Project management is a key vehicle for organisations to turn strategy into action. However, despite the increasing investment in project management capability, many projects still fail to meet their objectives. In this fifth article in a series we explore how the lack of relevant project management training can derail projects, one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, initially coined by Jeffrey Pinto in his paper ‘Lies, damned lies, and project plans’: Recurring human errors that can ruin the project planning process’.
At Skarbek, we often parachute into situations where a client’s key projects are in crisis and the blame game has begun. Has there been malpractice in project management, or is it environmental factors that have driven failure – lack of resources, commitment, engagement, or sponsorship? To those project managers who readily point out that their projects were well run, but these external factors conspired against success, Pinto’s seven deadly sins provide some insights that can make the profession question whether they really got it right from the beginning.
The fifth sin explored by Pinto is the lack of relevant project management training. Interestingly Pinto typifies the knowledge that underpins this in a very holistic manner, as four categories:
- Cultural knowledge about how an organisation behaves, thinks about implementation activities, and views the world
- Domain knowledge about work in that organisation’s industry
- Institutional knowledge about the organisation’s structure, governance, rules and decision making
- Process knowledge about how the work to deliver key projects proceeds
Our experience is that only the most traditionally project-based organisations tend to have enduring internal project management training setups, such as aerospace and engineering firms. In most clients we work with in FMCG and life sciences, project management is simply treated as a ‘best effort’ skill to acquire, along with perhaps being good at spreadsheets, or developing commercial acumen. Sometimes training is outsourced on demand, for example to PMP or Prince 2 programme providers, which often misses the mark by falling between two stools:
- Not concise and relevant insights-based enough for those whose regular work is as members of project teams, or leading functional sub-teams in a bigger project
- Not context-specific enough for those in project manager roles
Moreover, in both cases the outsourced training focuses on individual skills and misses the opportunity to imprint into the organisation the DNA of ‘how we execute key initiatives here’, which will need to cover all of Pinto’s four knowledge areas. In particular, the hard skills methodology element that is typically taught in project training is necessary, but not sufficient, and non-tailored training will always struggle to adapt the soft skill elements to the particular organisation’s context in a way that will get traction.
We also often find a very uneven distribution of training. For example, it may be that the IT department and the clinical studies group have project management training in place, and the methodologies can be very different (for example waterfall and agile tools). Any key strategic initiative will require cross-functional working across multiple departments and the mix of approaches across any project teams formed, combined with the training gaps for some members, is not a strong recipe for successful execution.
Another source of training stress, and to be frank, work for consultants like us, is that the current high levels of restructuring in organisations tends to push out those at the mature end of their career progressions, who have built up the informal experience base that makes them successful project managers, sponsors of, or key players in project teams. With no internal training programmes in place, and no knowledge capture capability, key planks of those four knowledge areas are lost forever as those highly effective individuals leave.
The final barrier we see is organisational. Because project management skills are required across a large number of roles and departments, but with dedicated project functions often being small, even in the largest FMCG, or life sciences companies, training budgets are often very limited compared to the scale of the need. We have witnessed ourselves the difficulty in one client determined to roll out a global cross-functional way of working on their innovation projects, trying to collect the funding for thousands of training workshop places from each of dozens of market heads. Compare that to the resources often deployed behind leadership programmes, although arguably, project skills demand a wider user base.
Our recommendations to promote the training needed for organisations to deliver their projects include:
- Map the organisation to quantify the audience for both those who need key project leader skills, and those who need to play effective parts within projects
- Understand the mix of hard skills, soft skills and technology that will achieve the effects you want
- Advocate for appropriate budgets to be set for training at the right level in the organisation
- Create pull by working project management into the lexicon used in HR processes – so it becomes a feature in job descriptions, personal development plans, training catalogues, promotion assessments and performance reviews
- Go beyond just project methodology and develop internal training capability to embed ‘this is how we work together here to deliver effectively’, as a culture building and change tool
- Accept if the capability is critical to your organisation delivering growth that continued investment is needed to sustain the capability
In future articles, we will example the remaining deadly project sins before drawing together our insights as a whole of what may be dooming your projects from the offset and the overall strategies that we have found can be employed to avoid this fate.