Software development people used to tell the story about a team of hardware engineers who unexpectedly wound up designing a software program. They proceeded with care and successfully pulled off the unfamiliar project.

When their software brethren expressed astonishment at the lack of bugs in the program, they said, “Oh. We didn’t know bugs were allowed!”

Things fall through the cracks because there ARE cracks. And when you’re in pursuit of innovation, cracks quickly become chasms that swallow up ideas, money, time and quality. When you’re trying to do or make something that’s never existed before, you need reliability as much as you need creativity.

This is nowhere more true than in project management.

By definition, projects are innovative efforts that require joint efforts by people of differing specialties, and therefore different ways of seeing things.

Communication and agreement can be sources of serious trouble. Since projects also are marked by deadlines and resource limitations, there is a volatile mix thoroughly infected with risk.

Firm and dependable leadership is essential in the face of such pressure and uncertainty. But excellence in project management is not all that common — which is why Maine’s chapter of the Project Management Institute conducts its annual Project of the Year competition. Deadline for submission of nominations for projects completed in 2009 is April 30 — check out pmimaine.org.

PMI defines a management process that specifies actions that promote project success. The knowledge areas include risk and quality as well as communication, human resources, cost, time and integration of the project’s complex activities.

In the Maine competition, a panel of independent judges applies the standards to projects completed within a particular year. Some years have had co-Projects of the Year, and some have had none.

Winners of the top honor have been:

• Cianbro Corp., for the Portland International Jetport Parking Garage.

•  Shalom House, for creation of the Brannigan House residence for the mentally ill.

•  The Maine Turnpike Authority, for its highway widening project.

•  The University of Southern Maine School of Business, for its Student Business Plan Competition.

•  Unum Corp., for a massive customer relations management system.

• Eastern Maine Medical Center, for a computerized provider order entry system.

In some years, the judges also have awarded Project of Distinction honors to:

•  Formed Fiber Technologies, for a manufacturing process.

•  The Bangor Regional Wellness Region, for its first-in-the-nation wellness region.

•  USM Facilities Management, for the Abromson Community Education Center project.

•  Cianbro, for the oil drilling rigs construction.

•  The Scarborough Community Chamber and Scarborough High School, for their career development project.

• The USM School of Applied Science, Engineering, and Technology, for the Mitchell Center construction.

• Spring Harbor Hospital, for its construction project.

•  Fairchild Semiconductor, for a manufacturing information technology project.

•  Ingraham, for an information security project.

•  Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, for an information management system.

•  HNTB Corp., for the Rand Road interchange project.

It is of particular note that high-quality projects have been conducted in fields such as social service, education and manufacturing, not traditionally thought of as suitable for project management or requiring it.

A theme that has run through the judges’ comments over the years has been how managers of the top projects have been able to achieve their excellent results while dealing successfully with the factors that are big pitfalls in many projects: People issues, communication failures, unexpected problems and all those other factors that cause skidding schedules, ballooning budgets, disappointing results and grim relationships.

Too often, failed projects are that way by design — they are led by people who proceed with the expectation that estimates will be off, people will not come through, what can go wrong will go wrong, etc. And sure enough, that’s what happens.

The Project of the Year program is a good window into how innovation – even in complex situations with widely differing stakeholders – can be brought in predictably, on time and on budget. These project managers took planning seriously; negotiated early, consistently and well; and made it their business to establish a solid process and get everyone to buy in.

The more valuable the intended goal, the greater the risk, pressure and challenge. Therefore, the more professional must be the process.

No bugs allowed.