Methodologies, such as PRINCE 2, are widely touted as key to successful project management. If that is true why do so many projects supposedly managed using such tools still come in late, over budget and deliver limited benefits? This is brought to the fore by the recent scaling back of the multi-billion pound National Programme for Information Technology that was supposed to be the future administrative underpinning of the United Kingdom’s national Health Service.
Most experienced project managers can tell tales of projects run strictly to PRINCE framework that never got delivered or were late and over budget. A classic example from my own experience was for a new telecommunications company. The programme was running late and the programme manager was replaced by an experienced PRINCE practitioner. He started by imposing PRINCE disciplines with formal recording and reporting. Unfortunately the projects still continued to slip.
He was advised that he was not catching up with the programme. It was moving away from him faster than he could catch it using formal methods; he just could not get the necessary decisions taken quickly enough. Bear in mind this was a start-up company with all the energy and lack of formal management that goes with it. The attitude throughout the company was “just do it” so formal change control and other decision making processes just did not work.
After six weeks he accepted the reality that it was not the environment for him and resigned. I picked the work up. I liberated the project teams from all but the most essential paperwork and gave them the responsibility to take decision as long as they kept everyone informed. Realising that formal governance was not working I adopted an approach of telling senior management what we would do unless they told me not to. No response was approval and I would go ahead as planned. It was an extreme form of management by exception but it fitted with the culture of the organisation. We achieved sign-off on schedule. It is a high-risk approach because failure will fall squarely on the programme director or manager; sometimes one has to stand up and be counted.
PRINCE 2 and other methodologies are tools and have their place. Like any tool they are only as good as the craftsman or woman using them. In reality PRINCE, and its like, is a box of tools and project managers should choose the right tool for the job in hand not aim to use everything on every project. Project management by its nature requires flexibility to respond to changing circumstances; that is where strict processes fail as they assume that flexibility can be designed out even in the inherently uncertain world of (most) projects.
The lesson is not that methodologies are wrong or do not work but that there is a time and place. Sometimes the thoughtful and disciplined approach is essential. Other times a more “seat of the pants” approach is called for. The best project managers can switch between the two techniques as needed.