WHY CONTRACT PM’s FAIL AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

Have you or your firm contracted for an (outside) Project Manager (PM) to manage one or more of your projects?   Or are you planning to engage an outside PM for one or more projects in the near future?   Or have you been disappointed with the results obtained using outside PM’s on prior projects?

Many contracted Project Managers are ineffective in their roles.   This piece focuses on how to get (far) better results out of contracted or subcontracted PM’s in the future.

There are a number of reasons that (contracted) PM’s are marginally effective or ineffective in their roles.  The reasons run from inability to work with the end client internal team, to poor communications habits, to lack of follow-through, and fifty other reasons.  After some reflection on the matter I believe that the biggest reasons, and what to do about them, boil down to the following 11 factors:

1. “Last Minute PMs” – A PM is selected for a project or sourced from a third party firm at the very last minute, perhaps even after a project or program has actually started.  The PM steps into a situation where things are already happening and may be delinquent, over-budget, poorly conceived, or all three.  Then the PM is either expected to be able to magically remediate the mess, or to at least survive in the role for a long enough time to politically justify his or her retention in the first place.

2. “Perpetual Contractor” – The PM who is engaged under contract, perhaps through a third party firm, is used to going from project to project, client to client, and develops a disappointing sense of deja-vu when it comes time to move on.   He or she is minimally invested psychologically in the project he or she is engaged to run, as (s)he expects that the engagement will be brief and there is little point in real, sustained effort for any given client.  Accordingly, effort by the PM to truly do a good job is not expended.  This may also be titled the “No Skin In the Game PM.”

3. “Overmatched PM” – The Project is simply too demanding, too complex, or too high profile for the PM.  (S)he is simply not sufficiently qualified, persistent, accomplished, etc. to handle the demands of the project and be successful.

4. “Unmanageable Project” – The project is poorly conceived by the Client Company or Sponsor, or is inadequately funded, given little real support by internal Client management, or is even resisted by internal or external stakeholders to the point where satisfactory results are doubtful even with an outstanding PM.   In many cases the PM may be held to account for lack of success when the buck should really stop with Client management for allowing the project to launch with such a mess in the background.

5. “Unclear or Mis-prioritized Requirements” – The PM is retained to do a role, and the (hiring) company has no clear idea what will really be required of the PM to be successful.  For instance, one of my prior clients had a very slow Purchasing Process that resulted in delinquent PO issuance for Vendors. A significant part of the (contracted) PM’s role was to “ride herd” on the process, approvals, etc to assure it didn’t get bogged down.  I saw at least one contracted PM ultimately fail in the role because he either failed to grasp that PO follow-up was a requirement or failed to follow-up once he understood it to be a requirement.   See next item

6. “Lacks Discipline or Follow Up” – The PM may view his or her role as principally a “status reporter” and/or “spokesperson” for the project, where (s)he thinks that by reporting problems in open forums and status meetings, that this should be sufficient to magically cause the issues or problems to solve themselves.  Then (s)he doesn’t follow up or take necessary actions to get the issues resolved timely.

7. “Lacks End-game Focus” – Ultimately the objective of a project is to create something new, whether this is a (tangible or intangible) product, process, building, software application, etc.  Every successful PM must ultimately focus on the intended endgame, which is to create or deploy the object of the project, and not merely to stay in the role of PM in perpetuity.   Any PM who would prioritize staying engaged as a PM over getting his or her projects completed probably hasn’t completed much, and never will.

8. “Too Easily Offended or Derailed” – While PM’s must cultivate skills to deal with a wide variety of personalities and situations, any PM who is easily off-put by casual remarks or snide comments probably lacks the tough hide needed to be successful.   By definition, PM’s and Project Directors are change agents, and should enjoy the challenge of having to go over, under, around or through obstacles to achieve their project objectives.   I don’t mean to suggest that successful PM’s are inherently rude, discourteous, or arrogant, but they do need a tough hide and persistence in the face of discouragement and difficulties.

9. “Insufficiently Creative” – PM’s must be able to create or conceive solutions to problems and challenges in order to keep things moving toward the end-game.   If the PM is unable to create or conceive solutions, or unwilling to recommend or push for novel or unusual methods in the face of political risk or team resistance, then the PM will only be able to address certain types of problems and not others.

10. “Contract Time Too Short” – I have seen (contract) PM’s engaged to be in place for defined durations, typically 6 months or 12 months.   What happens when the project runs 9 months or 18 months, respectively?   The PM is not around to see a project through to completion.   Moreover, the PM sees early in the engagement that (s)he will not be around to see the project through.   Connection and mental investment into the project is reduced because the PM will not be around to see the project end.   His or her focus shifts from project completion to only doing what is necessary to stay in the role for the defined timeframe to collect a paycheck.  Then the Client Company may bring in another contract PM to finish the project, and it takes him or her too much time to understand the project to be of much use to it.  

