I must give credit where it is due: this management generation’s push towards enhancing and managing the organization’s relationship with its customer base was spurred forward – if not out-and-out originated – with the work of Professor Tom Peters, author of many works, In Search of Excellence being perhaps the most widely recognized. Now, if Professor Peters knows about me at all, he probably loathes me, since I’ve penned a couple of pieces that had some fun at his expense. My problem with his writings, though, remains: although he rightly chides management to exert more energy and expertise towards satisfying customer needs, I've never read where he provides a structure that would enable a sense of proportion or perspective on this increased emphasis. When I summarized Peters’ work as, essentially, “give all of your assets over to anyone who even faintly resembles a customer,” I was, of course, engaging in hyperbole, but not that much, really. I have not seen any attempt from Professor Peters to offer guidance on what should be the upper boundary on such efforts.
What’s needed is a basic structure, a guide that will help the prescient manager approach the issues associated with managing the customer relationship. Allow me to propose this one:
In a perfect marketplace, our customers would pay us for the work we do, and not pay for work we did not do, plain and simple. Ah, but there’s the rub – so much of what happens in the marketplace is far from being that plain or simple. So, what is going on when we venture outside the green boxes? Much, and those things have major implications for the future of your project team or organization.
Let’s tackle the (4) cell first – your organization is receiving revenue for work it did not perform. I freely admit, this is an attractive quadrant – otherwise, how do those lottery jackpots get so big? What were those ancient alchemists trying to do, really? From whence came the capital that built Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Monte Carlo? Getting something for nothing has such a powerful appeal that entire governments are elected and emplaced based on this notion, so it’s certainly not so far-fetched to assume that at least some taint of it has seeped into many business models. Think about the asset managers’ main axiom, that the point of all management is to “maximize shareholder wealth.” Blind adherence to this so-called rule would pull the macro organization towards which of these quadrants? Of course, it’s never articulated as such – just the opposite. How many organizations’ mission statements include some boilerplate stuff about making sure the customer receives every bit of value that they have coming?
Indeed, the entire warranty, guarantee, return policy, and quality industries are based on the fact that the organization that is even widely perceived to be in the (4) quadrant will be out of business, and soon. So, while the magnetic pull of the (4) quadrant is powerful, it’s generally acknowledged that it is fatal to be caught there.
What of the (1) quadrant? Taken to its extreme, it is slavery, which is highly repugnant to most everybody. Still, isn’t this quadrant consistent with the essence of what Tom Peters is saying, that it’s better to be at least a little bit in this quadrant than in (4), or even in (3)? Consider what your competition is doing – given a chance, virtually every new entrepreneur (or organizations on fire to acquire new customers) dive head-long into quadrant (1), eager to convince the world that they are much more comfortable there than in the lower quadrants. Once these have attained a loyal customer base, the move towards quadrant (2) will occur, but not too soon. Ironically, they want to convince their potential customers that they can get something, if not for (next to) nothing, then more economically than the competition can provide.
Of course, a more sophisticated structure is detailed in my must-have second book, but this basic one will do for now. And, based on this simple structure, I would like to leave my readers with a simple question:
What role do the risk managers have in any of this?
Most people are probably not aware of this, but the United States did not lose a single major engagement during the Viet Nam war. In fact, the Tet Offensive was a major defeat forf the Viet Cong. Why does this matter? It’s a prime example of how a real victory was turned into a virtual defeat. And, if it can happen on an international military scale, it can (and does) certainly happen on a project-by-project basis.
The opposite is also true: actual project disasters can be spun into outcomes that, if not completely acceptable, are at least okay enough so that significant pushes to find the true causal factors and hold accountable those responsible don’t really happen. How else did the Big Dig escape widespread outrage?
So the savvy PM needs to be aware that successfully bringing a project to close on-time, on-budget does not automatically translate to an accurate narrative. It’s axiomatic, but bears repeating: perception trumps reality, every time. So, which organizational pathologies serve to turn the facts on their heads en route to the accepted narratives? I’m thinking that prime among them is nepotism/cronyism.
