The proverbial fox guarding the henhouse

Every project needs two project managers with distinct roles to avoid conflicts of interest

Projects fail for many reasons. Although the obvious reasons usually are cost overruns, the failure to properly plan for change and the inability to meet deadlines, the hidden reason is often the same. In too many projects, the same contractor manages the project and performs the project work. Whenever one party is responsible for execution and evaluation, you’ve got a prescription for trouble. The results are predictable when the fox is guarding the henhouse.

Effective project management demands the separation of project management from project implementation. Failing to separate those areas increases the likelihood that a consulting company’s internal pressures will conflict with — or take precedence over — the client’s needs. This can keep costs higher than required to meet a consulting company’s goals for profitability and resource utilization.

Estimates indicate that for every dollar military officials spend purchasing back-office software, they spend another $15 deploying that software. Effective project management significantly reduces this ratio. But when a project manager is part of the same team implementing the project, pressures from the consulting company tend to diminish the focus on reducing costs. Reducing costs typically hurts their employer’s bottom line. Even if the result is unintentional, a lack of third-party accountability costs the government billions of dollars each year.

The federal government has realized the liability inherent in this situation and is addressing the problem. More requests for proposals require consulting organizations to select the project management function or the implementation work, but not both. This separation must become a standard operating procedure if the government wants to become more effective in project deployment.

Separating project management and implementation necessitates at least two project managers: one who fulfills an oversight role and one who leads the implementation team that manages daily operations.

The client project manager is the eyes and ears of the government and is the client’s direct advocate. That person must oversee the work and identify potential problems and issues that can prevent the project from meeting its goals. That manager collects and monitors statistics, then compares them with the project’s criteria and goals. That person supports several overall functions, including scheduling, change control, risk management, budgeting, quality assurance and control, and oversight. The same person tracks projects and develops management reports detailing progress and problems.

The implementation project manager leads the implementation team, keeps statistics on progress and relays them to the client project manager. That person manages the risks of the implementation effort.

The benefits of this separation go beyond improving the client’s project oversight. They include improved communication because an independent group provides a forum for collaboration. Another advantage is a program office capable of supporting multiple projects concurrently. In sum, those benefits improve the efficiency and ability of teams to deliver projects on schedule and within budget.

Common sense dictates that the fox should never be left to guard the henhouse. In project management, common sense dictates that strong but separate management and implementation teams are best for the client.

Slovin is a vice president at EM&I. He has more than 25 years’ experience in application development, maintenance and re-engineering methodologies and processes.

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