Okay, maybe “die” is a bit strong. But consider: prior to the Ming Dynasty ((1368-1644), China was a technologically advanced and expanding world power. However, once Hong Wu founded the Ming Dynasty, China became a (relatively) closed society. Both trade and diplomatic ties were abruptly curtailed or halted altogether, and the Great Wall was completed in the North, symbolically (if not actually) sealing off China along hundreds of miles. By the time the Qing Dynasty began (1644), the West had attained marked superiority in military, economic, and agricultural technology. Ironically, anti-foreigner sentiments would linger for decades – the Boxer Rebellion (1900), for example, saw hundreds of foreigners killed[i].
Similarly, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan entered into a 220-year long period of isolation, changed only when Commodore Perry returned to Japan in 1854. Prior to this period of isolation (“Sakoku”[ii]), Japan was relatively advanced in its economics and military technology. But by 1854, with trains commonplace in the West, a gift locomotive from Perry created astonishment among the Japanese people who saw it for the first time.
There are many other examples, but these two illustrate dramatically the dangers of organizations – not just nation-states – that attempt to create a narrative or environment where outside or alien ideas or concepts are dissuaded or prevented from being adapted. I believe this effect is scalable. Not only can isolationism dramatically affect entire societies (usually for the worse), the same effect can occur on an individual basis. As I have discussed in this blog previously, arrogance is not just off-putting on an interpersonal level – it prevents the person so afflicted from readily evaluating or adapting ideas brought to them by others. The more humble, then, are in a far better position to take advantage of new, novel solutions to problems that the arrogant one won’t even recognize.
In-between nation-states and individuals, we have corporations and project teams. How amenable are these to recognizing and adopting new ideas, versus holding tightly to a narrative that they have all the answers going in, and are therefore insulated to the outside realm of ideas? And what are some of the indicators that the specific corporation or project team is leaning towards one side of this scale, or the other?
Indicator number one is easy: it’s ProjectManagement.com’s July theme of outsourcing. Project teams especially are composed of people from several (if not many) different disciplines. The larger project teams will almost always include some subcontractors, and it is not at all unusual for very large project teams to include personal combined from companies that would otherwise be rivals. Beware, therefore, the large project team composed entirely of people from one organization. Such teams are almost certainly allowing business model pathologies to change the optimal approach to completing the project’s scope on-time, on-budget. A sub-level clue of this effect occurs when there is a notable, yet artificial, hierarchy among the members of the project team based on their membership in the various organizations within said team.
Indicator number two is a bit more difficult to ascertain, but is a dead giveaway nevertheless. It’s cronyism/nepotism. These two very similar business model pathologies are clear indicators that the organization that is indulging them has walked away from (if not abandoned altogether) a merit-based structure for evaluating and placing talented personnel in their most appropriate roles on the project team. In a way, cronyism is the anti-outsourcing alternative. Instead of giving work to those outside the home organization because the recipients can do the job better, faster, or cheaper, the organization instead gives the work to the recipient simply because they are internally favored, with little or no true consideration of performance.
Finally, if you, yourself, are not an M.D., and you don’t outsource your own medical care, you will, in all probability, die sooner than you would otherwise. So this blog’s title isn’t really all that outlandish after all.
[ii] Sakoku. (2016, July 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:06, July 23, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sakoku&oldid=728508502
It was another dark and stormy night. I was staring at the stencil across my frosted glass office door, eyE etavirP, yrrebpsaR .t yelnatS. My secretary, Anne, had just left, saying “Good night, sleep tight, and if you don’t pay me tomorrow I’m going to kick your &^%,” when the phone rang.
“Stanley? It’s Deborah. You’d better get down here.”
Deborah was my inside source from Monolithic Corporation.
“Why, what’s going on?”
“The big wigs are bringing in some politicians, so it has to be hot.”
“How can I get in?”
“Disguise yourself as one of the custodians.”
“Don’t they need badges, too?”
“Yeah, but the guards never look at them. For some reason, Monolithic treats its cleaning staff rather poorly.”
“Most poorly-run organizations do. Okay, I’m on my way.”
With my cap pulled down low and wearing coveralls, I pushed a trash bin cart straight past the guards. Deborah was right – they barely glanced my way. I headed towards the hall where Deborah’s office was. Just a few feet away, I heard a guttural voice behind me.
“Raspberry! Dang it! You come here!”
I froze in place.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you. Come here!”
I slowly turned, still keeping my gaze low.
“How can I help, sir?”
“Somebody spilled some raspberry preserves in this break room, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll clean it up RIGHT NOW!”
