one day, but she's low on experience right now. And many of us believe that experience is one of the things that PMs need to avoid the pitfalls that surround all but the most straightforward projects.

Recently, Angie and an equally inexperienced colleague were asked to take on a project that had all the characteristics of a disaster in the making. Their organization was planning a "rip and replace" for a key application that would touch a lot of people, both internal and external. The project involved all the classic areas for potential problems:

  • Vendor swap.

  • Platform change.

  • Complex integration.

  • Aggressive schedule.

  • Limited budget.

Oh, and let's not forget the company's previous experience trying similar things, which was uniformly bad.

Experienced project managers would have run in the other direction.

Angie and her colleague knew they were taking on a difficult project. There was no way to expect it to be easy, and it wasn't. However, they also knew that they didn't have enough experience to do anything other than to precisely follow the proverbial playbook, in detail. So they did exactly that. No cutting corners. No shortcuts. I'd be willing to bet they annoyed some (maybe many) of their co-workers along the way.

They spent time building their plan and, as a result, their plan was a pretty good one. They then worked the plan, sticking to the main elements and adjusting the details as they went along to account for the unanticipated bumps that all projects encounter. The result? A successful outcome delivered on time and close to the original budget; a smoothly functioning new system; happy customers; surprised (and pleased) management.

IT Project Management: Beware Self-Fulfilling Expectations

I'm not suggesting that anyone wanted this project to be a failure. I am suggesting that something less than complete success was the expected outcome. I've seen many projects like this - and a lot of experienced project managers deliver on the expectation of a less than successful outcome, often because their experience tells them to do things that lead to bad results.

Experienced project managers have accumulated a store of shortcuts, workarounds and "accelerators" that may have served them once or twice in different circumstances. These generally won't add anything to a complex, challenging situation, where attention to detail and sticking with the basics is what builds success.

This reminds me a lot of my own start as a project manager. I knew enough to see what aspects were going to be hard to do well, but not enough to be casual about execution. So I played it by "the book." I probably over-engineered some aspects of my plans, but so what? They worked.

There were plenty of risks and issues to manage, but no failures. There were lots of minor course corrections, but no sudden changes or reversals of course. I always had confidence in status, and there were few surprises.

As I got more experienced and the projects I managed grew larger and riskier, I had to learn to cope with "emergencies." This is never easy, but the solid foundation I built by using "the book" prevented panic - and generally allowed me to fix whatever the problem was. Over time, I got to see where parts of "the book" were less helpful and learned to adapt the standard advice to tune my plans, but the well-tested core practices didn't change.

To modify a phrase from pilot school: "There are old project managers, and there are bold project managers, but there are no old, bold project managers."

I see all this as a timely reminder that the new workforce - the one we are sometimes challenged to manage -- has some lessons to teach us us. They do pay attention. They do want to do well. They mostly work hard. They may not have the exact same ambition and drive that we had at their age, but they do have their own ambitions and they are willing to work towards them. Along the way, they can make a real contribution to success, both personal and corporate.

We should work at helping them - and reward them for getting the basics right.

About the Author

John Parkinson is head of the Global Program Management Office at AXIS Capital. He has been a technology executive, strategist, consultant and author for 25 years. Send your comments to editors@cioinsight.com.

This article was originally published on 04-25-2012