Is project management bureaucratic? (2/6 PM challenges)

We continue our series on Project Management Challenges and opportunities. All of these articles are from a published eBook.This is second of six challenges.

Another challenge that we observe, which limits the growth of the proper practice of project management, is the perception that it is bureaucratic. “Do you really want me to do all of this paperwork? I could be done with my project by then.” Another comment: “We do not have time to plan.” A recent comment: “Wow, we need an army of people to do all of this”! 

If such bureaucracy exists then the issue is likely not project management but inherent challenges within the organization such as an ingrained and pervasive bureaucratic culture. In these situations, we have to address the underlying organizational issues in order to implement effective project management solutions.

What contribute to this impression of bureaucracy?

Consultant competence

We do understand some of these comments because we have seen professionals, and even consultants, who do not understand practical project management. We meet project management practitioners who try to overcompensate for their lack of expertise with cumbersome processes that are to the point of being ridiculous. We meet project management instructors who do not understand the difference between a ‘project life cycle’ and a ‘product life cycle’; or a ‘project life cycle’ and ‘process groups’; or a ‘tool’ and a ‘technique’. Some are not even aware that a framework is not a methodology yet they try to ‘teach’ that it is.

These consultants cannot offer a simplified approach to a practical way that ensure a disciplined approach without losing track of a key principle, which is for project management to be a facilitated process not “controlling” process.

Management Competence/Analysis paralysis

We also meet managers who cannot make decisions – so they keep going back and forth requesting more time, more data, more planning – leading to ‘analysis paralysis’ which is another form of bureaucracy. This is another situation where organizational, or management competence, impact the various organizational processes, including project management.

Excessive Planning

One more contributing factor to the belief that project management is a bureaucratic process is excessive planning. There are perfectionists in life who believe a plan must be perfect. If the plan is perfect then why do we need project managers?

We have to keep in mind the “law of diminishing return.” In this case, practitioners can put a great deal of effort while trying to perfect a plan but the benefits would be minimal and do not make economic and business sense.

Planning, like project management, is an art and a science. It seeks to strike the right balance, which is the difference between success and failure; between ability and inability; between competence and incompetence.

There are professionals, practitioners, and even consultants who miss the point that project management must be a facilitating process to help organizations deliver their projects efficiently and effectively. Project management must follow a disciplined approach while maintaining flexibility in order for it to be the catalyst of success. Yes, we know, we are repeating to emphasize the point.

SCENE 06Project Management System or a Manual

It is common to find organizations that have large manuals called the Project Management System, but they DO NOT follow it. In these circumstances, has project management failed them or is it their inherent bureaucratic process? Refer to example 1 below.

Example 1: System or Manual

A major company hired SUKAD a few years back to help them improve their project management system, review their manuals, modify existing sections, and add missing topics from the system and manual.

When we visited the client to define the project mission, collect their requirements, and identify what exists, we met with many of their senior managers. Some told us “we have a good system,” in reference to the manual. Between the lines, they were telling us “we do not need you.” Some stood by these statements but others added “but no one use it.” When we met with a group of their project teams’ members to discuss the manual, there was no alignment on the scope of the manual or an understanding of its content. We expected this misalignment since “no one uses it.”

In this case – the project management system has become a huge 3-volume manual that no one use, effectively. This is a case when an organization was falling victim to its own processes. Since the team felt the system is not clear and cumbersome, some just decide to ignore it or follow only what they were comfortable with.

SCENE 04Laissez-faire

At the other extreme, (refer to second example) if project management is laissez-faire then its value is lost along with its effectiveness. For example, if every idea becomes a project and organizational resources work on these projects, then when subsequent authorized projects come along, two potentials scenarios arise:

  • The first is that no resources are available and a good project is lost, possibly to a less valuable one
  • The second is that organizations cancel the less significant projects and the effort that went into them is wasted.

The scenario we explain here is mostly part of portfolio management, rather than project management, but is also applicable to decision-making on authorizing projects, especially the absence of a formalized process.

Example 2: Project Management Laissez-Faire

In a meeting with another client, also a major global player and a known brand, the manager in charge of improving project management was tearing out his hair.

“Mounir, the challenge in this company is that when I asked for a list of projects no one had it. I started to collect the information and I was shocked to find out that we have hundreds of projects at various stages.”

“What is happening here is that anyone with an idea then it is a project and people start to work on it with no control points or validation.”

Closing comment

Yes, project management can be a bureaucratic process in organizations where bureaucracy prevails but not because of project management. However, in organizations that understand the strategic value of project management than professional project management skills are crucial for organizational success. The key is utilizing a disciplined approach for project management.