How project management software could be the emperor's new clothes

Do you really need a project management system? Would a new software system help or hinder? Could it be like buying the emperor’s new clothes?

project management tools
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When I work with companies on project management assessments, I often hear software systems getting blamed for failures, delays and problems. They're either too complex or badly aligned to process. Either that or I hear that some other new system would fix everything. Indeed, that's what the sellers of such solutions promise — a golden ticket to project management success, the silver bullet for all your problems.

Some actually deliver, but when they don’t, the software itself is often blamed. In my experience though, it is more the fact that it takes valuable project management time to update and maintain in order for it to provide useful information — time that "should be spent" project managing. Indeed, this the problem with reporting in general. The challenge for any software system is that they rely on bottom-up input of data — real-time reporting by those delivering the project management. This often leads to a duplication of data input and if the process is not well defined and understood a resentment around the need to do it in the first place.

So what is the purpose of a project/program or portfolio application?

It should above all else provide a single view of the truth and importantly a truth that is trusted by everyone across the organization. This can be achieved in many ways — paper, spreadsheets, verbally even — but there comes a point where the environment becomes so complex due to volume and project interdependencies that a system is often introduced to assist with the organizational governance and management tasks — contribution to strategic objectives, resource and demand management, budgetary control and much more. But they are organizational governance, they are organization wide, covering multiple projects, programs and initiatives. 

Much of the project management software you can buy is brilliant. It can make information gathering and input easier, and give you swish single view dashboard and fancy reporting. However, I often see all of this done just as well on spreadsheets or Microsoft project, in fact, one project manager I know is getting fabulous results using Google Sheets. She is leveraging regular spreadsheet features and the ability for multiple users to collaborate on spreadsheets in real time across a huge geographical area. It even has an instant messaging function so they can live chat. Her CIO is thrilled by the improved project efficiency and the cost saving versus the previous project management software — Google Sheets is free!

The secret to success here though isn't Google Sheets nor would it have been a swanky project management software package if that had been her choice.

No. The secret to success here is the fundamentals of project management, executed brilliantly and consistently. So by all means, explore your need for potential software solutions — but bear in mind that there may be cheaper (or free) alternatives available and also that until you have all the fundamentals in place. Without them, no system or software will deliver the desired results.

The fundamentals are the foundations on which you build and they include:

1. Governance

The benefits of good governance include better return on investment, better staff motivation (everyone knows what's expected) and most importantly you get to avoid many of the common reasons for failure.

The governance of IT projects and portfolios is crucial as it gives you the necessary controls and the working parameters that will deliver success plus it gives your stakeholders reassurance that that money in the budget is being well spent.

Without great governance your project management software system simply will not deliver its full potential — how can it? Any software system responds to how you operate it. If you haven't got great disciplines in other areas you won't have them with your system. As with most parts of the project management process, governance can be bought in from the "as a Service" market.

2. Process

Initiation, planning, execution, control, delivery, exit, assessment and evaluation.

From memory, these are the words on the wall of the Google Sheets-using project manager I mentioned earlier. It illustrates neatly how process connects together each project activity and, I believe, creates an oasis of calm to return to when inevitable project stresses arise.

To be fair, everyone working in IT project management knows the value of process — it's how well you stick to your process when your project throws you a curve ball that counts.

Your project management team should internally digest the project management processes and make them a part of their DNA. With proper process whatever system or software you opt for will have a decent fighting chance of playing a part in your success. Without process, it has little or no chance. It's as stark as that.

3. Communications

Bad communications are often a major contributing factor in the failure of an IT project. 

Recent examples I've seen include failure to communicate decisions made at approval gates, lack of communication with stakeholders who became disillusioned and almost pulled the plug on a project that was actually delivering and a simple lack of communication of who is expected to do what.

Used properly, your system can help here. Remember the "live chat" function of Google sheets? That one simple thing improved communication for one project manager. How could you improve yours?

Do you waste time hunting through your inbox, for example? By keeping all project communication in one place, "bad comms" can be dropped into the recycle bin for good.

4. Planning

Have you ever estimated the time it will take to complete an IT project and been woefully wrong with your guess? Have you ever run out of budget? Do you sometimes find allocation of resources a problem?

It's OK, it happens to everyone.

The truth is that there are project management software solutions that can help with this but, ironically, unless you are good at planning they will only deliver a small percentage of their potential value.

If planning is a recurring issue you should consider addressing the root of the problem. Get an independent project management assessment or consider buying in "Project Management as a Service."

5. Organizational capability

Last year I read of a project that had missed a deadline because the project manager had forgotten about it!

Sure, there are tools that can help with getting organized, but if you forget a deadline you really should question whether you're in the right job or not!

Project management software can help you get organized, but so too do other cheaper options.

Frankly, getting organized is a state of mind. It's the consistent execution of repeatable habits that create workable schedules, hit project milestones and deliver successful outcomes. Any software or system will only ever be as good as the operator! Remember, GIGO!

In conclusion, investing in some project management software could help but if the vendor is telling you it will turn you into a world-class project manager — buyer beware. Buying project management software will no more turn you into a project management legend than buying a treadmill will turn you into Usain Bolt. It's what you do on it, day in, day out, that gets results like that.

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