Most software project managers have very little power in an organization. They are on the hook for delivery, but have very little control over the actual resources required to get the job done. Project managers have to broker agreements, hold people accountable, and get people to do things that they are not otherwise incented to do.
Fixed Constraints and Up Front Design
Requirements documents are created early, and often with little input from the delivery team. Budgets are set and timelines negotiated, prior to the project team even being engaged.
In other words… project managers are in a pretty bad spot. They are trying to manage in a situation where the triple constraints are all set for them, they have little direct control over resources, and the resources they have are matrixed across several projects with competing priorities and differing agendas.
Project Managers Want to Succeed
Project managers are often very driven people. They are detailed oriented and focused. Believe it or not, project managers don’t want to fail. Project managers are people that are committed to being successful… they want to deliver and do a good job.
So… what can a project manager do to ensure success? Focus on paperwork and process.
Paperwork and Process Defines Success
Because project managers are in an impossible situation, they retreat into self-preservation mode. They focus on comprehensive documentation and sign-off to hold people accountable. They put process and documentation over working software because the constraints of the organization ensured failure from the very beginning.
Over time, people get used to operating in this manner. Project managers get promoted and run PMOs. They run development organizations. They become a part of the business. The challenge is that they carry these self-preservation attitudes with them as they move up the ranks.
We have ended up with a bunch of leaders that think this is the way software gets created. They think that paperwork and process is the way software gets delivered to market. The thinking is so pervasive, no one even questions how we got here.
Changing Behavior Will Take Time
If we want to change this behavior and begin to tear down these walls, we need to encourage transparency and create an environment of trust. Project managers need to be able to bring the difficult issues to the business and be assured that the business will not punish them for their integrity.
Companies need to create a culture where assumptions get validated, and when they are not valid, the plan changes. We need to create a culture where risk is managed, but when it is realized, we accept responsibility for our mitigation strategies. We can talk about change management, but we have to understand that change is not free.
I understand it is difficult to run an uncertain business. We can’t wish that uncertainty away and we need structures and frameworks to help deal with it. Agile project management is just such a framework. Agile help us embrace uncertainty and deal with it.
Holding Project Managers Accountable
Hold project managers accountable for effectively managing assumptions and risk, good decision making, and proper escalation to the right people. Hold them accountable for how well they communicate and keep the business informed. Reward them for coming up with creative proposals and implementing effective strategies.
Unless we want mountains of documentation no one will ever read, let’s stop holding project managers accountable for plans that should never have been laid in the first place.