Where Projects Come From

21 July, 2014

Parents often dread being asked by their offspring: “Where do babies come from?” It could be a fear of causing the same discomfort that prevents Project Managers from being too curious about where projects come from. We often treat projects as a game, with the Project Sponsor laying down the ground rules and then we have to find the treasure (produce the deliverables) within the constraints of the game (hard deadlines, limited budgets, stringent quality requirements).

In many cases, the project makes intuitive sense – a new version of a software product, a bridge to allow a new road to cross a river, an upgrade to a jet engine to make it comply with noise regulations. However, there are some environments – military applications come to mind – where secrecy means that each Project Manager works in a vacuum, producing products, services and results that fit into some bigger picture that no one on the team is privy to.

But the most frustrating situation for a Project Manager is to have a perfectly sensible project cancelled for no apparent reason. Often, corporations will commission very public projects to mislead their competition. A car company may trumpet a massive investment in a new type of fuel and show off an impressive team of experts who are set off to make this new fuel work on their whole fleet of cars. The goal of this project may not be to get the fuel working, but to force their competitors into making large investments in an unviable technology and to divert attention from the real direction the company wants to take.

Another possibility is to gain leverage in negotiations. Suppose I build executive jets. Then I might be able to obtain better terms from my engine suppliers if I announced a project to develop my own engines. The Project Manager put in charge of such projects is often left in the dark as to the true nature of the project and, if dedicated, will put serious effort into ensuring the project will be a success. Even if the powers that be explain why the project is cancelled, it is still a failed project on the Project Manager’s record and can be a deeply demotivating experience. Often, a Project Manager will consider moving on after such an experience – it is difficult to lead the next charge when the very real possibility exists that the next temporary endeavour to create a unique product, service or result could be yet another red herring.

Project Managers need to be aware of the corporate strategy and to do that, they need to pay serious attention to the corporate vision and mission statements. Sadly, many of these are so meaningless that the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator (sadly no more) could produce equally convincing statements by mixing and matching frequently used buzzwords. Another difficulty for the strategy student is the confusion between vision and mission statements - many organizations get the two mixed up. The Vision Statement is a declaration of where the corporation would like to be. The founders might want to become a viable alternative to a current monopoly, to eliminate a particular type of disease, or to shake up a dormant industry. The important feature of the Vision Statement is that it describes the end point, not the approach it will take to get there.

How the Vision will be realized is the work of the Mission Statement. Charities tend to be very good at these: “Eliminate poverty through education”, “Flight cancer through research”. Sadly, many companies obfuscate by “leveraging on synergistic competencies going forward”.  Here at Velopi, our Vision is to establish ourselves as a player in the project management training market; our Mission is to provide approved courses that lead to professional project management certification. This means that we have worked to become both a Project Management Institute Registered Education Provider and an Approved Training Provider for the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC).

The Mission Statement is a very high-level declaration – in one or two lines, the approach the organization plans to take is laid out. However, the details of how the Vision will be realized will have to be fleshed out into the organizational strategy. The Project Manager needs to be aware of this strategy and always relate the project back to this strategy. A useful way to do this is to dream up Vision and Mission statements for your own project. This is actually recommended by the agile practitioners, because the iterative nature of these projects means that it is easy to lose track of the bigger picture.

If your project does not square with the espoused corporate strategy, then you should, in your role as Project Manager, ask the Project Sponsor where the project fits in. If the project is intended as a distraction, putting the Project Manager in the picture is a shrewd decision. Now that the real goals of the project are clear, the Project Manager can focus on the communications from the project – maybe providing more press coverage and encouraging staff on the project to publish in academic journals. If the goal is to create publicity, the focus should be on publicity and not on tangible deliverables. If the appearance of activity achieves the corporation’s goals, then the project can be considered a success.

However, any Project Management Professionals (PMPs)® reading this will be feeling squeamish at this point. Surely this sort of activity goes against the Project Management Institute’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct? Indeed it does, which probably explains why Project Managers are often kept in the dark when such subterfuge is being considered. However, as a professional, are you being any more ethical by burying your head in the sand and leading such projects innocently until they are terminated? At least, if you take the trouble to work out how your project aligns with corporate strategy and raise a flag if it looks like it does not, you can make the decision to go ahead with the deception or politely decline the opportunity.

Velopi’s Project Management Professional training courses cover professional ethics. If this is an area that is of interest to you then please get in touch – we run these courses in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway for your convenience.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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