Nobody cares about projects

I have been a project manager for over 18 years and it pains me to say this. However, when a new realization dawns, it is time to move on. And my realization is the following. Organizations do NOT care about projects. If you are a project manager who is serious about moving your career into top gear and one day occupy the corner office, stop thinking about projects and start thinking about products.

Let me explain what I mean. Back to basics. What is a project?

Project Management Institute definition: A temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.

PRINCE2® definition: A temporary organization created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case.

Read through those statements again. A Project is a temporary phenomenon. What will last much beyond the project is the product. If you get too attached to the project, you lose sight of the big picture. Trust me – management only cares about what came at the end of the project. And that is the product which ultimately drives the business case.

Why products are important

Now when we use the term product, it is intended to cover services (e.g. a Cab service) as well. (Digression: The IT Service Managementexperts might have a different take on this. For them, even a product is ultimately used to offer a service, whereas you could view a service also as a product that you offer to a customer. Moot point – but that is not the subject of this post).

The business of an organization revolves around its products. Apple is known for iPhones. Pfizer is known for Viagra. Macdonalds is known for the Big Mac. Does anybody remember the project that was behind the creation of the iPhone? Who cares?

One blockbuster product can wipe out the sins from hundreds of over-budget and delayed projects. While your management may tell you they want it on time and that project budgets are important. But what they ultimately care about is whether the product will sell and if it will help them realize their business objectives. It does not matter if your project was 25% over budget if the product is successful. It may make sense to delay a project if it helps build a better product.

Therefore, project management is at best a tactical competency that helps launch and improve products.

Product Management

The software industry has long recognized Product Managers as a need of the hour. Every industry stands to benefit from institutionalizing this role. The product manager essentially performs the following roles.

  1. They develop deep expertise on the product and its market. This helps them develop a roadmap for how the product should evolve, who its customers are, etc.
  2. They translate the roadmap into projects and guide the cross-functional teams that come together to develop the product.
  3. They OWN the product end-to-end (concept to commercialization). They do not vanish after the product (or a version of the product) is released. They track what happened to the business case and come back and tune the roadmap.

In a nutshell, they put the organization’s focus squarely on the products that ultimately drive the business. They have project management expertise too, but just enough to guide the product development. They do not let the project imperatives derail the product’s business case.

What next for Project Managers?

This may raise the question – what should project managers do next? Those that are good at creating and reading Gantt charts, creating risk registers, focus on Scope, Cost, Time, Quality constraints, etc.? There are several options. A couple of them are listed below.

  1. You can stay a “true blue” project manager. Many software companies leave the project manager role intact. Some of them acquire fancy new titles like the Scrum master in the new world order of Agile and Scrum. Irrespective of what they are called, they mostly play a support and coordination role. If you enjoy doing this and want to continue doing it, nothing wrong with it. But do not aspire to occupy that corner office!
  2. You can evolve into a Product manager and drive “real business” for the company in the form of its products. This will require you to gain product and business expertise. When you speak with senior management, you need to change your narrative to RoI and opportunities rather than schedule variance and earned value.

A new focus for companies

If your organization does not have the product manager role yet, it is time for you to think about it. There are several advantages to having this role, no matter what the industry.

We recently established a Central Product Office at a mid-sized (annual revenue ~$160 million) Pharmaceuticals and Crop Protection company. We thought it would add much more value than setting up a Project or Program management office which was the initial brief given to us.

Now, senior management at this company is no longer bombarded with technical jargon about reactions, scale-up difficulties or project management terms like schedule variance. The product manager translates all this into terms that they understand. Every product in the portfolio has an owner who works with the business and the development teams and owns the roadmap end-to-end. We have trained 20 product owners who are now marching on their own.

Makes sense?

Get in touch if you want to know how Product Management and Central Product Office can help your company get ahead.