“Just let me fetch my stain remover, and I’ll get right on it, sir.”
The Monolithic manager huffed off just as Deborah opened her office door and beckoned me inside.
“Get to room 54B; it’s in the basement right next to the Hatfield Conference room.”
“The what conference room?”
“It was named after an obscure ProjectManagement.com blogger. Behind the velvet painting of Elvis there’s a peep hole you can use to listen in.”
As I shuffled in to basement room 54B, I could hear an animated discussion already going on. I closed the door, and pushed the velvet Elvis painting aside, and listened.
Voice #1 (guttural, so I assumed it was Monolithic’s president): “So, as you legislators can see, we don’t outsource anything we don’t have to, meaning more dollars stay here in this country.”
Voice #2 (a bit more earnest, so I assume it was one of the legislators): “But is that the most economical approach? If you were to outsource some of your parts or services, wouldn’t that reduce the costs on your government contracts, and then the taxpayer?”
Voice #1: “That’s not what we’re here to talk about. I want you three to introduce and push legislation that grants preferred status to companies like Monolithic that refuse to outsource, no matter the increased costs.”
Voice #3 (not guttural, but more experienced sounding than the first legislator to respond): “And why would we do that?”
Voice #1: “Two reasons: one, by pushing the preferred-no-outsourcing narrative, you can appear to be patriotic, since the funds stay in this country. Two, if you don’t, not only will we stop contributing to your campaigns, we will start supporting your opponents.”
Voice #2: “That sounds like a threat.”
At this point what I heard sounded like someone had told a really funny joke at a Darth Vader imitators’ convention.
Voice #1: “I’m not threatening. That would be un-American!”
Another very funny joke at a Darth Vader imitators’ convention.
Voice #2: “What about the intellectual forces against that meme, people like Stanley Raspberry?”
Voice #4 (guttural, but younger): “Raspberry? He’s been a pain in our…”
Here I heard a sound like a yardstick being slammed onto knuckles.
Voice #1: “Raspberry and his ilk are nothing to us. If you’re smart, you will do as we say.”
Voice #4: “I don’t get it. If your company is so big and successful, why do you need any kind of help from the government?”
Voice #1: “It’s not about our expenses. It’s about making harder for smaller competitors, who, as you know, could easily undercut us by outsourcing. Customers would flock to them in droves, so we just need you to demagogue this issue, so that people will continue to be mislead about outsourcing.”
Just then I heard the doorknob turn. I let the painting down, and began emptying the trash can as a Monolithic executive walked in.
“Get out of here, custodian!” he growled.
Deborah called me once I had returned to my office, and I gave her the lowdown on what Monolithic was up to.
“What are you going to do about it?” she asked.
“What I always do – counsel my clients to make the best decisions for them, which includes outsourcing, and watch them steadily erode Monolithic’s market share – right after I clean my office.”
In 1981, the rock group REO Speedwagon released a single entitled Take It On The Run, a song that appears to have highly contradictory lyrics. The narrative begins in the voice of a boyfriend who has access to fourth-hand evidence that his girlfriend is unfaithful. The song then jumps back and forth from his apparently believing this information (“…then I don’t want you around.”) and not believing it (“I don’t believe it, not for a minute…”), with a particular non-sequitur thrown in: “You’re under the gun so you take it on the run.”
Since my undergraduate degree is in English, I felt free to try and interpret what the “you’re under the gun” line meant. Unless we’re talking about an active shooter situation, “under the gun” generally means that the person is under extreme pressure. So, since this person – presumably the suspected girlfriend -- is under extreme pressure, what does she do? She “take(s) it on the run.” Takes what on the run? Her love life? How does one do that, exactly? Is she running from place to place? If so, how does that help her avoid being “under the gun”? Since some variant of this line is repeated six times, the listener could probably safely assume the lyricist thought he was being clear – or else had simple given up on creating an internally consistent narrative.
By the way, Take it On the Run charted at #5 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 list.[i]
Which reminds me of our friends, the risk managers. According to Wikipedia, the definition of risk analysis begins “Risk analysis can be defined in many different ways, and much of the definition depends on how risk analysis relates to other concepts.” Really? A discipline that claims to be a profoundly necessary aspect of project management “can be defined in many different ways.”? Other definitions lack, well, definition, and even the PMBOK Guide® has some of its mushiest language in the risk management section. I maintain that if a concept cannot be clearly and precisely articulated as to what it is, and what its outputs are, then it’s probably an invalid concept, and much sound and fury must be created to obfuscate this fact.
