Avoiding the Gantt Chart God Complex

While most project managers I have worked with are generally humble people, there is a tendency to feel rather powerful in this role. In large enterprise projects, a single PM might be the steward of a multi-million dollar budget, and be responsible for allocating and tracking hundreds of resources around the world. While modifying a project plan, a few clicks of the mouse might change the fate of dozens of people and mounds of cash. For many PMs, there’s an element of satisfaction to “tweaking the plan” until the objectives, people, scope, and budget align to create a masterful plan that’s truly a work of art, and there’s a feeling of power with being tasked with marshalling so many resources.

This feeling of control has an element of danger, however. One of the more famous PMs, Sir Winston Churchill, once said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results,” advice that some project managers ignore at their own peril. A project plan never talks back, and moves according to the rules of logic and simple mathematics rather than the vagaries of interpersonal relationships. There’s a temptation to sit in the corporate equivalent of the ivory tower, moving the bars on the Gantt chart and “working the plan” rather than monitoring its results.

The first element in avoiding the Gantt chart God complex is to understand the business problem your project is intended to solve. It’s far too easy in a project environment to become overly focused on deliverables, status reporting, and tracking, and lose sight of the actual business objective of the project. If you’re more familiar with complex project scheduling than the products and services offered by your company, there’s a problem that should be immediately rectified. Spend a day at an operational site and work alongside the people who will be directly affected by your project. You’ll learn about their challenges, have greater insight into what your project is meant to accomplish, and you’ll engender some goodwill toward the project by virtue of showing an interest in the people who will be forced to eat your cooking.

Secondly, realize that project planning is a tool meant to accomplish a business objective. The emphasis of many project management methodologies is a focus on deliverables, and these can often be disconnected from the actual problem the project is meant to solve. Certainly producing the sundry documentation and supporting information is necessary for a project’s success, but if you are 95% complete with the “supporting cast” but the project solves 1% of your business problem, there’s a huge disconnect. Occasionally step back from the work of deliverables and status updates, and ensure that your project is actually solving its targeted problem. I like to schedule demonstrations and walkthroughs that involve the end users to gauge where the project is in relation to its business objective. Some of the worst projects are those that “complete” successfully, but end up fading into disuse since they solved the wrong problem.

While there are myriad risks in project management, hubris is one that is rarely discussed, but can be the downfall of a project manager and his or her project. Getting a Gantt chart God complex disconnects one from the fact that project management is merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. An understanding of your business, and the business problems your project is meant to solve, is the first step toward avoiding this situation. Combine this understanding with frequent visits with your project team, stakeholders, and affected users, and you should be on your way to a successful project.

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