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“And a special thanks for not burning up the whole ship. Including yourself, you daft bum-rag.”  Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan

“The grass is always greener around the fire hydrant.”  Jeff Rich

Everyone loves firemen!  We should admire and reward those brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us!  But what about the people responsible for the fire?  If the fire hadn’t been started, then there would be no need for the firemen and no opportunity for heroics.  We all agree that preventing the fire is a better option than putting it out after it is started.  That is why we don’t reward the people responsible for starting the fire!  Except in Project Management…

Think of your organization.  Who do you recognize and reward?  Is it the quietly competent project manager who holds efficient and effective meetings, manages risk and delivers the project within scope, on time and within budget?   Do they get rewarded, or are they overlooked because their project is perceived as “easy” because it was delivered without drama?

And what about the “difficult” projects?  You know the ones!  They face one extreme and unexpected obstacle after the other.  Technically challenging!  Resource constrained!  Awash in a sea of risk!  Somehow, despite all these obstacles, the project manager heroically rises to the challenge and drags the project across the finish line.  The Executive Steering Committee looks on in awe as the project manager delivers the project through sheer will and effort.  Look at what they accomplished!

But isn’t it the project managers job to remove drama and uncertainty through planning?  That is the one of the primary purposes of Project Management.  There shouldn’t be “unexpected obstacles” because the Risk Management process requires ongoing identification of previously unknown risks.  Once identified, and those risks should quickly be assessed, response strategies developed, and tracking plans put in place.   Technical challenges should be calmly and logically addressed through the defined processes in the Project Plan, and resource constraints are addressed though known scheduling techniques or through an agreed-upon change to the project baseline.

So why is drama such a routine part of project delivery?  And why do so many projects require Herculean efforts to bring them to completion?  While there are exceptions to the rule (unknown/unknows in risk parlance), generally it is because known Project Management principles haven’t been followed.  A heroic project manager is generally a sign of a problem within your organization.

Note that I don’t lay all the blame at the project managers’ feet.  Many times, the organization’s planning processes are so bad that virtually every project starts with a crashed schedule, or the organization’s leadership won’t accept a realistic version of the resources required to deliver the project.  Both can cause the best project manager extreme difficulty in delivering the project.

You often see these “high risk/high drama” projects held up as success stories for all the wrong reasons.

Who or what defines project success in your organization?

Do you define success as a final dashboard that shows all “green” for scope, cost and schedule?  No, because that does not describe if business value was delivered! Many projects use the Change Control process to mold the paperwork required for project governance to reflect what occurred, not what should have occurred.  You can re-baseline the project by deferring business requirements and have an “all green” project that did not meet it’s intended purpose.

Is it the Executive Steering Committee? If so, what is their expertise to judge the success of the project?  Most Executive Steering Committees are comprised of high level representatives from key organizations, not by project experts.  The Committee’s entire perspective about the project will be shaped by what they are presented.  What do you show your Executive Steering Committee?  Do you describe in clear and concise terms all the rough edges and ugly facts about your project?  Or is a better political solution to smooth the message a bit to make it more palatable?  It is seldom a good idea to let political considerations drive a project manager to present an imperfect reflection of reality.

How does your organization define project success?

The PMBOK® tells us that we define success at the outset through organizational project management.  The organization determines the strategic need, and the project tactically fulfills that.  It is the Project Manager’s job to stay focused on meeting that strategic need while managing scope, cost, schedule, quality, et al.   This should be done with drama free competence.

We all love heroes, but you don’t need one on your project.  You need a good and empowered Project Manager.


Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Bill Holmes

Bill Holmes

Contributing Author

Bill has been an Executive in the Federal Sector for over 15 years and has been responsible for the delivery of many high profile, high risk, public facing projects.  He has worked for the same organization for 28 years, starting as a front-line technician and rising quickly to the rank of Executive.

He holds numerous trademarks and is the inventor and Unites States Patent holder of the SeaClutch®, an invention targeted at the boating and RV community. 

Bill is a sought-after speaker and has spoken at conferences around the world.  He is a published author in the field of Project Management, is an experienced Project Management Professional® certification instructor, and has successfully taught hundreds of students over the past several years.

He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Finance from Augusta State University and was named one of their Distinguished Alumni in 2016.  He holds Master’s Certificates in both Project and Program Management from George Washington University, and is a Senior Executive Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.  He holds the following professional certifications:  Project Management Professional (PMP), Program Management Professional (PgMP), Project Management Institute Agile Certified Practitioner (PIM-ACP), Project Management Institute Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP).

Bill is an acknowledged international expert in Data Management, Data Safeguards and Data Analytics.

He has extensive international experience and has worked closely with representatives from multiple jurisdictions around the world, personally visiting over 40 in an official capacity.


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Here are additional links to articles on this topic, both on our site and others.

  • The cult of the heroic project manager – CLICK HERE
  • Project Rescue & the Heroic Project Manager – CLICK HERE

  • VIDEO – Kevin Wozniak – 4th and Goal: Having a Game Plan to Avoid Last Minute Heroics – CLICK HERE

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