by Louise Worsley

Project distraction

PM Pointers

Are business projects a distraction, or a new project management trend?
project distraction

Are business projects a distraction, or a new project management trend? If you think running complex, high-profile projects is hard, try running small projects within a functional line! 

The trouble is that these projects are often important, but not imperatives. They may be small, but they are often complex, requiring integration across stakeholder groups. And on top of that, they have to be fitted in with the day job of managers and functional staff who do not have the time or the desire to take on full-time project management.

When discussing the challenges with participants on our Running Business Projects workshops, we find that a common concern is how to engage with resources that you do not own.

Kiron Bondale wrote about this on his blog:

A fundamental difference exists in how projects are perceived between functional organisations and balanced or strong matrix ones. While we may consider projects to be the medium through which positive change occurs, in functional organisations they represent a costly diversion for staff. As the percentage of effort spent by a team on operational work nears 100%, the greater can be the challenge in engaging staff on project work.

He suggests that this issue cannot be resolved by a single project manager or even by a PMO:

... the change needs to come from the functional teams themselves. The first step is acknowledgement – if you can help the management team recognise that project work will not diminish over time and that they should consider implementing approaches to reduce impacts to operational responsibilities, that is half the battle won.

While we would agree with him, this in itself will not be enough. Projects in the functional line are different and demand different approaches and management styles. For example, on the Running Business Projects workshop, time is spent looking at different project types, starting with the most simple ‘paint by number’ project type to the more complex ‘working in fog’ project type that deals with the complexities of running projects where there is no clear consensus between stakeholders on what must be achieved.

It is important when running projects in this environment to understand and acknowledge that your project is unlikely to be that exciting to anyone else. In the workplace, individuals are mainly keeping their heads down, trying not to be diverted any further from the myriad of functional activities they must perform. 

Faced with repeated disappointments, there is often a temptation to assume that the reason ‘Frank’ has not got the work done is because he is lazy, never commits and “he hates me anyway”. But maybe that is not it... have you really explored the problem? Is your project in a long line of priorities for Frank – does he have any mechanism for resolving these priorities? Does he have the skills? Is it ‘safe’ for him to admit to lack of skills in this area? Is there a ‘history’ or lack of trust that needs to be dealt with? I am sure you can think of some more examples.

In an environment where matrix resourcing is the norm, people engagement is more important than team management. Indeed, classic team formation (form-norm-storm-perform) is unlikely to be successful, as there is no time or space to create strong, project-focused team culture. Besides, the functional teams are far too strong. Instead, the focus of the project manager should be on the diagnosis of the people barriers. As we discuss in the Running Business Projects workshop, it is hard but it is true: when the other person is not motivated, it is our job to make them motivated.

It is clear that there is a very real need to equip members of the business community with the skills necessary to run the projects that make up their day-to-day work reality. However, this is not a message of despair – it serves simply to highlight that business projects are complex, and often that complexity and the skill development required of those working on them is underestimated. That is why introductory training courses, focused on technical project principles, so often miss the mark for managers who run business projects. For these people, projects are the best approach to facilitating operational changes and the development of new products; but they are also something they must do on top of their day job.  

Development for business project managers must provide tools that are immediately of use. It must also help the manager recognise the types of project they are working with and what techniques should be applied and when. Growing capability for delivering projects within the business line is increasingly being seen by organisations as crucial to delivering business strategy. 

Apart from the fact that there is an abundance of projects, many benefit from being structured and delivered by those people who are closest to wanting the project outcomes, those who want to make it happen, those who will own the outcomes and will exploit and use the benefits delivered by the investment in the project. 

While there will always be a place for the ‘professional project manager’ on our most complex projects, business project management and the need to develop capability to deliver projects in the business line is here to stay.

For more information, Contact Sally Pike

By Louise Worsley, Executive director and founder of PiCubed

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