11. Expectations of the PM do not align with the PM’s actual ability.  Perhaps one of the main contributors here is misperception about credentials or project experience.  I ran hundreds of projects over a couple dozen years before getting my PMP (Project Management Professional) credential in 2006.  But the PMP credential, per se, did not make me any more professional or attentive to my projects than I was before I secured the PMP credential.  I have known other PM’s (including a number of PMP’s and PMP wanna-be’s) that couldn’t manage their way out of a bag, much less keep a $20MM project on track.  So while I strongly endorse the PMP credential (or Prince credential), the fact that someone holds the credential does not automatically mean (s)he will do a good job of your project.  PM credentials imply or denote domain expertise in the discipline of project management, but don’t mean that the holder is the right PM for your project.   For this you must be selective and specific as to the PM needed.

If you have read this far, you have probably recognized several of the issues and shortcomings listed above, and you might have identified one or more ways of dealing with selected situations.   Here I provide recommendations how to address this going forward to get much better results on your projects with (contracted) PM’s:

  • Decide very early in a project what is needed from the PM.   Generally this will be when a project is being conceived, not when it is ready for implementation (or in the middle of it).  If the main requirement is that the PM be congenial, compliant,  and/or able to get along with everyone, notwithstanding the fact that the project fails to achieve its endgame objectives, then write a position description for the ideal, compliant personality, and indicate in the job description that being compliant and docile is paramount to getting things done.   However if the main requirement is that the project is completed timely and meets requirements, then the job description should clearly indicate that the PM will be held accountable for results and that the expected result is successful completion of the project.  Engage the PM as early as possible, not when the project is well underway and the PM is retained as an afterthought.  The best PM’s will want to help decide how to structure the project, project team, deliverables, etc. and will then invest the necessary passion to truly run the project.  If all key decisions are made before a PM is engaged, you run the risk of having a disengaged PM and laggard project
  • Consider the mindset of the ideal PM candidate.   If you want or need someone who will drive a project with a clear focus on the endgame, and who will push, if not fight, for the successful completion of the project, then look for a PM candidate with this mindset.   For instance, “The PM must take on the mantle of “Project Advocate” and be willing and able to devote the necessary time, effort, and passion to push for successful project completion notwithstanding the internal and external challenges faced.”  The mindset question also arises in situations where the contract timeframe is too short (e.g. engaged for 6 months on a 9 or 12 month project).   In this case it is recommended that the Client consider extending the contract engagement period to allow the PM to complete the project instead of summarily releasing the PM after a set period notwithstanding project completion status.   For instance, “the PM will be engaged for an expected period of 6-9 months which should provide for the PM to complete the project, however, if the project is extended or not completed within this timeframe for any reason, the PM may be asked to stay in place until completion so long as it is clear that the PM has performed a very credible job for his or her entire involvement in the project where the project team will suffer by his or her absence from the project until it is completed.”
  • Evaluate internal and external systems and dependencies (such as internal procurement processes) and list out those systems and dependencies that will require PM attention and time in order to get the project done (on time/budget/quality).   Then make sure the job description includes some indication of these requirements.   For instance, “the PM will be required to spend up to 15% of his or her weekly time following up on internal purchasing processes to assure that vendor PO’s, etc. are issued timely and do not delay vendor deliverables that are required for timely completion of the project.”
  • Don’t settle for mediocre PM’s if your project demands or warrants a Rockstar PM.  If your project will cost you $20MM, what is it worth to you to have a very, very good PM run it?   I suggest the difference between an average PM and a damned good one is probably $250K-$1MM in project cost or time lost on a $20MM project.  As this is only about 1-5% of the project value my estimate may actually be low by a factor of two or three.  The real impact might be closer to $1-3MM. If you thought that having a very highly qualified PM with excellent follow-through, excellent follow-up, solid people skills, etc. was worth a $500,000 improvement on a $20MM project, would it be worth it to you to pay an extra $50-100K to have that PM run the project as opposed to an average or below-average PM?  The challenge here is that it may be hard to quantify the real impacts of a Rockstar versus average PM in order to justify the extra expense of bringing in a Rockstar.  So, the PM search results in an average PM to avoid the defined cost of the Rockstar, while not having any way of determining what is being lost by doing this.  Consider this quote from Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., “Good tactics can save even the worst strategy. Bad tactics will destroy even the best strategy.”  You may equate “PM” to “tactics” and “project” to “strategy.   That is, a good PM can often save even the worst project.   A bad PM will destroy even the best project.”   Companies tend to get what they pay for, and average PM’s generally provide average results

The key message with this paper is this:  Decide what you really need a PM to do for you or your project.  If you really want or can justify a Rockstar PM, then clarify what that Rockstar PM needs to bring to the table, in the form of skillset, demonstrated results, and commitment to seeing your project through.   And then decide to pay for that level of leadership and skillset and go find it.  But if any old PM will do, either because you don’t see the value proposition of engaging a top caliber project leader, or because you don’t have or won’t take the time to try to get a really solid PM for the project, then pick up the phone and retain the first PM who walks in your door.  All things being equal, if there is no need or impetus to get a top caliber PM, at least engage one early enough in the project where (s)he has a reasonable chance to help set up and run the project from its inception, versus being overmatched by coming into the project when it is already happening.

About the author:

Glenn Conway has made a career of operations, program and project leadership and performance management.  His company, Conway PM Consulting specializes in helping small to mid size companies improve their financial results through solid processes, effective people, and clear focus on day to day execution.

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