There is a long-running discussion on LinkedIn that started with the question:

Should a project manager’s responsibility go beyond that of delivering to “time, cost and quality”?

Time, cost and quality is what is known as the “iron triangle”. In this context, “quality” means conformance to the specification.

My own response was that it depends where one draws the project boundary.

When I have been in the role of project sponsor or programme manager (and sometimes both) I have always chosen to draw the project boundary so that it includes delivery of business value. Value takes the boundary beyond specification and beyond benefits. It combines both benefits and costs into the single concept of business value. Thinking in terms of value helps us to explore different benefit/cost combinations, particularly at the solution generation stage. However, I found myself in the minority. Most contributors to the discussion seemed to believe that the project manager should not be held responsible realising benefits or value. If the project manager is given the task of delivering a new bridge across a river, goes the argument, then he or she cannot be held responsible for whether anyone actually uses it. And still less can that responsibility include whether the bridge brings economic benefits to communities on each side. The benefits, it was argued, are someone else’s responsibility. That someone else being the sponsor or some wider programme in which the project plays a role. One contributor went as far as to say that if he was a taxi driver who was asked to take a customer to London, he wouldn’t bother to ask why, even though he suspected the customer wanted to go to the Commonwealth Games which were in Glasgow. He would take the money and do as he was asked, without the “added value” of checking what was really needed! A lot of the language in the discussion sounded defensive to my ears. Much seemed to stem from a concern about how respondents individual performance should be evaluated. Most wanted that evaluation to be as narrow as possible. If the given project is to deliver a bridge then isn’t that fair enough? But the example of the taxi driver played on my mind and, after a while, I came to the conclusion that whether one accepts a given boundary is a choice. That’s true for a project manager or in any other type of role. In fact, if you stop and think about people who have had successful careers, they are the self-starters who understand the bigger picture and take responsibility. They are not usually the ones waiting to be asked. Projects are no different. Project sponsors know what value they want but are often too busy and detached to ensure they get it. Or as frequently, they simply don’t know how best to engage with a project team to ensure they get value. The project manager is, however, ideally placed to understand the bigger picture: the problem to be solved, the vision to be achieved and the business value that it delivers.

This is particularly the case for IT-based projects, where the creation of an unambiguous specification is a major challenge. How can a project manager’s performance be judged on “quality” when the specification is, in reality, a moveable feast?

Furthermore, when “agile” approaches are adopted to tackle the specification challenge then how can “conformance to specification” be regarded as a measure of success? I believe that the project’s ‘True North’ should be business value and that is where the project manager should point his or her ship. But there is a choice. As a project manager, you can accept the given boundary and stay within your comfort zone of time, cost and quality. Or you can be brave and strive to understand the bigger picture and be prepared to challenge the remit that you have been given.

So, what type of project manager do you want to be? And what type do you think is most prized by organisations?

If you want to be the type known for delivering business value then you might want to join me in my Lean Project Management workshop in London on 7 October. FURTHER INFORMATION AND RESOURCES

  • If you would like to discuss this topic further, please contact Jenrick IT on 01932 245 500.