Project Management is Bollocks!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 10+ years working in IT, it’s this: Project Management is utter bollocks.  It’s rubbish.  I’m not saying that planning is a bad idea.  I thinking planning is absolutely necessary if you want to avoid disaster.  But anyone who thinks they can predict exactly what will happen over the life of a project, exactly how much it will cost and how long it will take is some bizarre hybrid of a lunatic and a liar.

The most polite description I can think of for the bullshit that surrounds project management is that it’s a consensual hallucination.  I first came across that term in the cyberpunk’s bible, William Gibson’s SF novel “Neuromancer”.  He used the term to describe cyberspace.  I don’t know if he invented either term (consensual hallucination or cyberspace) but he was certainly pivotal in popularising them.

Cyberspace doesn’t exist in any physical sense in the world of Neuromancer.  It’s a massive computer network that can be “navigated” in a way that people can conceptualise.  Which allows for some cool descriptions of pseudo-physical interactions with data.  For ease of understanding, everyone treats this abstract concept as a concrete reality.  They have consented to believe in the hallucination because it’s easier to understand that way.

Life is full of consensual hallucinations.  A polite way of saying we’re surrounded by bullshit.  If you live in a democracy, you tend to believe you have a say in what happens in your life.  There’s a tendency to ignore the reality of politicians being soulless whores who are bought and paid for by vested interests.  The consensual hallucination of participatory democracy is more comforting.  Voting is little more than a sideshow but life’s a little easier to bear if we pretend voting can actually change anything.

In fact, pretty much any political or religious belief system is a consensual hallucination.  Which is not to say that they are by definition untrue.  Believe in your magic friend in the sky all you like.  Who needs empirical evidence when banding together with other believers makes the consensual hallucination feel true? 

And don’t get me started on science.  I’m a big believer in science, but that’s the point.  I’m a believer, by and large, not a knower.  At least 98% of people who believe in science can’t prove or even deeply understand much of the science they support.  But we put our faith in the idea that someone smarter than us got it right.

Which gets me back to project management, specifically, how it applies in the world of IT.  The consensual hallucination that permeates nearly all of IT is that the magic pixie dust of project management can reveal The Truth.  People who like to think they are rational individuals tend to believe that it’s possible to predict ahead of time how long a project would take, how much it will cost and everything that will happen along the way.

In the broadest possible sense, this is true.  If you have enough experience you can probably do better than a wild-arsed guess.  We’ve done something similar that took about this long so we can aim to do that again.  That’s logical.  IT people like logical.  But when someone gets the project management religion, they think they can be precise.  Business people like precise.  But some people are completely fucking insane when it comes to this topic.

Some people believe Project Management should tell you these things down to the day and the dollar. A project plan should tell you every task that needs to be completed. A project plan should be flawless and leave nothing to chance. And a project plan should be completed before ANY work is done on the project.

OK, take a fucking pill, man.  That is straight up insanity.  Despite the fact this is clearly fucked-up thinking, it’s a terrifyingly common mindset in management ranks.  Planning, or at least goal setting, at some level is obviously important.  How the hell do you know what you’re doing if you don’t have any targets? 

But we’ve descended into the seventh circle of hell when we move from “let’s have a clearly defined set of project goals and a strategy for how we’ll get there” to “this is 100% accurate, it’s carved in stone and will never change, if you can’t deliver according to this project plan it’s because you’re doing something wrong.”

Here’s what I think are the main drivers for elevating the myth of project management to the level of holy scripture:

  • There’s a whole industry of consultants scamming a living out of it.  They base their entire existence on the lie that they can provide the definitive solution to project management.  They aren’t about to ruin a good thing by telling the truth about their fallibility.
  • There are several rainforests worth of books published on the topic.  They all apparently have the definitive answer as well.  How could they possibly be wrong?  You know, unless publishing all those books was a money making scam.
  • Nobody likes to look stupid.  If you’re a professional and someone puts you on the spot to answer “how long will this take?” it’s only human to want to provide an answer.  Whether you call it professional pride or ego, it’s a powerful driver.
  • Programming tasks are measurable in retrospect.  It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking this makes them easy to predict in advance.  Being able to say “for a previous project we wrote this many lines of code and it took this many hours” does not mean you can accurately say “for this completely new project we will write this many lines of code and it will take this long.”
  • Very few businesses are keen to hand over an open chequebook.  Because a manager demands a deadline someone provides one.  Just because this stupidity keeps happening over and over doesn’t make it less stupid.

