Why senior executives neglect project management

Business leaders don't recognize the value of project management, and that lack of awareness can lead to problems with strategy execution.

project management outsourcing
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The following post is an edited excerpt from my book The Focused Organization.

Introduction 

I have spent the past 10 years trying to understand why senior executives seem to neither understand project management nor regard it as an important means of strategy execution. While conducting my research, I discovered that most heads of organizations view project management as a highly technical discipline -- an area for engineers and IT professionals. Consequently, they:

  • Lack a basic understanding of how to link each of their strategic projects with the company’s overall strategy.

  • Do not devote much time to developing project management competencies in-house.

  • Fail to implement a formal project selection process and set up an investment committee, which discusses, prioritizes and decides on all the new project proposals.

  • Lack the means to monitor the success or failure of their strategic projects.

But why do so many senior executives feel this way?

In an attempt to get to the deeper reasons for their views, I sought answers to the following questions:

  1. Do the theories of the most highly regarded business management gurus, those who influence the way businesses are managed (e.g., Taylor, Drucker, and Porter), mention project management and/or the importance of its link with strategy execution?

  2. Have the top business schools, those that train most senior executives and future leaders, been teaching the value of project management and its link with strategy execution?

  3. Is project management regularly discussed in the finest business publications?

1. Disregarded by business management gurus

My rationale for scrutinizing the work of the so-called business management gurus is that they have shaped the way companies do business today. Their theories have promoted big waves of change and improvement for many decades and have become obligatory reading for most business school students.

I looked at business management experts of the 20th and early 21st centuries whom I considered to be the most influential. My aim was to first understand the impact of their theories on business and then to determine whether they discussed project management as a discipline and/or its link to strategy execution.

None of the most influential business management gurus referred to project management as an important business methodology or as a critical component of strategy execution. This neglect is one of the main reasons why most of today’s business leaders continue to ignore the value of project management.

2. Ignored by most top MBA programs

After determining that most business management gurus disregard project management and its link with strategy execution, I wanted to find out whether the same was true at the top business schools. Specifically, I wanted to know whether the MBA programs at such world-renowned institutions as Harvard and INSEAD, which teach the world’s future CEOs and senior executives, actually include project management as part of their core business curriculum.

Masters in business administration (MBA) programs have an extraordinary reputation and openly claim, as Stanford's Graduate School of Business once did, that they “help you to develop a leadership mindset and strong foundation of management skills to succeed in your first job and throughout your career. We prepare you for the future. We empower you to make the difference.”

Over the past 40 years, the MBA has become one of the most sought-after degrees in the world. Many of the current top managers have gone through this business program, and most future leaders will do so. The traditional MBA program has a duration of between 12 and 24 months, and it is divided into two blocks. The first block is composed of core courses, which are mandatory for every student. The second block comprises an extensive list of elective courses, from which students select a certain number that relate to their specialization.

Research into the inclusion of project management courses

Using the Financial Times 2010 ranking of the world’s top business schools, I researched whether any of them taught project management as either a core course or an elective.

The results are astonishing: Only two of the top 100 MBA programs in the world teach project management as a core course. The first business school that required its students to take a course in project management is the UK’s Cranfield School of Management, which is ranked 26th in the world. The other business school that teaches project management as a mandatory course is the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, ranked 64th in the world.

I strongly believe that by 2020, most of the MBA programs in the world will offer project management as an elective class. A bit more time will be required for project management to become a mandatory course, primarily because it will need to be adapted to the MBA program and its unique way of being taught.

3. Discounted as a key topic by the finest business publications

Despite all of my findings indicating that project management has been ignored, I decided to complete one last piece of research before drawing conclusions. This involved reviewing the McKinsey Quarterly and the Harvard Business Review to see how these top business publications cover the topic of project management and its link with strategy execution.

First I looked at McKinsey Quarterly, which was founded in 1964 by McKinsey & Co. and is targeted to chief executives, top managers, and selected academics. Its articles are written by McKinsey consultants to offer practical suggestions culled from their experience with the world’s largest companies. Initially, the Quarterly was distributed by the McKinsey partners but it's now distributed electronically.

Reviewing the list of functions on the electronic version of the McKinsey Quarterly, I noticed many familiar ones but none related to project management or strategy execution. Does this mean that these two topics are not sufficiently relevant?

Second, I looked at the Harvard Business Review, the bible in terms of business management thinking and new trends. First published in 1922 by Harvard University, its mission is to improve the practice of project management and its impact on changing the world. In 2010, the Review had a circulation of 236,000.

I reviewed the publication’s website to determine the topics mentioned and the number of references to each topic.

Clearly, the key themes written about in the Harvard Business Review are the ones most addressed by business gurus, which in turn are the subjects taught most frequently at the top business schools and discussed most often by leading consultants. Only 432 Harvard Business Review articles have been written about project management, which represent less than 0.50 percent of the total number of articles published. Strategy execution — or implementation, as the publication calls it — is the subject of a somewhat greater number of articles (1,203); but both topics are far from the top of the list.

Conclusions

My research shows very clearly why project management has not been relevant and explains the consequent disregard of this discipline by senior leaders. For most of the project management community, this is a very painful discovery; but it helps to understand the reasons for this indifference. For many strategists, this lack of awareness of the importance of project management explains the problems with strategy execution. Only when project management is recognized as being vital to strategy execution will companies begin to more effectively achieve their goals.

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