My oldest son graduated from a prestigious law school and works as a trial attorney. During a recent visit home he and his fiancé disagreed about the hair color of the opposing council at a trial she had seen. After hearing them go back and forth a couple of times, I interjected.
Valid theories in science – even management science – do not need catchy but inchoate phrases to gain acceptance. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. This hypothesis turned theory when it was supported by experimental evidence. But consider some of the things we, as PM practitioners, accept as axiomatic, but haven’t been supported by anything but the most subjective and anecdotal of evidence.
For example, a comment on one of my blogs was “Quality needs to be buil(t) in, not controlled and managed in.” The commentrr, I’m sure, didn’t come up with this on his own – it had surely been repeated multiple times in classrooms, professional society chapter meetings, or in his workplace. But I don’t even know what that means. When creating products or providing services, if you have a good design/technical approach, use the appropriate tools, materials, and methodologies, and employ people with the appropriate level of expertise, barring human error a quality product or service will be delivered. The distinction between building, controlling, or managing “in” is fairly amorphous, rendering the distinction functionally irrelevant. And yet we, as a PM community, are somehow expected to accept this saying uncritically. I think the true nature of the assertion that “quality needs to be built in, not controlled and managed in” could be articulated as “hire more quality engineers, and pay them better, or else you will be made to look stupid for not knowing the difference between ‘built-in,’ ‘controlled-in,’ and ‘managed-in.’” (Actually, it might be kind of fun to isolate a dozen or so Quality Engineers, and have them define “built-in,” “controlled-in,” and “managed-in” in sufficient detail as to be able to differentiate any quality initiative as belonging to just one category, and then compare their answers.)
Another commonly-accepted idea is that all project managers must “engage stakeholders.” I think this term was created to be deliberately vague, in order to push the poorly-articulated theories of the communications experts (how ironic is that?). Take the first part of the term, the word “engage.” According to dictionary.com, this term can have polar opposite meanings, ranging from “to attract or please” (#4) to “enter into conflict with” (#7)i.
The definition of “stakeholder” isn’t much more precise. According to BusinessDictionary.com, the definition is “A person, group or organization that has interest or concern in an organization.”ii By this definition, the Washington Redskins are stakeholders of the Dallas Cowboys (which pretty much necessitates “engage” definition #7 to be used).
So, just to be clear, a term that can have as wildly differing meanings as “attract or please your employees” to “enter into conflict with your enemies” has no practical meaning at all on its face. And yet, to “engage stakeholders” has become so uncritically accepted in modern PM circles that to even challenge it is to risk being permanently identified as hopelessly backwards in the management sciences. Does that seem right?
Now, excuse me as I prepare to “control-in” my “engagement” of the “stakeholders” who leave comments in the comment section…
As my regular readers are aware, I take a rather dim view of the entire risk management arena, and have, on more than one occasion, referred to it as “institutional worrying, tripped out in statistical jargon.” I have also accused them of pushing their ideas of management information generation and analysis way past their proper epistemological boundaries, wasting time and resources that could be better spent on the creation or maintenance of legitimate information streams. And, while I still hold these views, it occurs to me that the risk managers could actually provide a much-needed service to the project management world.
This much-needed service has to do with the second accusation I’ve leveled against them – that they push their Gaussian-curve-based notions of management information creation into areas where they simply don’t work. This is also something our friends, the accountants, do all the time. To be fair, business schools across the world regularly teach that virtually any piece of management information that involves money must originate with the general ledger, and their students simply take this notion into the real world. However, once a project has been provided its actual costs by Work Breakdown Structure element at the reporting level, the general ledger has no further contribution to the information systems that allow the assessment of project cost, scope, or schedule performance, period. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Ah, but the accountants will never accede to that notion. Need an analysis on the cost variance? They’ll be happy to compare your budgets to your actuals, and can’t be convinced that that’s not a cost variance. Need an estimate at completion (EAC)? They will gladly provide a number based on the rate that you are spending, without taking into account (or even recognizing, really) the role of the actual performance against the project’s scope. It’s just the way they roll. It is futile to try to reason them out of these analysis techniques – they’re convinced of their efficacy, and similarly convinced that all who disagree with them are rubes. What’s a project management information system analyst to do?
Call in the risk managers!
Look at all the damage they do to legitimate PMISs. Surely, with a little redirection, they could inflict similar devastation on the accountants! I remember in the early 1990s, I saw a whole host articles from contributors who would perform some sort of statistical analysis on the float (both free and total) from complex schedule networks, trying to tease out some kernel of insight. It would take a few attempts to read the entire article, since these tended to be about as interesting as watching grass grow.
Just think of all the introspection that could be caused by a statistical analysis of some similarly irrelevant data sets, such as the number of transactions within a given project compared to the variability of labor overhead rates! It sounds really insightful, yes? But it’s completely irrelevant, much like the “information” the risk analysts force upon project teams. Something similar has already occurred – the whole statistical analysis of how much women make compared to men. That this analysis has been completely debunked once one takes into account the nature of the work, the degree requirements, the general preference of women to take jobs that provide more schedule flexibility, etc., etc., doesn’t stop the statistic of “X number of cents for every dollar men make” from being lobbed about ad infinitum.