So how do we escape the consensual hallucination that there is a way to do project management that is absolutely foolproof and provides definitive answers?  Well, I propose we kill all the consultants.  Just throw the fuckers up against the wall and shoot them.  OK, maybe I won’t get away with that.  How about we tone it down a bit.  Maybe we’ll just take it out on the consultants who act like they have some mystical powers that enable them to succeed where all others have failed.  We could staple their tongues to their chins.

Maybe even that’s going a little too far.  Surely there’s a solution that doesn’t involve jail time?  There is no silver bullet that will solve this issue (although there’s quite a good essay entitled “No Silver Bullet“) .  But there are things that can be done to improve the situation. 

How about we all sit down to a big three-course serving of reality?  This can save many packed lunches of pain and misery.  If you’re on the IT side, have the courage to say “I don’t know” when that’s an accurate answer.  And if you’re on the business side, FOR GOD’S SAKE, LISTEN!  Good IT workers really don’t like saying “I don’t know.”  If they say it, they probably mean it.  So stop pushing for a definitive answer when one doesn’t exist.

I’ve spent years dealing with obnoxious managers who want an answer, any answer.  They make it clear that they think the lack of an answer comes from laziness or evasiveness.  Worse still, managers often insist on being given an answer even when they know the answer is wrong.  That isn’t being hard-nosed, it’s being fucking stupid.

It’s perfectly reasonable to want some sort of plan up front.  I’m actually one of those funny types who believe up front planning is a necessity.  So long as everyone understands an estimate is just that: an estimate.  You learn as you go along and discover more detail.  So you revise the estimate accordingly.  For this to work, everyone involved has to listen, everyone has to be open, everyone has to be responsive. 

Or we could keep flailing away with the fucked up attitude that “it has to be this way” because the sacred project plan says it’s this way.  Because that really is a lot of fun, isn’t it?

At the end of the day, it’s how people respond to the unexpected that drives whether a project will succeed or fail.  So what are you going to be?  A jerk who worships at the altar of whatever project management methodology is flavour of the month?  Or a realist who can accept that things change and all projects can be unpredictable?  Your decision makes a big difference.

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41 Comments

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41 responses to “Project Management is Bollocks!

  1. Great post, much more entertaining than “The Myth of Project Management.” :-)

    http://weblog.raganwald.com/2007/06/which-theory-first-evidence.html

  2. i dont like exessive planning since that has a bad habit of going awry. so i prefer the concept of what do we need, how do we do it and how do we fix it, if it doesnt work.

  3. Jim

    Priceless. I might have to print a t-shirt with some of this on it and wear it around the office.

  4. Who was it who said “Plans are worthless, planning is invaluable.”

    I think it was someone like George Washington, but my knowledge of quotable american revolutionaries is a bit lacking.

  5. Good article, but don’t kill me off yet. I happen to be one those project managers who say “I don’t know.” However, I follow up on questions and if I find the answer I let the business unit know. If I can’t, I provide alternatives for discussion. I’ve always had a good rapport with business unit management and IT management because I didn’t make things up and was honest. Not always what they wanted to hear.

  6. Steve Goldman

    “Plans are worthless, planning is indispensable.”

    — Eisenhower

  7. Wynand Winterbach

    Ha ha ha!

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one thinking this!

    I do think it’s worth elaborating Sandra’s point. Some people see the word “management” as a synonym to “control”; such people are boneheads.

    Others see “management” as an activity to make the working lives of others smoother; I have a lot of time for such people.

    A project manager can do some very useful things. The most important for me is to act as a shit filter; that is, to stop the customer shit which blasts through the fan from hitting the programmers. Then there are things that programmers need done to get work done and a good PM handles these things. Furthermore, a good PM at least keeps tabs on what has been done and what hasn’t and also what can potentially fuck up a project.

    So proper project management shouldn’t be about making schedule promises in the face of uncertainty, but rather about doing all the crap to help programmers do what they do best: program.

  8. My ex always complained about the PM’s at Lucent. I believe he said “a deaf, dumb, blind monkey with it’s thumb up its butt could do a better job than these Asshats.” :)

    But then, they’re Union workers so they have the luxury of jerking off on the job.

    I hate being a Project Manager because you have to rely on other people to do their jobs and more often than not they let me down. Bleh!

  9. Yeah, its a bunch of BS. So is the PMP (pmi.org).

  10. I liked the other version better – it was far more lucid.

    (That being said, this one was more enjoyable :))

  11. Reg: thanks, I thought I’d spice it up a bit ;)

    Shadow: I’m with you!

    Jim: let me know how that works out for you :) Some pics would be good!

    Massif: it’s a good summary, whoever said it first.

    Sandra: I’m not down on project managers per se, just anyone who insists that a plan is a flawlessly accurate view of the future rather than, you know, a plan.