Any deviation from a pure meritocracy that the macro organization indulges in is poisonous, and it’s rarely a fast-acting poison. When employees are promoted into leadership positions, not because of displayed talent, but due to political or any non-performance-based element, several effects emanate. For example, did your organization just promote someone who wasn’t the best candidate for a managerial position? And does this organization have a Mission Statement that contains verbiage about a commitment to the customer, or some such? Well, this Mission Statement has just been shown to be false. Clearly the decision to promote the not-so-qualified over his or her betters is a slap in the face to “the customer,” indicating a willingness on the part of the ones making such a decision to act on factors other than optimal performance. Enhancing the personal relationship, but damaging the organization, becomes acceptable decision-making.
The waves from this pebble-in-the-pond spread farther. The rank-and-file of the organization – will they not also immediately recognize that the so-called Mission Statement isn't accurate? And, if that communication from the executives is false, what other statements from them can be trusted (particularly and especially the whole business about “our people are our most valuable resource”)? The new “leaders” – where are they leading to, exactly? Is it the same managerial destination that the more talented but rejected one(s) would have pursued? Again, if hard work and talent are not to be recognized and rewarded, and the macro organization knows this, I really can’t see why any employee would want to expend effort or engage their talents, other than the bare minimum to stay employed. Once the nominal rewards for exemplary behavior are off the table, those behaviors will evaporate, and soon.
I’m really not trying to come across as hopelessly naïve – I know that John Ross had to move in to the executive position in Ewing Oil vacated by J.R. But Dallas is television drama, and the real-world marketplace tends to reveal stories more consistent with those that led, say, to Microsoft® founders becoming bazillionaires because those around them in the nascent personal computer industry failed to put into positions of authority the most talented people at their disposal. Cronyism isn’t confined to friends – it also extends to those who adopt a corporate narrative at variance with an unfolding reality. The reasons for these variances can be legion – arrogance, ignorance, a desire to replicate past victories or avoid previous defeats. And yet, let just a portion of the narrative of the causes of these previous victories or defeats be at odds from the facts, and the organization may have ingested the slow poison of cronyism.
And as this slow poison of cronyism spreads throughout the organization’s circulatory system, it becomes awfully hard to differentiate virtual failure from the real thing.
Whenever the topic of virtual management comes up, it’s almost inevitable that its near-cousin, distance management, also presents itself for analysis. I can understand why – as anyone who has read The World is Flat knows, far-flung team members, formed spontaneously into purpose-driven groups, are increasingly edging out the traditional organizational models of people occupying the same real estate as the most desired structure for high-performing projects. And, with the recent and dramatic improvements in long-range communications, equivalent advances in distance management would seem to be the perfect counterpart to giving direction to these virtual teams, right? Right?
Well, not so fast. There were some very good reasons why organizations tended to want to insist on their project teams being co-located, even if these organizations couldn’t clearly articulate why that was so. It may have been simply experience, or a sense that legitimate management just couldn’t be performed via cell phone, e-mail, and the occasional video conference. I believe that this reluctance to embrace distance management had, at its core, a valid concern, one that has wrecked projects and teams since, no doubt, before the pyramids were built (assuming, of course, that they weren’t built by aliens; or, if they were, that these aliens suffer from the same organizational behavior and performance pathologies that afflict us humans). This issue has to do with cooperation within the project team, and can be analyzed to reveal some valuable truisms using (what else?) game theory.