Also, by Metcalf’s Law, any comparison of the average wages earned by any disparate demographic groups will yield a variance. It’s irrelevant, which will make the accountants’ jobs far, far more frustrating as they attempt to round those square epistemological pegs. Let the risk managers perform their analyses on the data sets within the general ledger! With the accountants’ energy so diverted away from advancing their misguided agenda, the risk analysts will have finally contributed significantly to the advancement of PM!
“Hi, this is Ron, and I’m here with my partner Verne to call the 30th annual Business Management Championship. Verne, it’s pretty much been just the asset managers in blowout victories every year. Kind of makes you wonder why they bother having the competition in the first place, much less give it world-wide network coverage.”
I think that one of the funniest bits from the late Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (misnamed) trilogy involves a scene where Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent are getting a ride on a ship populated by 1/3 of the people from their home world. The backstory is that they were told their planet was about to be destroyed cataclysmically, and so the population was loaded onto evacuation ships and divided into three groups:
In my previous two blogs I discussed the dichotomy between two types of project management practitioners, whom I labelled Processors and Effectives. Since the August theme is Business Project Management, I thought I’d take an opportunity to evaluate some of the distinct disciplines within PM, to see which ones are of more value to the overall enterprise management information feed, and which, well, are not. In short, I want to make the case for which PM sub-groups we ought to put on their own starship and send them away. Okay, that might be a little harsh, but I have to admit that, now that it’s written down, it might not be such a bad…
Just kidding! From an overall business point of view, the most valuable PM-type is the one who knows which kinds of work ought to be managed as a project, and which should not. Much harberdashery exists here, with accountants trying to provide insight on project performance, critical path schedulers being asked to perform staff allocation, and risk managers pretending it’s all about Gaussian Curves.
On the question of whether or not some element of work ought to be managed as a project or not, one simple question represents the litmus test: what percent complete have you accomplished? If asked of legitimate project work, a usable answer can be provided. If asked, say, of the document preparation organization, as an organization, there can be no sensible response. These ought to be managed as an asset, and not a project. Besides, if you were to ask them to develop a critical path methodology baseline, it would just be a series of constrained activities, yielding no usable performance information.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the least valuable PM-types are those whose analyses provide little or no value when it comes to bringing the project in on-time, on-budget. Among these I list:
These are the ones I recommend putting on the epistemological starship, and sending away from planet Project Management. Also, I understand that recent developments on an electromagnetic drive could power a ship to the Moon in four hours…
In my last blog I made the observation that those seeking to advance project management capability in the macro organization tend to fall in to one of two groups, whom I called the Processors and the Effectives. Processors, as one might guess, love the process of performing project management practices, and tend to define PM success as having a project team demonstrate compliance with procedures. Conversely, Effectives will define PM success as actually bringing their projects in on-time, on-budget, or even early and under-budget. I wrapped last week’s blog speculating that the Processors, by definition, had very little opportunity to bring innovative approaches to the table. That may have been a rash assertion.
If others on the project team aren’t “doing” project management, there are two broad categories from which the Processors can pull their tactics: if the Processor is of high rank, they can attempt to leverage their organizational power to compel compliance. However, if our Processor is of equal or lower status, they are reduced to whining and eat-your-peas-style hectoring to change the behavior of their associates.
The first category, that of attempting to leverage organizational power to compel an advancement in project management capability, never works in the long-term. Some short-term “success” may be realized, sure, as the project team becomes painfully aware that the prospects for their continued employment may hinge on how effectively they can perform the added requirements placed upon them as they pursue the project’s objectives. However, as soon as they can opt out, they inevitably do, leaving the macro organization no better off than before. This is especially true if the added procedural burden doesn’t have any clear link to the project’s overall success in cost, schedule, or scope performance. Indeed, the leaned-on project team will often come away with an embittered perspective on project management in general, and will tend to avoid (or even openly eschew) it in the future, all thanks to the way the Procedurals like to try and advance PM in their teams.
The second category – hectoring and whining – can (and often does) assume the audio acceptance level of a dentist’s drill on a molar needing a filling replaced. But there is a variety of hectoring that invites innovation, and is, in fact, somewhat compelling. This is the appeal to sophistication.
The appeal to sophistication works on Processors like catnip. Not only can they nakedly assert that others ought to be doing that project management thing they way the Processors want, but it goes without saying that to do otherwise is, well, kind of dumb! How convenient! Leveraging off of the fear of the project team’s members looking intellectually backwards, the Processors can advance all sorts of charlatanisms, to wit:
I could go on (and often do), but I’m sure my readers see my point: Processors don’t actually advance project management as a science; rather, they use pseudo-science tripped out in PM phrases as leverage to try and convince others to do as they say, and respect them for saying it.
And I think that’s dumb.