I often like to define terms before getting to the core of my conversation. In this context, a placebo effect is defined as a beneficial effect produced by a placebo (dummy) drug or treatment that cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself and must, therefore, be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment. In project management I often see this effect happen. Too many times we get statistics like “X number of executive believe project management is valuable to them” or “X number of companies are implementing Project Management Office (PMO)” therefore project management have added value. What I don’t really see is a truly scientific comparison such as between a qualified PMP cert and non-qualified PMP cert individuals. Do the findings show the Project Manager (PM) “expert” delivering a better project outcome over a non-qualified PM? If it does then what is the return on investment (ROI) of the PM. The key question is why a PM is needed. As someone that I’ve been practicing project management for almost 20 years, it is critical that I am able to define the value that I deliver to my customers. If I am unable to provide an ROI, is my contribution really needed? I know the argument tends to assert that the value of project management is more qualitative i.e. projects are completed faster, projects have reduced risk, projects are often more successful etc. But this notion sidesteps the reality that project managers deliver service in organizations that quantifies value in terms of (ROI) so if the PM’s ROI cannot be determined, how do we know whether the observed qualitative effect is not just a placebo effect.

With this in mind, I believe the best way to understand project management ROI is to start by looking in the past. The Project Management Profession or its predecessor dates back almost 5,000 years. Starting in 2570 BC with the construction of the great pyramid of Giza, then in 208 BC with the construction of the Great Wall of China to what we now know today as project management, originating in 1917 by Henry Gantt (creator of the Gantt chart). So why can’t we quantify the ROI value of a profession that has stood for about 5000 years? I believe the answer is we haven’t done a good job defining the problem statement, which is, who or what is a PM.

Who or what is a PM? if you Google you get answers like “the person that is overall in charge of planning and executing of a particular project”, “responsible for planning procuring and executing of the project”, “accountable for the success of a project”, “play the lead role in planning and executing monitoring controlling enclosing projects”, “the person assigned by the organization to lead the team responsible for project” etc. What these statements do is it tells you some of the activities that a project manager may be deemed responsible for. My definition of a PM is someone that boost productivity, deliver a high quality of work with fewer overhead cost within the confines of a project or program. This definition is important because it provides a clearer responsibility of a project manager, hence if you have a situation where your PM is not fulfilling at least one of these three goals then why is that individual needed on your project.

So, there you go… What are your thoughts?