Let’s use the old game-theory standard, the Hawk-Dove Game. Imagine an environment with 100 generic birds, who can either act passively, going about foraging for food and consuming/storing everything they gather; or else they can act aggressively, either preventing other birds from foraging for the available foodstuffs, or else actively taking the passive birds’ food from them. When all of the birds act passively, like doves, the population’s payoff is maximized. However, introduce just one aggressive bird, a hawk, and the behavior of the entire population will change until it reaches what’s called a Nash Equilibrium (named after Thomas Nash, the central figure from the movie A Beautiful Mind). The Nash Equilibrium for the 100-bird Hawk-Dove game is 75/25, meaning that either 75% of the birds will act as dove all the time, or else each bird will act dovish 75% of the time, and hawkish the other 25%. For far-flung virtual project team purposes, the take-away assertion here is this: when all of your team members are exerting optimal effort in pursuing your project’s objectives, your performance payoff is maximized. However, introduce just one member who’s not exerting very much, or even working at cross-purposes to the project’s objectives in order to pursue a personal agenda, and the entire team will tend towards a Nash Equilibrium behavior set that can easily spell doom for your project.
And here’s where the value of the co-located team comes in: the moment any team member exhibits sub-optimal effort or talent, the attentive manager can respond immediately, either by removing the Jungle Fighter / inept team member, or else by influencing them to abandon their selected project-deviant strategy. The distance project manager rarely has access to this sort of insight: the Jungle Fighters in your project team don’t wear signs on their foreheads declaring their uncooperative proclivities, and are usually smart enough to not allow their masks to slip in telephone conversations, e-mails, and the occasional video conference.
So what I’m saying here is that the primary obstacle to effective distance project management is the tendency in some of your team members to either slack off, or else work to advance their own personal agendas instead of pursuing your project’s scope completion. Essentially, change human nature, and your distance management should come off just fine.
As my projectmanagement.com co-bloggers and columnists explore the realm of virtual project management, I (naturally) thought I’d take the opposite tack. Whereas last week’s piece reviewed those instances where people engaged in pursuing a given accomplishment will almost automatically engage in real-life project management techniques, like earned value and critical path analysis, there is another side to that coin: people who claim to be engaged in legitimate project management techniques, but are not.
Chief among these pretenders are the asset managers, e.g. accountants and financial analysts. Indeed, one of the fastest and most automatic ways of readily identifying the pros from the schmoes has to do with the return-on-investment (ROI) analysis. The ROI analysis is a tool that has utility exclusively in the asset management realm (and, frankly, not nearly as valuable in that arena as it has been cranked up to be), and any attempt to bring it into the arena of project management is a dead give-away. How do I know this? Well, a couple of mind exercises will make this assertion plain.
The ultimate goal of the asset manager is to maximize shareholder wealth. The ultimate goal of the project manager is to complete the project to the customers’ satisfaction, within the stated constraints of cost and schedule. A generic analyst announces that she has made available the information on whether or not a piece of equipment being considered for purchase has a positive return with respect to its cost by the time its value has depreciated to zero. Which manager is interested in this information?
Next, a PM is reviewing the schedule status on a Design Engineering task, which just happens to be on his schedule network’s critical path. The designer’s organization is well under budget, but may be late in delivering the drawings and specifications, meaning that the whole project may come in late. The same generic analyst (although by now we can pretty much guess what this analyst’s background is) wants time to discuss the cost of the office equipment the designer’s organization is incurring. Does the PM care about this piece of management data in the least?
Next on my hit-list are the risk managers. As I’ve stated often, in a project’s earliest stages, where contingency budgets and what-if analyses are being prepared, these people have a role to play. However, once the project is underway, their analyses are a waste of time. The basic acid test here is: in those instances where a so-called risk event actually comes to pass, did any part of the risk analysis change the response of the project team to the occurrence? If the answer is no, then any and all effort and resources that went into such an analysis was wasted. It’s really little more than institutional worrying, trapped out in mind-boggling statistical jargon to help create the illusion of management science sophistication. But it is big business, with organizations offering this type of expertise being very widespread, and all advancing under the rubric of being part and parcel of legitimate, advanced project management. Of course, the inconvenient aspect of reality, that the future cannot be quantified, even by Gaussian Curves, never enters into these organizations’ promotional literature, so they can be expected to continue to be very widespread.
Finally, much as the famous Job Jar in the comic strip Hi and Lois is not a schedule by any reach of the imagination, so, too, do all action item listings fail to come close to fulfilling the function of a project schedule. All valid schedules’ entries have the following characteristics:
· Projected duration
· Projected start date
· A previous determination of whether or not the entry exists within the scope of the given project
· Whether it ought to be done before, during, or after other entries in the network.
