Over the past 25 years I’ve been involved in a lot of projects in Africa. From the creation of a single radio commercial; to culture transformation programmes that span entire regions. And I have to tell you that I have never found the right way for teams to record and report project status. Presently I’m engaged in two major exercises that are being tracked by Gantt (a proprietary software widely used in the US). In one case we spend entire meetings trying to update the many fields of information with progress, and attempting to assess our percentage task completion. In the other, the introduction of Gantt has simply stopped the change process dead because a team of very busy people in remote locations can’t make the time to master the software (one of a plethora of programmes they are obliged to use).
It surprised me to learn that Gantt charts have been around for over 100 years. After Henry Gantt outlined the concept in 1910, its first major implementation was during World War One, when the American General Crozier used Gantt charts to manage complex weapon production and logistics operations.
We’ve obviously come a long way since then. During the last two decades we have seen the rise of the so-called knowledge-worker. These are people who operate in loosely coupled and geographically diverse teams, whose projects are often defined abstractly, and whose work results are more valued by quality rather than quantity. We are also now dealing with the workplace impact of the Millenial generation, who work in a far less linear fashion than us oldies.
Current thinking is that Gantt charts do not work so well for these two groups because their projects are not fixed-length, clearly determined and with one clear path to success. Also long term planning is less possible – with so many variables in play.
So increasingly Gantt charts are becoming a write-once document, which gets done at the beginning of the project. Once the action starts rolling, the initial plan (not surprisingly) starts changing fast. Constantly updating the chart is time consuming and (due to dependencies) also rather complex, so people stop updating the plan to focus on doing the stuff. Either that or they make the Gantt chart an end in its own right and forget to take any action!Jeff Sutherland pioneered a more flexible and modern approach in the late 90’s. Sutherland’s background was eclectic. A USAF fighter pilot and Top Gun, he left the military and studied to become a doctor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Here he got involved in data collection and IT systems development, and started to work with Scrum – a development process for software. This led to his creation of the Agile Manifesto to address the fact that “systems development process is an unpredictable and complicated process that can only roughly be described as an overall progress”.
The name Scrum was chosen in reference to the rugby scrummage, as the system involves a cross-functional team who “huddle together to create a prioritised list.” Sutherland highlights the three distinguishing factors between Scrum teams and normal teams as self-management, continuity of team membership, and dedication to a single project. A book about this, also called Scrum, is available on Amazon and worth a read.
Of course any such software or system or process is only as good as the people using it and the way they describe their progress. Mindset is critical. And here I think we come up against a problem that is peculiarly African. No, it’s not the old hackneyed one about poor time management (although if your internal clock is faulty you’re never going to be a success at project management).
It’s more socially commendable than that. I think that here in Africa we are less disposed to exposing non-performance than in the West. (And here there may be some parallels with the inclusive, consensus-based style of Japanese management.) A symptom of this is the long ‘reason why, or reason why not ‘ story that often prefaces a progress report.
So until we find ways to be more open about progress failure, and create environments where corrective action can be more enthusiastically discussed, we are going to struggle with complex project management. And that is a corporate culture challenge.
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