It was relatively late in the morning when my friend Sherlock Holmes[i] emerged from his bedroom and into the sitting room at 221B Baker Street.
“Was that the post I heard earlier?”
“Yes,” I replied, “it was addressed to the both of us, so I went ahead and opened it. It appears to be an interesting case.”
Holmes sat down in his familiar chair, put his feet upon the ottoman, then closed his eyes as he placed his fingertips together, resting them on the bridge of his nose.
“Pray, read the letter, Watson.”
“It’s from a fellow who’s responsible for a large military project, and he needs to know about his performance.”
“Did the project come in on-time, and within its budget?”
“That’s just it, Holmes … the project isn’t finished yet.”
“This is hardly worthy of our time, Watson. All he has to do is compare his progress against his objectives to where he had planned to be, and then compare a monetized version of this progress against how much he’s actually spent, and those two figures should give him a fairly accurate idea. In fact, this solution is so straight-forward and easy, I’m rather surprised this PM did not go to that fellow in the United States – what was his name again, Raspberry? – for a solution.”
“Stanly is already engaged; besides, this fellow is here in the UK.”
“Very well, send along the answer I just articulated, and be done with it.”
“But that’s just it, Holmes” I started. “His support staff keeps telling him that he ought to use other comparisons to determine his performance.”
“What devices is this Project Manager subjected to that he’s expected to use to determine such things?”
“He includes a list here: statisticians tell him the odds of something bad happening.”
“Irrelevant – nothing more than quantified worrying.”
“The accountants project his costs based on the rate he’s spending now.”
“Without an assessment of his percent complete” Holmes replied, “that is also irrelevant.”
“His communications specialists monitor the number of stakeholders he has engaged.”
“Also irrelevant, and maybe even harmful. What are the criterion for these ‘stakeholders’?”
“He doesn’t say.”
“Are there any more?”
“Yes, one – this PM has estimators who are constantly re-estimating the cost of the remaining work.”
At this, Holmes suddenly sat upright, dropped his hands and opened his eyes.
“This is the worst of all!” he cried. “It’s not only irrelevant and inaccurate, but it takes time and energy to develop, and replaces its valid counterpart!”
“Valid counterpart? What do you mean?”
“An accurate assessment of at-completion costs and dates is probably the most valuable information that a PM can access, but you can’t get a precise figure by constantly re-estimating the cost or schedule baseline. Every last one of the data items that goes into such an ‘estimate’ is entirely subjective, and the more subjective data you allow into the analysis the less reliable the final product becomes – the very definition of a rubber baseline. They’re irrelevant and inaccurate clues. The at-completion data must be provided based on objective data, otherwise it’s worthless. Small wonder our PM is in the dark about how his project is performing.”
“But Holmes, if he has all of these so-called experts feeding him irrelevant and inaccurate information, and he needs to know his performance and valid at-completion dates and costs, what is to be done?”
Holmes reclined back in his chair, and again closed his eyes with his fingertips resting on the bridge of his nose.
“Reply to our intrepid and grasping PM that he need only divide his percent complete into his cumulative actual costs, and he will have a valid, accurate, and easy to employ estimate of his costs at completion. Have him do the same with his cumulative duration, and he will know within ten percent his projected end date.”
“What if such an analysis returns that he is doing poorly?”
“Then more robust project controls techniques are called for to isolate the issues. But that wasn’t what this fellow asked of us – he only requested to know how he was performing, and what I just told you is the way to ascertain that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Completely. Those data elements are almost exclusively objective in most cases, and only mildly subjective in others. Their results will tell him the answer to his original inquiry.”
“What should he do with all of his other so-called experts? They’re certain to impugn your intellectual integrity.”
“He should tell them to report back to Moriarity that their attempts to hopelessly complicate basic performance measurement on this particular project have come to naught.”
[i] Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were characters developed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I’m just borrowing them for this blog.