    Steve: thanks for clearing that up!

    Wynand: I absolutely agree that a good manager is invaluable. I’ve written extensively on my views on good bosses vs bad bosses in the past.

    Cinnkitty: A big bureaucracy like Lucent would be a nightmare. And I agree with you about relying on others being stressful.

    Arsenalist: I think it’s no coincidence that acronym makes them look like pimps

    Rodeo: I can write for more than one audience :)

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  13. niq

    Manager: “I need an estimate”
    Worker: [submits estimate based on best-case + contingency]
    Manager: “Really? But it’s only [...]”
    Worker: [under pressure, drops contingency and submits estimate full of "if"s]
    Manager: “Great, let’s get started”
    Worker: [works hard to try and meet the estimate, and absorbs contingency himself]

    And the worker is automatically on the defensive if it goes over the estimate. Manager magnanimously says “that’s OK” and updates project schedules for everyone – heap the guilt on while staying on worker’s side.

    Yep, sounds like effective management, in a world where stress and burnout are Somebody Else’s Promlem[tm].

  14. Vladimir

    > although there’s quite a good essay entitled “No Silver Bullet“
    The problem is, nobody read that.
    Some years ago I had been trying to confront a “manager” who had been trying to force some “furniture police” upon me.
    Me: “This is utterly meaningless. They wrote about it in “Peopleware”, like, 50 years ago!”
    Manager: “WHO wrote WHERE?”
    Me: “You didn’t read “Peopleware”? How are you managing, then? Go read it already!”
    Manager: “I have no time! There’s much to manage!”

  15. lifebylisa

    Thanks for the post. They chose to have me as a project manager in one of my past lives. If I had had your post then, it would have saved so much time. I thought it was just me losing my mind.

  16. Niq: That’s the problem summed up right there. I’ve seen that so mnay times it isn’t funny.

    Vlad: It is scary when managers don’t have a clue about how to manage.

    Lisa: nope, not losing your mind, things around you were crazy!

  17. I can’t wait to get into management consulting, that’s where all the real chedda’ is. For now I’ll bide my time in software. I’ll know it’s time to make the move when I can’t hack it anymore. My philosophy is, if you aren’t be part of the solution, make money off the problem. :twisted:

    @Wynand Winterbach: I can tell you’re a great PM, though likely under appreciated by senior management. You echo the words of the finest managers I’ve worked with. (The very words “shit filter”, to be exact.)

  18. You’re right there Brian, consulting is the promised land of lots of money for no work.

  19. Vladimir

    >Just throw the fuckers up against the wall and shoot them. OK, maybe I won’t get away with that.

    If you throw them against that wall hard enough, you wouldn’t have to shoot. (Sorry, can’t refrain from thinking that it’s a cute idea. :))

  20. But I’m such a fan of the old line “You’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes”

  21. Vladimir

    The first against the wall will be people the revolutionaries have grudges against.

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  23. Nilesh

    This is a great article. Should be published on PMI site. All budding and would be managers or(damagers) should read it at the start.

    Good work

  24. Pingback: Rants, Raves, and Rhetoric v4 » links for 2007-08-30

  25. Pingback: Consensual Hallucinations « Dorai’s LearnLog

  26. Monish

    I believe the IT Project Management jobs are mostly BS/CYA roles. I am yet to see competency in this field. For some reason, I tend to think of them as secretaries and I call them to meetings just so they can take down notes and schedule follow-up meetings, and do a little bit of call-coordination. I do not expect them to contribute anything product to my projects other than the administrative/secretarial work. The fallacy that “Technical guys cannot communicate” is the reason for these jobs..and do not even get me started on another one that says “Technical guys cannot understand business”.

  27. JAYT

    In the USA in the 19th Century people I understand that people with no legitimate means of making a living used to travel from town to town with bags made of old carpet filled with yellowish liquid. They’d get up on soap boxes in the middle of town and talk persuasively to anyone who’d listen about the fabulous recovery from scurvy/flu/yellow fever/smallpox made by their poor old grandmother/wife/baby after drinking the essence of rattlesnake/corn snake….

    Today, project managers turn up on IT projects and say they can apply the same tried and tested techniques used to produce the last 15 widgets made on the production line to a complex project involving the equivalent of millions of components never integrated before, and produce it on budget, on time, to quality and scope.

    They often also claim to be able to do this without needing to know more than how to spell, let alone understand, the descriptions they record in “The Plan”. The years of experience gathered by the technical people who make the project work is simply not relevant to success.

