During the past fifty years projects became quite popular in organisations. Research indicates that in some countries more than one third of the GDP is performed through projects, with some organisations running more than fifty percent of their turnover through projects. And that´s not taking into account the vast number of internal projects, e.g. for IT, HR or Strategic Change Initiatives. Projects seem to heal one of the problems created during the period of industrial revolution: the division of work into smaller junks of specialized activities. It requires integration. The more people or organisations are part of developing a new product, the more you need to integrate them towards one goal. Steep hierarchical and highly specialized line organisations are rather incapable of doing this. Project managers are supposed to coordinate activities across line functions and organisations. Line functions specialize in one area, they are efficient in performing work in that area, but not interested in others.
In an increasingly complex and dynamic world, work is being moved away from line functions to a cross-functional project manager, who is supposed to resolve all issues and “manage” all activities towards realizing the intended benefits. Unfortunately, many organisations do not have clear answers on the following questions: “what is a real project?”, “what do we need projects for?” or “what type of work should really be performed as project?”. The effect is “projectitis”, a severe disease! Most of the work in such organisations is being called “project”. Project managers are perceived as the ones doing all work, however they are often “hypochondriacs” as they are often overloaded with tasks and expectations, e.g. solving problems for line functions. They try their best in applying good practices of project management, but struggle as some of the tasks called “projects” are simple and project management would be an overburden or “overkill”, some of the tasks are difficult to solve but require a line function with a specific skill set, or top management is overwhelmed with project status reports and the attention people require from them.
Overcoming the projectitis is critical for organisations in order to become efficient and effective. There needs to be a clear set of criteria for deciding what a project is (and what could be done in other forms of work). Potential criteria are:
- Is the work rather unique, innovative, creative (e.g. new material, new process, new product), or rather standard, routine and “business as usual”?
- Is the work being performed across several functions, organisational units, organisations, countries and does it require a special coordination?
- Is the work strategic, does it require the attention of top management, or did the steering committee decide to oversee it on a regular basis?
- Is the work rather risky, critical from a legal or contractual point of view and does it require special attention by top management?
- Does the work include a significant amount of investment and thus special attention by and reporting to the top management?
- Does the duration, volume and / or overall complexity of the project require special management approaches and attention?
Starting into project management, my recommendation is to tailor the criteria in such a way that 20% of the work is performed as projects and 80% as “business as usual” (“Pareto-Principle”). Consequently, only projects require the application of project management processes, methods and tools as well as a special function called “project manager”. The “business as usual” is also managed, but on a low scale by line functions with a basic education in project management. After a while, the ration in an organisation may change, from 20% (projects) to 30%, 40% or even higher. That depends on the development of the business. Sales may acquire more complex business and thus the number of “real” projects is growing. Some organisations may even categorize their business in A-, B- and C-Projects, or Programmes and Projects, and “business as usual”. A-category projects may be the most complex, risky, important and unique endeavors in an organisation and require a professional, fully-blown project management approach, whereas B- and C-category projects require less processes, methods and tools. Project management needs to be tailored to the requirements of the project(s) and “business as usual”. The latter also requires a definition of goals, a rough plan and lessons learned at the end. Therefore, an organisation is required to develop a generic project management approach, which is being tailored to the needs of defined project categories and “business as usual”. The competence requirements of people being responsible for the work may also be aligned to those categories. The essence of the above: “Do not throw out the baby with the bath water”, means do not try to put everything into a project frame, do not apply the “one size fits it all”. Establish procedures and criteria of identifying the work that REALLY needs to be managed as projects or categorize the work according to clearly defined criteria, and tailor project management to the needs of each category!