In a variation of the question in the title, Adele Tartaglia, in an excerpt from her book appearing on SelfGrowth.com, wrote this:
The “I’d rather be right than happy” attitudinal stance in life seems at first like conceit or egoism when it actually stems from the complete opposite as do most behaviors overtly appearing like self aggrandizement. All are based on deep insecurities, worthiness issues, self doubt, and self abnegation.[i]
Ms. Tartaglia does not appear to consider whether or not her assertion is right, or actually based on deep insecurities, worthiness issues, self doubt, and self abnegation, so I will save such an evaluation for some time when I’m feeling a bit more esoteric or combative.
Now, compare and contrast this assertion to the ideas that Thomas Kuhn advanced in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he describes the cycle that generally greets all new scientific theories, especially those that represent a dramatic challenge to the ideas that are in wide acceptance at the time of the new theory’s introduction. Consistently the new theories, and the people who develop or support them, are sharply criticized – ridiculed, even – until such a time as the evidence supporting the new theory becomes virtually unavoidable. As the majority of scientists in the field begin to abandon the old theories and embrace the new, a Paradigm Shift occurs (Kuhn actually coined the term), and the “new” theory becomes the baseline – until still more evidence comes in that appears to challenge the existing ideas, and the whole cycle begins again. But note the reception that the person advancing the “right” idea encounters – rejection, ostracism, extreme criticism. And these are in circumstances where the science can be demonstrated to be valid using hard data, and reproducible in an experimental setting.
I understand very well that, when we discuss the so-called management sciences, a great deal of subjectivity has suddenly been injected into our experimental evaluations. In the macro economy (or even in the micro economy, if we are honest with ourselves) there are simply too many parameters or data elements to be able to precisely define or measure the dependent variables that drive a particular outcome. In simpler terms, we never really know all of the causal factors that went in to our successes, or failures. There’s simply too much going on to recognize, much less quantify into reproducible causality loops in an experimental setting. With nothing less than the optimal way of conducting management at stake, such an environment invites the introduction of unsupported (indeed, unsupportable) theories as legitimate management science – and when I say “unsupported,” I mean ideas that often represent examples of openly fraudulent analysis techniques. Examples include:
I could go on (and often do), but you see my point. Many of the things the PM community writ large accepts as valid practices or techniques really aren’t, and to challenge them in the least bit often means making the choice between being right (because the ideas being challenged really are silly), or being accepted by one’s peers who have embraced the popular “wisdom,” and can probably be counted on to react as other science advocates do when commonly-held notions are challenged, or even overturned outright.
So, when the PM practitioner considers the path forward, and the implications for career advancement (ProjectManagement.com’s April theme), the question remains – would you rather be right, or accepted?
[i] Tartaglia, Adele, “’I’d Rather Be Right Than Happy’ Identity, A New Solution,” from SelfGrowth.com, retrieved from http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/i-d-rather-be-right-than-happy-identity-a-new-solution on 23 April, 2016, 14:44 MDT.
Okay, maybe you can’t get a leg up on how to buy a winning lottery ticket using PM techniques, but the similarities between what Project Managers do and betting on unique future events unfolding a certain way are myriad. I got to thinking along these lines when I was asked what would I do if I were to win the lottery, specifically, would I go on working?
The more I thought about it, the more I came to recognize the parallels I alluded to in the first paragraph. I’m pretty sure that, should I come into fantastic wealth after buying a $2 lottery ticket, I would not continue working my present job (sorry, Cameron). It’s not that I don’t enjoy my work, or that I think I’m not very good at it. It’s just that project management tends to be pretty stressful. It’s axiomatic that something will not go as planned on every single project, leaving it to the PM to take the actions necessary to ensure the eventual outcome remains relatively as-predicted, even in ever-changing (or even chaotic) environments. Our friends, the asset managers, are comparatively free of such chaos as they execute their duties. Budgets, accounts receivable and payable, payroll – these business transactions are carried out in a highly formulaic fashion. It’s so formulaic, in fact, that in many instances it’s illegal to carry out such duties in anything other than the proscribed, mandated fashion.
