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Fear of Commitment

One of the fundamentals taught in Project Management class is the need to define what the success of the project will look like. Only by establishing a picture of the desired end state are we able to establish project scope properly and make effective decisions about how to manage the project. In Project Management class we’re taught to express project success as specific measures that define the project’s goals. These measures are often captured using SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bounded) or Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) and form a critical component of the project charter.

In practice many projects proceed without a clear picture of what success will look like and rather than working towards a clear set of measurable objectives, the team uses schedule and budget as the primary measures of success. Of course the problem with such an approach is that the decisions the project team make are focused on ensuring they meet schedule and budget goals rather than around delivering clear business benefits. The net result is that some projects deliver products that are poorly attuned to their operational environments and although the project team may consider the project a success (they delivered on schedule, on budget), from a business perspective the project was a failure.

Defining a clear definition of success and its associated measures is usually not that difficult. In many cases, asking the Project Sponsor the right types of question can quickly yield the right answers and from there a set of suitable measures can be agreed. Despite the importance of this step and the fact that it is relatively easy to achieve, many projects proceed without having this foundation stone in place.

Sometimes the failure to ask the right questions is caused by a lack of experience, but sometimes Project Managers are openly hostile to the idea and actively avoid putting in place any specific measures. This reluctance to express clear measures is often caused by a fear that they as Project Mangers will be held solely accountable for achieving those goals.

Buried behind these fears is a fundamental misunderstanding about projects and project management. Rather than belonging to the Project Manager, the measurable objectives should be viewed as belonging to the Project Sponsor. Defining the objectives in clear measurable ways provides the context within which Project Managers and the project team can make project related decisions, but the actual accountability for the measures should be firmly assigned to the Project Sponsor.

Organizations that hold the Project Manager solely accountable for meeting the project’s objectives are usually the organizations in which project governance is poorly implemented. In many such organizations, the project sponsor role is very weak and the full responsibility for the project is transferred onto the shoulders of the Project Manager. Unfortunately this is rarely a workable approach. Project Managers usually lack the clout within the organization to command the full use of the organizations resources and they usually don’t have access to all of the business information they would need in order to take on such a responsibility. For organizations that are serious about creating business value, the role of the Sponsor and the ownership of measurable objectives need to be clearly established.

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