Good project management isn't just about the end product

Last updated on 
January 3, 2020

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The term “project management” has been kicking around since the 1950s, and despite the multitude of frameworks and flow charts it has inspired, its application has stayed pretty much the same. At heart, it’s beautifully simple: define a clear goal and then intelligently plan your resources, skills and methods to achieve it.

But being really good at managing projects requires something extra. Companies are increasingly realizing that chasing a single end-product and focusing exclusively on results can be shortsighted. To manage truly successful projects, you need to serve everything that's important to their long-term prosperity – from company culture and employee morale to productivity and business strategy.

How “project management” got started

Project management has its roots in early 20th century engineering, and is tied to the work of three particular individuals:

  • Henry Gnatt – an American mechanical engineer who invented the modern project schedule in the form of the Gnatt chart;
  • Henri Fayol – a French mining engineer who devised five primary functions and fourteen principles of project management;
  • Frederick Winslow Taylor – his landmark Principles of Scientific Management emphasized the importance of breaking down projects and tasks into smaller parts.

All three thinkers stressed the need to be scrupulously methodical about projects, and sought to make every element of their work deliver an end-result as cost-effectively as possible. While they may not be household names, many of their principles and methods have been adopted and developed by a large number of influential organizations over the years.

These included DuPont and Remington Rand, which in the late 1950s conjointly developed the critical path method (CPM), an algorithm for scheduling and time-managing tasks. They were joined by the United States Department of Defense, which created the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) in 1958 and then the Work Breakdown Structure in 1962. These provided ways of analyzing the specific tasks of a project and determining the minimum amount of time needed to complete them.

Other project management methods and tools emerged out of these initial steps – 'agile' frameworks like Scrum in 1986, as well as Eliyahu M. Goldratt's formulation of Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM), which placed more emphasis on managing the resources needed to complete given tasks.

A new approach to project management

Even though all of the methods above have helped develop a practical way to manage projects, their usefulness is limited by the attention they place on an “all-important” end-product. Since no company’s operation can be reduced to a set of isolated project blocks, we need to look beyond individual end-points if projects are to be truly successful.

Ultimately, the only real 'end' in project management is the organization and its overall health. More corporations are now realizing that they need to expand project management beyond the tangible product that's eventually sold to a customer and towards such intangibles as company culture and employee experience.

This should come as no huge leap of logic: it’s now widely established that neglecting employee happiness and engagement in dry pursuit of project completion comes at the cost of company sustainability. If a company's values are violated during a project, and if its employees begin to feel undervalued or overstressed, that company will find it increasingly difficult to maintain future productivity.

The importance of strong, positive company culture cannot be overstated – as Pardot co-founder David Cummings said back in 2011, "Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur."

But considering a company's longer term business strategy is equally important. In the push to finish projects as quickly or cheaply as possible, many companies often lose sight of their own strategy. Take the UK-based construction giant Carillion for example, who went into liquidation in 2018 after taking on too many projects. Or the US nuclear power company Westinghouse before them, who were forced into bankruptcy as a result of being too aggressive with project planning.

Clearly, project outputs are not end-goals in themselves; good project management needs to consider a company’s actual purpose, in addition to the needs and wellbeing of the people who actually deliver that success.

How to expand project management beyond end-products

So how can we protect project management from being too narrowly focused on isolated goals and bottom lines? How can we ensure a project is pursued for overall company success, and not solely for its own sake?

  1. Ensure project management works in parallel with people management. In practice, this means ensuring staff are being put to meaningful work they can fully invest in, and reducing the low-value or needless tasks that distract them from core tasks and interests.
  2. Understand everything that goes into a project. Projects are the sum of a multitude of small parts, and you can’t grasp the whole without understanding the individual successes – or limitations – of each. Manage better projects by understanding all the tasks that go into a project phase, as well as the time they tend to take. A solid automatic time tracker is essential for this, and helps uncover broken project workflows, distractions and scope creep.
  3. Prioritize employee motivation and engagement. Invest in “employee experience” over individual project rewards. By supporting workplace flexibility and individual work schedules, encouraging a healthy work-life balance and nurturing employee autonomy, companies will provide the conditions for a more energized and motivated workforce.
  4. Know what success means – and protect it. Thoroughly scrutinize any new projects against your core company “mission”, to ensure you don’t chase dollars over meaningful work that actually propels you forward. Know what you want to get out of them and how they align with your strategy and company culture. Remember the latter is a group responsibility, so make sure everyone is actively involved in shaping and supporting it.

Remember to actually review your projects! Read our guide on how to conduct a thorough project post-mortem.

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