PM, on the other hand, and as I’ve said multitudinous times, is a completely different animal. By definition a “project” is a unique endeavor, with identifiable beginning and ending dates. Being as it is a unique endeavor; the lessons learned from previous experiences may or may not be applicable. Some elements are universally analogous, sure, such as breaking the work down into sub-components (a Work Breakdown Structure), identifying the resources needed to accomplish the scope (a time-phased budget), and some sort of identifiable duration (a schedule). Go much further past that, though, and the universal truisms – and, therefore, reliably repeatable guidance – become far more rare.
But that doesn’t stop a plethora of self-identified experts from trying to push their ideas as universally applicable in the PM realm, no siree. Take, for example, our friends the communications specialists. If I’m subjected to one more article or talk about how all PMs are somehow duty-bound to “engage stakeholders,” I think I will communicate my opposition to such drivel by imitating the sound my Collie makes when he’s throwing up on the carpet at 3:00 a.m. Bonnie Cooper, writing on the Corporate Education Group website, states “One of the most critical aspects of project management is doing what's necessary to develop and control relationships with all individuals that the project impacts.”[i] Now, I’m sure Ms. Cooper is a very nice person, but this statement raises a few questions, to wit:
But it all sounds so great, doesn’t it? I mean, by controlling the relationships with everyone who’s affected (not “impacted,” unless the result of your project comes in to kinetic proximity to others) by the project, you can, to at least some degree, control the way the future unfolds, right? By spending energy on “stakeholder engagement,” doesn’t that lessen the chances of adversarial relationships spontaneously erupting, and thereby endangering your project?
Short answer: well, umm, not necessarily.
If Project Management techniques, such as risk, quality, or communication management, could alter the way the future unfolds, then, taken to their extreme, wouldn’t there be examples of their ability to do so in such a way as to represent extreme success, similar to winning millions off of a single lottery ticket? There aren’t, and they can’t. What they can do, however, is to better prepare the PM practitioner to deal with the way an uncertain future does unfold, and that increases your odds of success to something a bit better than one in 292,000,000.
[i] Cooper, Bonnie, “What You Must Know About Stakeholder Management,” retrieved from http://www.corpedgroup.com/resources/pm/WhatMustKnowStakeholder.asp on April 16, 2016, 2:00 p.m. MDT.
I have never met a medical doctor who came into the field after having done something different entirely, and then had an epiphany that they needed to learn how to heal people in order to continue with their chosen profession. Ditto with accountants. But Project Management? It’s chocked full of them (people who suddenly realized they needed to understand PM, not how to heal people or set up a ledger).
Generally speaking, the people in the PM profession whom I’ve encountered got there in one of two ways: either they quickly grasped concepts such as Critical Path or Earned Value methodologies, and realized that there was a demand for such talent; or else they were doing something else entirely – usually some sort of engineering – and were put into a position of authority on some project work, and realized they were sorely lacking the skill set that would enable them to bring that work to a successful conclusion. ProjectManagement.com (and, by extension, the whole Project Management Institute®) is useful for the professionals in the former category; but absolutely essential for those in the latter. What professional, handed a project assignment but realizing they need a higher level of expertise to accomplish the tasks at hand, has time to suspend work, and attend classes at a university?
Hence PM’s nickname as “the accidental profession.” It’s also interesting to note some of the adjunct versions of PM, and how different they are from our friends, the accountants. Ever heard of “Agile Accounting?” No? How about “Scrum Financing?” Still nothing? Well, there’s a reason for that.
Project Management’s ability to adapt to new and different circumstances is one of its reasons for existence. Before common access to management information tools such as Critical Path or Earned Value, managers who were responsible for actual project work lacked the information tools needed to ensure successful project delivery. As I’ve often asserted on this blog, the top 80th percentile managers who have access to 20% of the information they need to obviate a given decision will be consistently out-performed by the 20% worst managers who have access to 80% of the information so needed. But, since the Asset Managers dominated the field of business theory, the early project managers were at a distinct disadvantage. To seek an estimate of at-completion costs was to be presented with a projection based on the burn rate of the actual costs. A cost variance was the difference between the budget and the (again) actual costs. What’s the estimated completion date? Well, the management experts – at the time, accountants – were sure it had something to do with actual costs, or lists of milestones, or something like that.
