Mention the word “project” and more often than not this will conjure up images of dismal failure and fiascos. The popular press just loves to expose the demise of major projects through overspending and late delivery. More often than not such stories chronicle serious inefficiency and mismanagement on the part of those responsible for the implementation of the project. The London Stock Exchange’s Taurus project debacle and the more recent British Passport System fiasco are just two examples that readily spring to mind.
There are various definitions of what constitutes a project but essentially this consists of a significant, “one-off” task with a defined termination stage, clear outcomes and generally limited resources – human, fiscal, material, etc. Project Management, as a technique, started to develop when it became clear that traditional management methods were proving inadequate to meet and handle large and complex projects adequately – particularly the intrinsic deadlines, and multiple resource constraints. Notwithstanding, initial project management methodologies tended to reveal and reflect conventional management ancestry, particularly the notion of a solitary, high-level administrative authority.
For years these elementary project management concepts remained virtually unchanged even though most projects had been cut-down in scale – shorter in duration and with lower budgets. Gradually project managers started to realise that projects can themselves be broken down into a number of smaller, manageable sub-projects – resulting into a number of related sub-components per project.
Whilst making complex projects easier to handle, this new approach, ironically, created a bigger need for project managers but since the latter are themselves a limited resource the role of the project manager has intentionally been pushed further down the organisational hierarchy – almost to the point where today everyone involved in a project tends to act as a project manager to different degrees. In practice this devolution of roles manifests itself in multiple coordination and responsibility points, each of which disseminate information to interested parties within the organisation. Critical issues, involving conflicts, are resolved by a steering committee.
The role of project management has changed in other ways. Traditionally project management has been used exclusively to manage resources, such as material, human resources and time, which are more easily quantifiable but, unfortunately, such an approach tended to overlook a whole series of benefits, particularly when these are difficult to quantify. Modern project management techniques, in contrast, attempt to balance the costs and resulting benefits throughout the project cycle. In fact, the concept of benefits management has become an integral and vital component within any project management methodology.
As a result project management has today rediscovered its roots and become, more than ever, an amalgam of traditional management methodologies merged with novel project management techniques. It is therefore not surprising to come across organisations that are starting to manage work, normally administered using conventional management methods, using project management techniques. Maybe an old dog can learn new tricks after all.