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The Case for Project Management

If you walk through any goodsize IT department or technology company, you will usually find there is at least one centrallylocated meeting room that is almost always in use.

While cynics will see this as a sign of "meeting-itis"—'No wonder these people don't get anything done ... they're in meetings all the time!"— a closer look provides a good lesson for department heads in many other kinds of organizations.

That's because the meetings that take place in such facilities are often not traditional staff meetings, but project management meetings. And if well run, they are an indispensable part of actual project work.

Traditional management practices were designed to oversee ongoing business operations that were largely repeated over and over again. As such, they involved highly structured chains of command with clearly defined authority and responsibilities.

The project management model represents a different approach designed for overseeing complex "one time only" tasks ranging from construction and engineering projects to new product development to special events.

The largest projects require sophisticated analytical tools such as Gannt and task dependency charts just to keep the projects and their teams organized. But the essence of project management is a much simpler idea: that certain business objectives require the use and management of resources across traditional business operational lines or chains of command. Such efforts are led by temporary project managers who oversee ad hoc project teams assembled specifically for the purpose at hand.

In this kind of "matrix" environment, project management provides a structure in which responsibilities can be effectively assigned, shared and managed even though most of the people working on a given project may not share common reporting relationships. This contrasts with the traditional " management by objective" approach, which is largely top-down and hierarchical.

Directors today have an increasing need for such skills, especially as their responsibilities have evolved to often include multiple departments, multiple sites and multiple services (as one example, consider the role at Bristol-Myers Squibb played by Ann McNally, profiled elsewhere in this issue.)

Sometimes directors will serve as project managers themselves (for example, when a major renovation is being planned); at other times they may appoint project managers from among their staff, or assign staff to be on project teams led by others.

This is not to say that this approach is always efficient or the answer to every new business endeavor. But project management does represent a useful model that, if used effectively, has real application in onsite foodservice. Projects large and small, from coordinating a major renovation to designing a better takeout program, can benefit from it.

At the same time, while project teams bring a wider variety of people and resources to bear on a challenge, it's a model that also brings its own problems. Individuals who do not have established reporting relationships must work together, sometimes uneasily. Time, people and resource commitments are required that may seriously conflict with existing work obligations (whose project gets compromised?) More management time is often required to keep team project activities coordinated and on-track.

An individual manager may see the new project as compromising his or her established right to set priorities or see it as encroaching on his or her autonomy. And many projects are just seen as outandout extra work that is unrealistically expected by an administration unwilling to make needed resources available for it.

Simply assigning someone to a team and having them attend meetings doesn't necessarily commit them psychologically to effectively shouldering part of the burden. There are also some individuals who want to be on every team, but whose contributions are likely to be modest and whose input mostly serves to bog things down.

As a department director, you need to address such issues and defuse potential political ramifications. The techniques for doing so are not always traditional ones.

Next month we'll consider what makes some project teams successful and what makes others falter and fail.

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