The Critical Role of Flexibility in Project Management Processes
Field Marshall von Moltke is said to have coined the phrase, “No plan survives contact with the enemy” and Project Managers everywhere will agree. Achieving goals in a rapidly changing environment demands flexibility, yet that's what many formal project management processes lack.
So, Why Define Project Management Processes Anyways?
A good project management process ensures:
All relevant factors such as requirements and stakeholders are included.
Alternative methods and approaches are explored.
Risks are assessed.
Consistency of execution across an organization.
A framework for less skilled Project Managers.
Many organizations use project audits to monitor conformance to procedures. Experienced Project Managers often complain this 'check the box' approach stifles their ability to deal with changed circumstances and bemoan the lack of flexibility.
Two reasons why you need flexibility
First, uncertainty is a fact of life. People, variable and unpredictable, are often the wild card. Or unusual weather might disrupt work or allow you to move faster. Snow might keep people at home or a ship could run aground. Skilled Project Manager's know these “unknown unknowns” are waiting to trip them up, spoiling their chances of achieving the quality, cost and delivery triumvirate.
Second, no two projects are alike. Even when the goal is identical, the environment can be different, making it difficult to follow the same sequence of activities each time. For example, some people will need more training, others may resist change. An implementation encountering challenges in one location might go smoothly in another.
In short, projects with management processes that allow flexibility are usually more successful.
Many Project Managers think time and cost buffers, (or 'padding,') add flexibility, but this is problematic. First, in a competitive bid situation it can lead to not getting the job at all, and second, work often expands to fill the time available.
Underlining the weakness in this approach, resources are finite, and usually insufficient. That means you're not going to have surplus people, material and equipment waiting to be called into action.
Instead, ensure project management processes are designed to give flexibility. Consider allowing changes to how things are done rather than what is done. Taking a pragmatic view often reveals tasks that can be scaled back, freeing resources for others with unexpectedly large challenges. For example, if procurement is moving smoothly perhaps people can be switched into other roles such as training.
It's impossible to anticipate everything that might happen during a project, but it is possible to 'expect the unexpected.' Design project management processes to allow Project Managers the flexibility to scale back activities needing less effort while diverting resources to areas with unexpected problems.
Plan, but expect the unexpected
Formal project management processes are important
Project Managers need the flexibility to deal with changed circumstances
Scale activities up or down to suit real project needs
When it comes to creating excelllent and succcessful project management processes, flexibility isn't the only thing you need. Now, more than ever, there is an increased demand for lower costs with quicker delivery and better project performance overall. But there is an element of risk involved with updating your processes, and you need to advance with caution.