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Why Enterprise Project Management Initiatives Fail

Paul Strebel wrote in the Harvard Business Review (May-June 1996), “Corporate reengineering success rates in Fortune 1,000 companies are well below 50%; some say they are as low as 20%.” Although he was not citing established facts in this assessment, it certainly rings true in our own experience and I have not found many people that would disagree with this statement. If you have been in the business world for more than 10 years, chances are you have lived through a business improvement disaster that inevitably ended with personnel changes and praise for the non-participants. As an organization ages and enough failure cycles occur, the incumbent staff and management becomes more and more wary of “business improvement” efforts, leading inevitably to an organization’s inability to change. The status quo is always safer. Any change embodies a degree of risk.

From this, I conclude that project management initiatives fail because they invoke change in an organization. People are naturally resistant to change. When you mix in a history of failed change initiatives with this natural resistance and an implementation effort that is blind to these challenges, you have the perfect recipe for disaster. Worse yet, our culture works against us in combating the root cause of these failures. Despite the fact that we can rationalize the difficulty people have with change in their environment, we do not confront the emotional genesis of failure because it is generally taboo to deal with emotions in the workplace. When we show up for work, our culture dictates the expectation to check our emotions at the door and reclaim them only when the workday is over. Oh, what a happy delusion this is.

It is little wonder, then, that small start-ups, that are less likely to carry negative baggage, very often drive innovation. These tend to be organizations not yet jaded by repetitive failure cycles. It also explains why it is so difficult to implement change initiatives in companies with highly stable organization charts and a high rate of incumbent longevity, which is more likely a characteristic in old well-established companies than smaller and younger organizations. In steady state organizations, people become much more firmly planted in their positions and are more likely to see change as a threat to their turf or incumbency. These are organizations where the terms “corporate policy” and “corporate politics” are interchangeable and people perceive decision-making as risky for fear of consequences that the wrong decision can bring.

Working in the field on enterprise project management (EPM) deployments, I will often ask a group of management stakeholders whether they think their organization needs changing, which is very likely to evoke a “no” response. When I ask whether their organization needs improvement, many of the same people will answer, “Yes.” Naturally, I then ask, how does an organization improve without making changes?

Improvement, by definition, embodies change. The more interesting point is that each of these terms evokes a different mental model; the former with negative connotations and the latter with happy tidings. It illustrates the change management challenge we face when we endeavor to improve our organizations and processes. If you disagree that this is the number one challenge in implementing an EPM practice, then put down the article and step away from the software, you’re going nowhere with that misconception.

EPM initiatives, like other corporate reengineering efforts, succeed only when at least one of the following conditions is true:

  1. People perceive that the pain caused by current business performance is greater than their perception of the pain caused by change.
  2. The organization carefully and aggressively manages the change.

When things get bad enough, people become more responsive to change. Waiting for this condition to occur or counting on it is rather foolish and risky, yet desperation probably drives more successful corporate change efforts than careful management. It certainly provides an impetus to overcome organizational inertia, but it is much better to manage perception as part of your proactive human change management. This happens best when it begins at square one. Using effective change management to reshape an organization is much more fruitful than relying upon desperation, because it is a reusable skill, a gift that keeps on giving.

Unfortunately, people involved in EPM implementations more typically become very enamored with methodologies and technologies and caught up in bells and whistles, bar charts, pie charts, workflow diagrams, and the marvelous tools they have acquired. They lose sight of the actual challenge, or, worse, they ignore it completely living in a delusion that “if we build it, they will come.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

EPM is not a self-fulfilling practice. In order to add value, it requires the full support and cooperation of the organization in which it is implemented. People make this work, not technology, although the technology is certainly the enabler. The most important takeaway here is that the technology, alone, is not the solution; it is but a mere part of it. Unless your organization has already established successful process and change management practices, these must be your primary focus. The goal of this series is to elucidate the technology effectively enough to allow you to focus on helping your organization work with the technology and making the technology work for your organization; not just making it work in your data center. Implementing the technology is far easier than recognizing and implementing the management and organizational commitments success requires.
Next: Formulas for EPM Disaster.

This article is an excerpt from the book Implementing and Administering Microsoft Office Project Server 2007 by Gary Chefetz and Dale Howard.

Written by Dale Howard

Dale Howard is the Director of Education for Sensei Project Solutions.  He is in his 15th year of serving as a Microsoft Project MVP (Most Valuable Professional) and is currently one of only 39 Microsoft Project MVPs in the entire world. Dale is the co-author of 21 books on Microsoft Project, Project Server, and Project Online. He works out of his home in Ellisville, Missouri (a west suburb of St. Louis).

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