Preston Smith's Corner

Project Management: Often Misapplied to Product Development

The concepts of project management (PM) and product development offer some interesting similarities as well as some important contrasts.

In many ways, PM and its tools are quite useful for managing product development. Some recent advances, such as Goldratt’s Critical Chain Method, make it even more appropriate.

Like some other product development techniques, such as stages-and-gates processes, however, PM is more oriented toward maintaining firm management control than in speed. Clearly, control is a valuable asset, but since innovation has an essential messiness associated with it, if you overcontrol the process, you can slow it down substantially. The trick is, first, to understand what your objectives for the project really are, and, second, to apply an appropriate balance of control and speed.

There is a tendency to micromanage with PM, especially with inappropriate application of  software, such as Microsoft Project. It is easy to break the work up into too many tasks and then spend unproductive time trying to keep the schedule up to date it as the inevitable changes occur with innovation. Senior management often is not helpful here, because they, naturally, want to see the latest version of the schedule. But the effective project manager is on her feet, not at her computer.

This brings us to a common difficulty of this  approach. The project manager often knows exactly what is going on with the project: who is delaying it, which tasks are in trouble, or where more resources are needed. But this individual has no authority to correct these items that will certainly affect the schedule. S/he must report the findings to management, who will, in time, take action. See our chapter in the Field Guide to Project Management for more on this.

Some organizations grant those in PM positions little authority, calling them coordinators or administrators. Others realize that this doesn’t make for speed or effective use of these individuals’ talents, so they grant them considerable authority and call them leaders, rather than managers, signifying they want the project to be led, not merely controlled.

A fundamental assumption of project management is that the project can be planned at the outset, then this plan becomes the guide to executing the project. In an environment of rapid change, as often occurs in product innovation, this assumption may be a poor one, and a more flexible approach may be far more effective.

More fundamentally, PM was developed originally to control construction activities, which do not have the innovation that makes product development fundamentally different. Unlike construction, product development does not flow sequentially from start to finish,  but instead has essential iteration. If we do not recognize this and allow for it, we will be surprise when the iteration occurs. For details, see our Quick Tip.

Contact the Project Management Institute (PMI) to learn more about PM or read some of our book reviews to learn more on how project management relates to product development.

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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