One of the coolest aspects of belonging to an organization like the United States Chess Federation (USCF, now US Chess) is that you know your precise value to that organization. It’s your score – if you have a score of 2000, you are an Expert; over 2200 gets you National Master status, and over 2400 makes you a Senior Master. Points are attained by playing in sanctioned tournaments or matches, and are adjusted for the players’ relative strength. Chess, by its nature, is unforgiving of poor play – if you lose a chess game, it is fairly difficult to blame poor officiating, the weather, aggravated injury, the venue, and so forth. In essence, no amount of arguing, manipulating, charming, or spinning will influence your score, and along with it your standing in the US Chess organization. Its beauty is in its nearly perfect basis in the objective measurement of merit relative to the organization.
At the other end of the spectrum, I imagine, would be participating as a member of the faculty of a liberal arts college within a state-run university. I once took a sophomore-level literature survey course (“survey” – right. It ran the gamut from George Elliot to the Bronte sisters) from a woman professor who was so predjudiced against male students that none could ever attain above a C in her classes, whereas no female could be graded below a B. There was simply no way that objective evidence of the relative scholastic merit of her students could be introduced into a review or assessment of her grading tendencies. As it turns out, just prior to the drop deadline a couple of friends (one male, one female) gave me the inside baseball on this professor, and I escaped her course. But she did inadvertently teach me an extremely valuable lesson: the more subjective the basis for evaluating and assigning merit, the more slanted and vicious that method becomes.
Which brings us to Project Management. Some of the best managers I have ever encountered have been highly educated and certified, and some of the worst have been (in my opinion) under-educated, and without certifications. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is also true: a couple of the best PMs I have ever met had neither a degree in business nor management, with zero certifications, and at least two of the worst have had a BBA or better and one of the professional certifications associated with project management. And when I say “the worst,” I don’t mean these managers merely drove virtually any piece of scope for which they were responsible into the proverbial ditch. These would, despite their wretched histories, insist on playing roles of influence in the ways in which the other PMs within their organizations managed their work, inflicting managerial damage far beyond their nominal reach. How did these poor managers get into positions of influence far beyond what would be indicated by their actual merit? The same way that the predjudiced professor did: by arguing, manipulating, charming, or spinning their way past any objective basis for evaluating their true value to their respective organizations.
However, while certs and scholastic achievement are susceptible to significant variance in predicting who is or is not a genuinely talented PM, it has been my experience that the best share a characteristic that is consistently lacking in their poorly-performing counterparts. That characteristic is humility.
By “humility” I do not mean a tendency towards low self-esteem; quite the contrary, genuine humility is usually marked by a quiet confidence, that the winners have a clear-eyed grasp of their authentic value to their organizations, and therefore have no need to elbow-aside competitors, insult or put down potential rivals, unctiously flatter superiors, indulge misandry, or engage in any of the other manipulatory behaviors that their arrogant associates must pursue, lest anyone see past the fascade and realize the arrogant ones are not as valuable as they purport to be. Just something to keep in mind: when you encounter people within your project team engaged in arguing, manipulating, charming, or spinning, they’re probably not advancing a merit-based agenda.
And, while I can prove that Bobby Fischer was a better chess player than George Elliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans), not even my old English Lit professor can prove that Elliot was a better writer than Fischer (being, as she was, hopelessly maudlin).
It was yet another dark and stormy night. I had just sent my secretary home, when a dark shadow passed over the frosted glass door bearing the stencile ylnatS yrrebpsaR, etavirP eyE. The brass doorknob slowly clicked open, and in stepped one of the most brooding visitors I have ever had.
One of my favorite all-time books is Once A Cowboy, by Walt Garrison (Random House, 1988). In it, Garrison relays many of the hilarious stories that came out of his time playing for the Dallas Cowboys Football Club (United States), and some of those stories had to do with his rookie season. One particular story that stands out had to do with a practical joke some of the veterans would play on rookies during training camp. One of the veterans would approach the targeted first-year player and tell him “Coach Landry wants to see you in his office, and bring your playbook.” Knowing that such a meeting meant that the player was about to be cut from the squad, the rookie would show up at Tom Landry’s office, crestfallen, playbook in hand and expecting to have to surrender it, only to be told “I didn’t call for you. Now get back out on the practice field.”