Naturally, when better methods for providing the unique set of information that PMs needed became available, the existing management science gurus reacted the same way scientists have for centuries, when a new theory is proposed that is clearly better than the existing ones: they fought it with everything they had. The world’s first business school started in 1819, in Paris,[i] by which time the particulars of accounting had already been in existence for centuries (literally). PMI® didn’t start until 1969, when the field was still relatively new. That’s 150 years exactly, 150 years of a specific set of management practices that had little formal recognition from the management sciences establishment. And yet, there is a distinct possibility that a Kuhnsian-type paradigm shift is emerging in business, whereby Project Management theory either is or will soon displace much of what passes for commonly-accepted precepts in the management sciences. These PM usurpers are not being forced on anybody – they’re being embraced out of discovered necessity, almost, well, accidentally.
In essence, while most of us may have swerved into the project management realm relatively accidentally, that its set of management science precepts should come to claim major areas of business practice is no accident.
It is, in fact, inevitable.
[i] Business school. (2016, March 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:02, April 10, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Business_school&oldid=708373426
I’ve had a lot of fun on this blog site making (mostly innocent) fun of our friends, the accountants, by pointing out the logical fallacies in many of their management science hypotheses, not the least of which is their idea that the overarching theme of all management is to “maximize shareholder wealth.” Of course, the whole raison’ de etre’ for Project Management as a discipline is to contest that idea, since PM is all about delivering a product or service to the customers’ parameters of scope, cost, and schedule. By transferring the focus of our efforts on the customer, rather than the company’s owners, we PM-types pursue a business approach that is not only inconsistent with the accountants’ world view, it’s actually in opposition to it.
Indeed, I would argue that the basic tenets of Project Management theory are intrinsic to everybody’s career advancement, and to prove it one must only answer a simple question: Why would anyone ever want to give you money? If you answered “in exchange for a good or service I rendered,” go to the head of the class. If you answered “because I maximized shareholder wealth,” then you are either in desperate need of remedial business school, or perfectly suited to write college-level textbooks on quantitative analysis, or both.
Your ability to quickly grasp what others want or need, and provide that to them, is key to any and, arguably, all of the success you will encounter in your career. From managers who need people who can sell merchandise and operate cash registers, to the owners themselves who seek to satisfy their customers’ demands, it is your ability to provide desired goods and services that determines your level of success. Again, the asset managers’ orientation is not set in that direction – but Project Management’s is.
On a larger scale, the shift in emphasis from satisfying the customers to maximizing shareholder wealth is one of the most distinctive indicators that an organization has transitioned from its ascendency and into its decline (for a more complete list of these signposts, check out my second book). The most obvious example of this has to do with the new business. Brand-new businesses seek to satisfy their clients, and their owners will often expend extraordinary effort, their own capital, and much overtime to make this happen. In other words, they will go full-throttle on executing the tenets of Project Management. If they’re smart, they will only think of their own remuneration after their customer base is established. The shift of majority focus away from the customer to the organization’s internal leadership inevitably leads to the organization’s eventual downfall and elimination from economic competition.
And, remember, that’s what the asset managers have been advising executives to do all along.
On an even larger scale, this shift in focus is also a harbinger of governments that have ceased existing for the good of their respective populations, and have begun expending energy and manipulating public policy to ensure the governing class’ own enrichment and continued survival, with the eventual outcome of tyranny and revolution. Fortunately, in capitalistic environs the decline and fall of companies is rarely accompanied by violence, as those companies who listened to the advice of the asset managers merely suffer as their PM-oriented competitors gain more and more market share, until the former ceases being on ongoing concern, and liquidates their remaining assets. But that does not exonerate those who maintain the hypothesis that the point of all management is to maximize shareholder wealth. Example after example, from small businesses, to larger organizations, and even governments, shows that this closely-held idea is actually detrimental to those organizations that embrace it, even on very large scales, i.e., civilization.
To summarize: Individuals and organizations in their ascendency further the goals of their clients and constituencies. Those in decline put the enrichment of the organization ahead of their clients and constituencies, which puts PM squarely on the side of the advancers, including career advancers. ProjectManagement.com’s blog readers are in those ranks.