Otherwise, what you have is, essentially, a poll, a repository of data that has not been (or may not be able to be) processed into usable management information. In political contests, poll data can be rather valuable, but in a project management setting it’s next to worthless. If the PM has hard data that the Design Engineering task is in danger of coming in late, who cares about the opinions of the other stakeholders of the performance of the design engineers? Isn’t that data irrelevant?
Naturally, should any asset, risk, or action item advocates take exception to any part of this blog, feel free to leave a comment. After all, I’ve been disagreed with before – and you’ve been wrong before (hat tip to one of my heroes, the late William F. Buckley for that closing line).
What is project management, really? Yes, yes, I know there are definitions aplenty out there, but I think they can all be summarized as:
Project management is the smart way of pursuing and attaining a specified goal.
If you believe that this definition is overly broad, consider that I can still differentiate project management from asset and strategic management under this definition, since asset management can be defined as attaining a desired goal while consuming or using the fewest assets, and strategic management can be defined as attaining desired goals better than the others who also seek those goals.
Soooo … is project management virtually everywhere? Well, a lot of people pursue and attain their objectives in less-than-smart ways, but, sure, PM is everywhere, even if it’s not recognized as such. Think about the two main information streams that support smart project management decision-making: earned value, and critical path methodologies. Sound daunting, don’t they? Well, they’re not. Follow me on this little mental exercise for proof.
You’re the project manager on an effort to – oh, I don’t know, pick a scope statement – and you’ve just been informed by your accountant (hisssss!) that you have spent half of your budget. What’s the first thought that pops into your head? Is it not, “Am I half-finished?”? Guess what – you just performed an earned value cost performance analysis! And you didn’t even mean to! And, once you’ve answered that question, the next one is almost as automatic: “Was I supposed to be half done at this point?” Now look what you’ve done! An earned-value-based schedule performance analysis!
I know what you’re thinking: Okay, Michael, you got us on the virtual simplicity of earned value analysis (although we’re still a little sore at the EV purists who insist on all those added trappings). But critical path methodology is a completely different animal! That stuff’s complicated! Have you ever tried to drive some of those critical path method software packages?
But critical path is actually just more of the same – it just deals with having to do some things before you can start on others. For example, to prevent my home steam cleaner from being overwhelmed by strands of fur emanating by the ton from my 117-pound Collie (how does a 117-pound Collie shed tons of fur? You got me, brother, but it happens) and being scolded at length by the steam cleaner repairman, I have to vacuum immediately prior to steam-cleaning. So, if I allocate 30 minutes for vacuuming, and an hour for steam cleaning, I should be done in an hour and a half, right? (Wait! Did I just perform a forward pass on my schedule network?) Well, first I have to turn the vacuum over and pull Collie fur from the brushes. And, since the Collie himself needs to be brushed (constantly), I may as well do that first, so that the machines can pick up whatever fur I don’t collect from the brush and throw away. Already the preceding activity – vacuuming – has been set back at least 10 minutes. Since I have to finish vacuuming before I can start steam-cleaning, I’ve slipped my scheduled finish time of cleaning the floors by 10 minutes. Woah! I just pulled status and re-calced my finish time! Finally, if my hour-and-a-half target was pretty firm, I could talk my wife into steam-cleaning each room as soon as I’ve vacuumed it, meaning that, after the first room has been vacuumed, both machines are running concurrently. By doing so, I’ve “crashed the schedule.”
And yet, there’s often a strong negative connotation associated with the terms Earned Value, Critical Path, Forward Pass, Pull Status, and Crash the Schedule, even though, as our little mental exercise has shown, these terms are just part and parcel of pursuing even pedestrian goals with a little forethought. Shouldn’t our larger endeavors receive no less? And, by doing so, haven’t we “done” project management, no matter how inadvertently?
So, yeah, virtual project management is virtually everywhere.