Project versus outcome management

There is a hidden assumption among project owners, the ones that engage project managers to manage their projects, that any project they engage with will automatically succeed. The default position for project outcomes is, in their minds, success. Why else would they engage their time or means in that project?

The problem is that they fail to distinguish between project management and outcome management. In short, you can pretty much manage projects, but it’s very difficult to manage outcomes. However, the project owner assumes that when the competent project manager comes on board, very thing will be fine.

Here’s my take on where they make their mistake and why it is damaging.

Project management

We have pretty much figured out how to properly manage a project or a program of multiple projects. There are agood project management methodologies available which, when properly applied, will lead to a well managed project.

This is not to say that any project if supported by a good project manager and a good project management methodology will be a breeze. It won’t. But it will be manageable and under control or at least out of control in a controlled manner.

For example, If the project owners are not aware of the key issues in the project, their investment in project management and the related reporting will need to be increased or improved to enhance transparancy. But that is a controllable issue. Even if the project management issues may not have originated internally, the management of the project can be managed internally or at least within the confines of the space or organization the project is being managed in.

So, the project can be managed provided competent people are combined with a relevant approach. That however does not garantee the envisioned outcome. Here’s why.

Outcome management

The outcome is of course the result the project owner is aiming for. This is why they started or engaged with the project in the first place. They aim for a specific situation which is different from the initial situation. Note that the outcomes are (most often) not the deliverables. These deliverables are being produced by the project. They are the output of the project, an output which will assist in achieving the outcomes you were aiming for. However, they combine with other, often external factors to lead to a certain situation which is different from the initial situation you started from. So let’s examine what can result?

  • The best case is the situation where the outcome is what you were aiming for or better;
  • However, realistically you may miss that outcome even if your best effort and the deliverables were there in a timely fashion.

The results combine with unexpected and often not manageable events which in turn determine with the final outcome of the project will be.

Are outcomes manageable?

In my experience outcomes are at best partially manageable, and will require a significant investment of time and effort with no guaranteed results. As an example:

Imagine your project deals with cost reductions in government operations. The results of your analysis are impeccable. However, because of the economic crisis the last thing government wants to do is to fire people. On the contrary, government feels they have a social responsibility, and starts to increase hires. Now imagine another project that, in conjunction with yours, had been working on automation to fill in reductions of workforce. In this scenario, it’s unlikely that project will be taken to fruition.

So what to do?

In the course of any project, it’s essential to have good, regular and transparant communication not only about the project and its results, but also about the impacts risks in the adjacency of the project will have on the required outcomes. While it may not save the project, it will put every stakeholder on the right page as soon as possible.