The undermined project term and its consequences

Guest contribution by | 21.11.2022

The use of the project term in the practice of many companies

Which project person is not familiar with the classic project triangle of results, time and costs?¹ In recent years, there has been a tendency in the discipline of project management, propagated by consultants, to expand this triangle into a polygon. Such polygons usually focus on cultural aspects, questions of meaning or environmental conditions; implications beyond the end of the project are also considered, so that the issue of sustainability of projects also plays a role.

At the same time, the original triangle is wobbling, one could also say it is being “undermined”. Again and again, younger coachees tell me about so-called projects from their companies in which the effort required to achieve the project result plays no role and is not even considered. Instead, an often vague result (“The congress must work!” or “The customer must be satisfied!”) is set by the management, a deadline is set, sometimes a small monetary budget is approved and off they go.

Dear clients, I would like to point out here that the term project is completely inappropriate for such a management wish.

The commissioned persons (i.e. my coachees) are not given any time to clarify the task properly, let alone to plan the effort appropriately, which does not work anyway without a clear mandate.

The coachees always emphasise to me that they know exactly what is expected as a result and look at me in amazement when I ask about the costs.

When I ask them after the end of the project about the results achieved, I am astonished at how often the project seems to have succeeded. However, the people concerned seem exhausted, even worn out, and they say the same about themselves.

Further enquiries about the course of the project reveal conflicts with the client, who at least in the meantime was not satisfied, as well as health problems among the coachees, which met with understanding and apparently reduced the client’s demands. Something then comes out that, according to the coachees, satisfies everyone to some extent, there is no reflection on what has been achieved and the effort involved, and instead the next “project” continues without a break. When the term “learning organisation” is mentioned in such contexts, I can hardly hide my irritation.

The project term versus “I-want-tasks” or “I-want-projects”

In lived practice, a completely new concept of project thus seems to be emerging: Project as something that the client simply wants, whose feasibility is not reflected upon and where the so-called project managers must somehow achieve it by a fixed deadline, unpaid overtime included.

The only thing left of the project management triangle is the duration; results and costs are empty shells in the field of tension between the unclear wishes of the client – let’s not even talk about stakeholders – and the health of the project manager, sometimes even the entire project team (whereby project organisation also seems to be a foreign word). I don’t call it a project then, but an “I-want-task” or an “I-want-project”.

I also observe similar redefinitions of the project term in public projects in Germany; here, too, political clients ignore feasibility. Examples of such “I-want-projects” can be found in Stuttgart 21 or the BER airport. Project durations that defy any planning, costs that explode, and results that fulfil the original purpose only to a very limited extent. Even after its commissioning, BER is not necessarily a source of joy for air travellers and the staff working there, but it is a ready-made meal for the press. And almost as a matter of course, expert opinions from project experts were ignored, lessons learned were only collected behind closed doors as far as I know – if there were any at all.

The solution promises of the superheroes

Those who want to solve these “I-want-tasks” or manage the “I-want-projects” need “superheroes” – and indeed there are always offers on LinkedIn and XING from consultant colleagues with similar promises. This is probably one of the reasons why the term “hero” is increasingly falling into disrepute – and rightly so, in my opinion, because it doesn’t really fit in with projects, but rather with the practice of uncertainty.²

The situation becomes even more stressful when the discipline of project management has little support among the management and the know-how about it is also low at the management level. In particular, such companies often lack important knowledge about professional resource management or staff utilisation.

If such managers then read about superheroes in social media, they are certainly taken with them and see an opportunity to implement their wishes and needs with the help of such “heroes”. People are also happy to pack in other hype terms, such as

  • agile,
  • personal responsibility or
  • or “new work”.

Other colleagues have already spoken in detail about the undermining of these terms here in the t2informatik blog. Ultimately, this promotes the self-exploitation described “in the sense of the cause”.

Love it, change it or leave it

But what to do when you are assigned with such so-called projects or better “I-want-tasks”?

As an experienced project manager, I could refuse such tasks. Of course, my reasoning was not that they were not feasible, but that I could not do them – I do not want to exclude the possibility that there might be supermen or superwomen who could have done it. In order to derive such a rejection conclusively, you need experience and standing, which I didn’t have as a young junior staff member either. My hypothesis is that this is why we see the phenomenon described in this article so often with young coachees, the old timers dive out in time.

For the young coachees, dropping out or refusing is not really an option, because not only do they not have the necessary experience, but because of their age they are also enthusiastic and ambitious and want to make things happen. If they are also convinced of the meaningfulness of the task (purpose is also used here in a deliberately manipulative way), there is no stopping them and they work until they are exhausted. Burnouts among young people are increasing accordingly.

As a coach, I look for solutions with the coachees. To do this, I transparently leave my role as coach and become a consultant and trainer for project management. And we do vision work to find out what the coachee actually wants in his or her working life.

The difficult thing about the solutions that develop in this way is that we do not find them in the systems in which “I-want-tasks” are common and in which the coachee currently works. True to the beautiful motto “love it, change it or leave it”, the only way out of the system remains. Since these systems promise career and purpose at the same time, the hope for “change it” is high with many coachees and is further encouraged by the currently so lofty job titles. This is where coaching and project management consulting reach their limits.

And now?

But if the situation can certainly be described as muddled, what is the point of such an article?

I would like to point out that the project term is used manipulatively and incorrectly in many companies. Take a look and see whether you are really a project manager or an “I-want-to-implement” person.

My coachees like to describe the situation in such so-called projects as “the client is breathing down my neck” – this is often even physically noticeable. Or clients and managers speak of great creative freedom, but the limits of this are unclear and can certainly be described as mood-dependent. Both are noticeable shortly after the start of the project at the latest and are an unmistakable sign that a barely solvable task with burnout potential is lurking here. Systemic order clarification³ can also clarify the situation; if it is prevented, it is already clear at an early stage where the journey is to go.

Conclusion

My clear recommendation for project people who know and experience such situations every day: Look for another challenge!

There are companies that run project management professionally, and it is absolutely imperative that they take care of the feasibility and the expenses associated with the fulfilment of the task. This includes initial planning at the beginning of the project as well as continuous updating of the plan during the course of the project and an appropriate review of the plan and the actual situation at the end of the project. Only in this way can a company and also the individual learn and improve (the next planning). Your health will thank you and such an approach should also be in the interest of your company. Where none of this exists, self-exploitation lurks.

And last but not least, I have a request to my fellow consultants: I like your polygons, especially when it comes to the sustainable impact of projects. But hey, the practice of young people in companies unfortunately often looks quite different. We should not avoid this with all our enthusiasm for (management) academies and self-responsibility, because there is a risk that the gap will widen even further – everyone rushes enthusiastically to the new corners and forgets the basics of project management, which just do not fit “I-want-tasks”.

 

Notes:

[1] More on project definition
[2] Effective project management does not need heroes
[3] A possible method for clarifying tasks

If you like the post or want to discuss it, feel free to share it in your network.

Astrid Kuhlmey has published other articles in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Is the world getting more complex?

Is the world getting more complex?

t2informatik Blog: PMO and Uncertainty

PMO and Uncertainty

t2informatik Blog: Letting go is the new way of planning

Letting go is the new way of planning

Astrid Kuhlmey
Astrid Kuhlmey

Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.