The art of project management: the four horsemen

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Carl Manello

It may be an overstatement to say that poor project management will bring about the apocalypse, but any project manager knows that inferior project management can certainly lead to a death march (e.g., one of those projects which appears to be destined to fail or which requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork). These types of project disasters are often the result of being overrun by the four horsemen of project management. Like their namesake from the Bible (described in the last book of the New Testament), or on the football field (the backfield of Notre Dame’s 1924 football team), the four horsemen are forces to be reckoned with.

The project management horsemen ride hard and cause as much chaos as the four horseman of lore, but they come under different names. These riders are known as Confusion, Obscurity, Hindrance, and Mismanagement. Once arrived, this quartet can bring any major initiative to a grinding halt, or set it off in an unplanned direction. But if a PM team is armed with strong capabilities, these evil influences can be held at bay.

Confusion

Confusion during a project is borne from a lack of clear definitions. To align people on vision, goals, and objectives, project managers must be explicitly clear about exactly what is going to be accomplished and what is not. The easiest way to establish clarity is to develop a definition document. A program charter is also a great tool to leverage. To ensure everyone is on board, a PM team needs a good structure to define what is in scope and what is out of scope. For more on the program charter, review these posts on scope creep and scope change.

Obscurity

Without visibility into what is being accomplished, where the initiative is going, or what it will take to get there, any project may struggle to measure its progress. To ensure that all stakeholders and team members understand what the state of progress is, an easy-to-understand status report with essential information is required. A status report detailing an item-by-item review of what each team member did during the week (that helps justify the team size or expense) is not useful. Status reporting is not about proving that the team is busy.  It’s about showing that the team is making progress.

I’m a big fan of progress health metrics, milestone dates, performance metrics, and high-level, business value-oriented progress notes. Summarized in one page (literally!), the status report clearly summarizes the most important information about where the project is at for any stakeholder. It may not contain all the minute details, technical information, or personnel issues, but it does convey the most important thing: measurable progress.

Hindrance

The impediment to a project moving forward is often clear direction, as noted above in Confusion. Another key component for clearing the path is the creation of clear metrics. Without clear business alignment, a project can go off the tracks, take on a new course, or be canceled without cause. By establishing alignment on clear business values, and by setting up the appropriate controls and measures to demonstrate the realization of value, a project can better demonstrate what it is contributing and how well it is doing.

The timeless measures of “on time” and “on budget” are not irrelevant. But without context, these two metrics are relatively meaningless to the typical sponsor or executive. On time and on budget to do what? Has the project been broken down into component accomplishments? I think that any leader would appreciate the relevance to on time and on budget. For example, “the new store workstream is on time and 10% below budget, having opened three of three planned new locations… the remaining 6 locations are currently on track….”

Don’t hinder a project’s progress by obscuring what the team is doing. Be straightforward. Be exact and be measured. If you are behind, call it out with specifics and with a plan for how you’ll get back on track. You may be surprised how well an honest report-out will build your credibility.

Mismanagement

A loss of control puts any vehicle into jeopardy. The same is true for any initiative. While governance is sometimes organized as a series of hierarchical steering committees, that may not always be sufficient. Governance includes the methods, processes, templates, and tools that enable the initiative’s success. The focus on enablement is key. PM activities that are dictated by the PMO in an effort to clamp down on controls and bury teams in endless paperwork, meetings, and check points is no more helpful than a tollbooth on every mile of a highway.  In other words, governance that slows progress is frustrating, very costly, and not as useful as governance that accelerates and enables.

True governance should be focused on the empowerment of those delivering projects, not on those overseeing projects. Processes should streamline delivery. Templates should ease and enable. Tools should only automate what has been proven to work effectively in a manual fashion. With these structures in place, governance will provide help to those delivering and visibility and control to those masterminding initiatives.

To get to the state of efficient management, an organization may choose to leverage proven practices, a proactive approach, strong governance, and frameworks.

Wrapping up

Implementing strong controls and processes is a great way to keep project catastrophes from happening. However, we must be careful not to implement rules that offer little or no value. To quote US aerospace businessman and former Under Secretary of the Army Norman Augustine,  “If sufficient numbers of management layers are superimposed on top of each other, it can be assured that disaster is not left to chance.”  Let’s do what is right to add definition about where we are going, make our progress clear, measure along the way, and govern appropriately.  With that level of focus, project managers can keep the four horsemen away.

About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

3 Responses to The art of project management: the four horsemen

  1. Seymour Manello, Pearl Manello says:

    A concise, understandable analogy.

  2. Magdalena says:

    A rather popular metaphor, but the article adds a bit to knowledge on project management.

  3. Kris Gopalasubramanian says:

    “Processes should streamline delivery. Templates should ease and enable. Tools should only automate what has been proven to work effectively in a manual fashion.” — Profound Statement. A tool should help us do what know to do well manually. Only then we will be able to command (I mean configure) the same to do what we want. Otherwise we will be playing in the hands of the tool instead of taking advantage of it. After all, a fool (even) with a tool is still a fool though:-)!

    Kris Gopalasubramanian

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