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating for anything resembling hazing of you freshly-minted PMP®s. But, as something of a veteran myself, I must tell you whippersnappers that many of you do tend to manifest some attitudes and behaviors that make it really tough to refrain from engaging in a tiny bit of good-natured comeuppance, let alone taking y’all seriously. So, in the spirit of getting you past your rookie-season mistakes quicker, here are a few tips for you to keep in mind as you unpack your personal stuff into your brand-new cubicle.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, there are generally three ways of learning: by study, by observation, and by personal experience. If my rookie readers can glean some insight from this blog, then great. If not, then Coach wants to see you in his office.
And bring your playbook.
(1) Project Management Professional. (2016, January 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:01, January 18, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Project_Management_Professional&oldid=698427550
Concerning the new practitioner of project management – knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time to when I was 25 years old, and beginning to make the transition between technical writing and project management, and give that version of me a present not associated with stunts like Grey’s Sports Almanac (the book that Marty McFly attempts to bring back to the past in order to get rich betting on sports events in the movie Back to the Future, Part II), I think it would be a brief roadmap of the mines in the PM minefield that I was, epistemologically speaking, about to attempt to cross. But, since time travel (into the past, anyway) is impossible, I can only contemplate how much easier things would be if I had not gone charging into the minefield, blissfully unaware of the dangers, and proceeded to step on mine after mine, initiating some pretty spectacular career-endangering explosions.
What kind of a roadmap are we talking about here? I’m reminded of a former supervisor, Donn Byrnes, who had been a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force prior to working at the same contractor where I was employed. We were on the same project team, and one day he took me aside and told me “Michael, if you’re going to make it in project management, you have to remember three things: one, learn the rules of the game. Two, play by the rules of the game. Three, win using the rules of the game.” At the time I thought this advice was hopelessly cryptic, but I would learn that it was profoundly insightful each time I neglected the three rules.
So, if I could teleport a document back to 1985, I think it would contain the following:
I may not be able to communicate these points to the 25-year-old me, but there’s hope for you new practitioners of PM who also happen to be ProjectManagement.com blog readers.
Over the long New Year’s Day holiday weekend, the SyFy® channel was airing a Twilight Zone marathon, and one of the episodes caught my attention. It was entitled “Nick of Time,” and it was written by Richard Matheson. This episode dealt with a newlywed couple whose car had broken down in a small Midwestern town, and were waiting in a diner while it was being repaired. The diner’s tables had fortune-telling machines, which would push out a slip of paper with cryptic words designed to answer yes-or-no questions for a penny.
(Spoiler Alert!) The newlywed husband (played by William Shatner) quickly realizes that the answers he is receiving are improbably accurate, and becomes fixated on the notion that the machine can predict the future. His wife (played by Patricia Breslin) pleads with him to stop; in response, he challenges her to ask the machine some yes-or-no questions, to demonstrate that it’s not just the husband’s choice of questions that is causing the phenomena of the seemingly 100% accurate penny fortune-teller. Sure enough, each of the questions that she asks where she already knows the answer is answered correctly.
When Shatner’s character begins to almost frantically feed the machine pennies and ask questions about where the couple will live, the wife pleads with him to recognize what’s happening. She points out that they can leave the diner any time they wish (their car was repaired earlier than had been estimated, and, yes, the penny fortune-teller “foresaw” it), go wherever they want to go, and write the story of their future themselves, rather than allow the machine to do so. The husband realizes the wisdom of her words, and they leave the diner, only to have another couple immediately sit at that particular table, and, with frightened looks on their faces, begin to ask the machine questions and feed it pennies. Rod Serling’s voice over at the end is “Counterbalance in the little town of Ridgeview, Ohio. Two people permanently enslaved by the tyranny of fear and superstition, facing the future with a kind of helpless dread. Two others facing the future with confidence - having escaped one of the darker places of the Twilight Zone.” (1)
Besides the reference to “one of the darker places of the Twilight Zone,” much in this episode reminded me of current risk management theory. Oh, sure, there are some differences (risk managers don’t work for pennies), but, epistemologically speaking, the similarities are striking. Consider:
So, the question I will leave my readers is this: Will you be one of the managers permanently enslaved by the tyranny of fear and superstition, facing the future with a kind of helpless dread, or will you be among those PMs facing the future with confidence, having escaped one of the darker places of… the PM Zone?
(1) Nick of Time (The Twilight Zone). (2016, January 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:46, January 2, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nick_of_Time_(The_Twilight_Zone)&oldid=697844470