    So Mr Angry, I like what you say, but I disagree with you about “pure Project Managers”. IMHO they sell very expensive snake oil to CEOs and dump large amounts of smelly stuff on people who actually know something about technical stuff and the business.

    Planning is required. Anyone with half a brain knows that without needing to think about it. But “Project Managers” are needed only those who already have a hole where their compassion and humanity should be.

    The result is often either nervous breakdown amongst techies, project failure or a combination of both. But somehow the rate of that never seems to be recorded.

  28. Marc

    JAYT and Monish – could not agree more. We have a bunch of PMP certified secretaries at our company who mostly screw up the notes they take – the funniest ones were mixing up XML and XSL, and installing Oracle on Linux vs. Linux on Oracle. These dumbasses make as much, if not more than the very sharp and smart techies in our group. Talk about a recession.

  29. Martin

    Very amusing. But this article is failing to acknowledge the fact that AGILE PROCESS provides the solution. Or perhaps you, like all IT workers are a terrible communicator, too involved in your own misguided feelings of superiority to even chance communicating with your team, your management etc.

  30. Normally I’d ignore such obvious baiting but the level of cuntishness required to make that comment is truly astonishing. Rest assured if that fucked up attitude is what you radiate at work every single person you work with is plotting ways to kill you. Painfully. And I hope they succeed soon you worthless fucking cunt.

  31. Kevin

    I must say any PM without previous tech hand-on experience is simply a babysitter to the techies. Techies don’t plan too far or too detail ahead doesn’t mean they can’t do it, it is because they understand things are bound to be changed and they can adjust to the changes without wasting time writing incorrect prediction 3 months ago.

  32. Chris

    Hey, Although it’s all very fun to say that this stuff doesn’t work, I’ve been running projects over the last year that have ended up being on budget and on time. The key has been good change management, adding a contingency % (20% average) to estimates (across design/build/design revisions/management) , and good time tracking and doing quick checks along the project to see how each function is going on their budget. This requires an excellent team, and management consultant type boss’s. But it does work. Oh and having clients that understand how much things really cost, so you don’t get knocked down on budget. Then it can work.

  33. Matt

    LOL, I typed project management is bullshit into google out of frustration and your article came up. very funny and thank you!

    Have to take a course in this garbage and reading through the book has been torture!

  34. John

    We use agil. Which is a little better then the ole standby ‘waterfall’.
    The best use for it seems to me to be a way to cut down on all the stuff the business wants into managable chunks , ie. sprints.
    So, we have a schedule, timeline and deliverables at each juncture.
    For this I am thankful for them, even if they have zero tech skills and are constantly pushing for times and dates when a lot of the time, there is no way to predict this.
    At least they keep track of things.

  35. CB

    FYI, I just finished working on an insane year long project which involved custom coding a video playback engine in C++ and openGL doing realtime video compositing. I have just worked 100 hours + for the last 3 weeks, and 125 last week to deliver on time.

    Project management may be boring, but it really does help, and also allows for people just to track their estimates regularly and stop massive crunch times to some degree. If you work somewhere that doesn’t know project management, yet runs technical projects, you soon learn to appreciate it.

  36. Steve

    In all honesty I totally get the comments in this article. I find technology upgrades easy to plan and cost “most of the time”. Where development or new systems are involved its a totally different story.

    Personally I think the answer lies in operational governance over the programme office. Wherby the techies actually ok the buisness cases before they proceed. The program office and the buisness really shouldnt think they have the knowledge to implement technology without asking the people who already operate the existing systems. This would save me wanting to kill them.

  37. chrispetersinc

    I’ve been thinking this for the past six years. Being an IT guy on a teams with two other IT guys and five project managers, I’ve been met with surprise and been told I’m not a team player when I bring up my concerns about what a project manager actually brings to the table. This article’s point doesn’t seem to be the consensus in the business world. It is thought of as a golden age of project management right now. I’ve gotten to the point that I treat project managers like petulant children and I have fears that it will eventually endanger my career. I’m hoping people will see that I actually care about the work done and want it to be on time, and I’m by no means trying to be a negative non-team player.

    Glad to see my Google search turned up others who have seen this.

  38. FredT

    Absolutely true, all programmers know that PM is pure BS. It’s just a back-door way into IT for people that can’t do the actual work. Even more useless than an MBA. Total scam and it’s getting worse.

  39. After 10mins reading on PMBOK 1st chaper (project managment body of sh.. euuh knowledge), I couldn’t resisit to google “PM + bullshit”.
    After 15 years in both design, implemention, with parallel min/usefull PManagment I wanted to make the move, it takes a PMP certification, an established world order to make money… who said we needed PMP? who said we needed MBA? who said we needed anything??

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