The Visibility Challenge in IT Project Management: Part One

August 1, 2014 Kari Woolf

Before you became immersed in the world of IT project management, you were likely familiar with the popular children's game Marco Polo. Typically played in a swimming pool, the player selected as "It" tries to tag other players in the pool while keeping eyes closed. But have you ever wondered what's behind this game of sightless water tag?


While it obviously relates to the famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo, it turns out that the details are difficult to verify. Some believe that a young Marco became separated from his caravan during a trip to China and, in a hallucinatory stupor, imagined his group calling his name. Others hold that "Marco" and "Polo" were called out between the explorer's ships to keep them together during dense fog. And others still say that when Marco Polo arrived in a new land, he would call out "Marco." If the indigenous people answered back with "Polo," he knew they were friendly.1

Whatever the real story, the experience of feeling one's way through the dark—whether literally or figuratively—is fairly universal. And it certainly applies to IT project management. Many IT project leaders operate without visibility into what their teams are doing, essentially flying blind as they navigate the complex world of software, hardware, or infrastructure development.

And it's this lack of visibility—and a parallel lack of control—that make an IT project manager's job particularly difficult. This is why Salary Explorer recently reported that project managers rate their job satisfaction a lowly 2.72 out of 5. 2 That's barely above take it or leave it.

It also explains why PMP Research says 76% of organizations rank improved visibility and awareness of projects as one of their biggest priorities. 3

Project Management Boils Down to Credibility

No one enjoys being asked a question and not knowing the answer. But when you're a project manager—whose identity is all about being competent, knowledgeable, and in control—and the person asking the questions is the boss's boss, you NEVER want the words "I dunno" to escape your lips. After all, you may not be fired if the project is late—that's the dev team's deal. But you might lose your credibility—an even more valuable asset in many cases—if you don't know it's going to be late and can't put contingency plans into place.

Lack of Visibility Kills Credibility

So why does this perennial problem happen? Let's start with the calendar. A typical project manager's month may look something like this:

poor visability

Talk about being over-allocated! There's barely any time to do productive work in this mix. But there's more to the challenge of visibility than scheduling snafus. The real problem is that project managers are essentially responsible to collect status—and manually, at that—from developers who don't even report to them.

Here's how that issue can hijack a typical project manager's day. See if you can relate to this:

8:24 a.m. – The boss's boss wants to know when the new iteration of your flagship software product is going to launch. It's supposed to be next week, and he wants to pitch it in a keynote he's delivering the day before. He's building his slides today. Like RIGHT NOW.

8:56 a.m. – You comb through email to search for anecdotal updates. Didn't Janet say something in her last vacation notification about a critical task not yet being complete? Or was it in her timesheet?

8:56 a.m. – Printed spreadsheet in hand, you walk from office to office to ask dev managers for actual status. Some are available and provide you with an answer. But some are gone, and some simply don't know.

9:04 a.m. – You reach the lair of the Jedi Warriors, a team experimenting with Agile. They're a bit isolationist anyway, and they certainly don't report to you. You walk the halls trying to find someone who can translate their storyboards and burndown charts into a simple "Is this piece ready? Yes or no?" – to no avail.

9:17 a.m. – As you continue your walking tour of the dev floor, an engineer calls you over to look at a prototype. Thirty minutes later, you're still there, and two other people have popped in to add something to your list. In the interim, the boss's boss's secretary has texted you three times. You're really in trouble now.

9:52 a.m. – Beleaguered, you return to your office, where a visitor immediately appears in your doorway. It's HR, with a friendly reminder about the employee satisfaction survey that was due yesterday. If you could put that at the top of your list, that would be greeeeeaaaaat.

9:54 a.m. – You've got status from three of the four dev teams, but the last manager is proving particularly elusive. So you IM her project lead. What's the status of critical component x, you ask. Not ready, she replies. They've been commandeered for pet project—by…you guessed it…the boss's boss.

it project management

That's a lot of pain in just a few short hours, which results in bottom-line problems like these:

  • When your boss can't see what you're doing, you spend up to 12 hours each week building reports [Workfront internal data]
  • When you don't know what team members are doing, you spend up to 80% of your work time in meetings 4
  • When your day is filled with ad hoc requests, 50% or more of strategic projects fall behind schedule 5
  • When project information is kept in disconnected tools, you end up managing work in 13 different places 6
  • When you can't manage mixed methodologies, up to half of your project plan is a black box [Workfront internal data]

Stay tuned for our next installment, in which we'll talk about ways you can conquer the calendar, say sayonara to the stress, and gain simple, automated visibility into the work your development teams do.

Previous Article
5 Reasons Your Project Management Process Isn't Working: Part 2
5 Reasons Your Project Management Process Isn't Working: Part 2

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How Creative Project Management Can Help Clients Stick to Strategy
How Creative Project Management Can Help Clients Stick to Strategy

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