Don't let managers lead teams off the cliff

Failure to protect project managers from company politics (and unrealistic goals) harms the bottom line.


"Some of you are going to die, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."

That's a line in the film Shrek from the evil Lord Farquaad as he commands his knights to rescue the princess. It is obvious that Lord Farquaad doesn't give a damn about these knights, his minions. Sadly, this cavalier attitude runs rampant in many IT organizations as well. Managers often promise unachievable deadlines and budgets to their customers and then proudly proclaim that their project managers will deliver on schedule and within budget.

One CIO I know of is infamous for sending 3 a.m. email messages to his people concerning issues he wants to discuss with them by 7 a.m. These staffers set goals for the next few hours, and everyone goes back to work, often late into the night. Yet on the company website, the organization describes itself as offering a "positive work environment ... that helps employees manage their personal and business lives."

Behaving like Lord Farquaad may deliver some short-term victories, but the lasting results are low morale, diminished productivity and poor-quality products. In no way am I suggesting that teams shouldn't have aggressive goals. The problem is the persistent chasing of arbitrary schedules and budgets by under-resourced teams. My prescription for curing the Farquaad syndrome includes adopting the following tactics:

Leadership development. Other than sponsors, project managers are the most critical group in project success. Unfortunately, most IT project managers are technical people who are promoted to new responsibilities without appropriate education, training or mentoring to develop their leadership acumen. As a result, they are ill-equipped to stand up to unrealistic demands and often unable to shield their teams from the dark side of organizational politics. Without the requisite leadership skills, many project managers simply follow the orders passed down to them and then lead their teams off the cliff.

Attainable goals. There is a big difference between being challenged by an aggressive deadline and being frustrated by impossible assignments. Aggressive arbitrary goals lead to team burnout, low productivity, poor-quality work and frequent turnover of critical resources. In the absence of a well-designed project portfolio -- where projects are aligned with organizational strategies, appropriately resourced and scheduled according to realistic deadlines -- many customers, and even CIOs, end up behaving like Lord Farquaad.

Rewards and recognition. The IT profession acknowledges its people quite poorly. I can count on one finger the number of times I have witnessed a celebration organized by an IT department to reward project success.

CIOs need to take the lead here to ensure that their star project managers are accorded similar rewards to those enjoyed by the top sales and marketing professionals. When was the last time a senior executive invited a group of IT project managers on a golf outing? At a recent CIO conference I attended, I asked five CIOs who had enjoyed a golf game at the resort whether any had brought along a high-performing project manager. You can guess the response.

One of the best ways to reduce the high rate of failed IT projects is to create a nurturing environment where project managers can thrive and make significant contributions. So I often ask CIOs, "Are any of your actions, or inactions, putting project managers in harm's way while you are busy rescuing the company princess?"

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of "Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. Write to him at ProjectExpert@CIOdecisions.com. This column originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of CIO Decisions magazine.

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