Since what it is is difficult to state, (I defy anyone to make sense of the following: “The goal of risk planning is to establish how the overall risk management will be conducted for the project. The time spent, the role and responsibilities, and template formats of the reports should be all established in this process. Once the preliminary work is done, identifying, analyzing, and adjusting for risks can be done.”[ii]), let’s see if we can shed some light on the topic based on what risk management is not.
So, risk managers are under extreme pressure (“under the gun”) to present to the management world a coherent structure where their analysis techniques provide verifiable value, when they, well, don’t. Therefore they’re forced into a position of ensuring that the exact definitions of their concepts and techniques are sufficiently obscure as to present a moving target to anyone who would attempt to so define them (they “take it on the run”).
Since RM is a multi-billion dollar industry world-wide, I suspect it has pulled in more money than REO Speedwagon made in their careers. But as for its validity? I don’t believe it, not for a minute.
[i] Take It on the Run. (2016, July 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:08, July 10, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Take_It_on_the_Run&oldid=728209354
[ii] Project Management/PMBOK/Risk Management. (2015, February 25). Wikibooks, The Free Textbook Project. Retrieved 01:55, July 10, 2016 from https://en.wikibooks.org/w/index.php?title=Project_Management/PMBOK/Risk_Management&oldid=2770679.
Politicians and other demagogues have given the business act of outsourcing a bad name, due, at least in part, to the infernal human tendency to overlay some sort of moral judgement on economic transactions that almost always do not involve the person making the judgement. If the person who, say, processes the company payroll is herself an employee, then that is somehow seen as more righteous than if she works for a company that performs the payroll processing service for many companies, particularly and especially if the payroll processing service is headquartered in a different nation. In the case of the latter, some ignoramuses will even assert that such a decision – to outsource the payroll function – is tantamount to an act of treachery, and those cats will step on your face, slander your name all over the place.
But anybody with a room-temperature IQ who gives this even a quick analysis will realize that such assertions are absurd. I’m not a master of internet communications and attractor of PM minds and advertising revenue: I’m just a blogger. In a sense, I have “outsourced” those functions to ProjectManagement.com. Pea farmers have no idea what type of package their delivered crops will use upon their delivery to the market – they’re more concerned with creating and maintaining the best environment for growing peas. If they were to attempt to control all aspects of growing, processing, packaging, transporting, and selling their peas, you can safely bet that the cost of those peas will be significantly higher than the farmers who concentrate on growing their crops, and outsource all of those other functions to those who specialize in them.
No, the judge of which functions should or should not be outsourced is not fear-mongering politicians or hopelessly misguided economics columnists (e.g., Paul Krugman). The proper judge is thoroughly committed to the advancement of people’s well-being, but is known for having a harsh side: the judge is success or failure in the free marketplace. If outsourcing a particular function is a good idea, then the outsourcing company is better positioned to deliver its goods or services at a lower price, or to deliver a superior good or service at the same price, or some of each. Consumers benefit. If the contemplated outsourcing is a bad idea, then the company doing so will be in a poorer position to benefit its customers, and will tend to be eliminated from the particular market. Whether or not the outsourced ability is performed overseas, or by an organization others believe to be unpalatable is truly irrelevant, economically. It really is that simple.
That having been said, is there an exception to which functions can or ought to be outsourced? Yes, there is, and that function is, ironically, Project Management.
Think about it: all of the aspects of asset management can be (and commonly are) outsourced. The aforementioned payroll, plus accounts receivable and accounts payable, are easily performed by specialists in their own, separate organization. Even taxes have been outsourced for generations. In the strategic management realm, companies have outsourced this capability since 1841, when the first advertising agency opened its doors. Of course, advertising is not the complete strategic management function – which is to acquire more market share than your competitors – but it’s pretty darn close.
This leaves only Project Management from among the three management types that cannot be outsourced. Why not? Because Project Management is all about delivering specific scope on the customers’ parameters of schedule and cost, meaning that any attempt to transfer this capability would be to introduce an unnecessary third party in-between the company and its customers. Those companies that deal successfully with their customers do so due (in part) to the directness of the relationship. Now, project controls – the function of collecting data and processing it into usable information for PMs – can be outsourced, since this is an information delivery service, not the actual PM-making-decisions process.
So, in the realm of outsourcing, you can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes. Put another way, it’s rather interesting (is it not?) that you can outsource virtually any function that an outside organization may be able to do better or cheaper, but you can’t outsource Project Management.
And don’t even think about drinking my liquor from an old fruit jar.
I was recently in a discussion with my older son, who works as a prosecutor and graduated from Notre Dame Law School (Magna Cum Laude … not that I’m proud, or anything), when he brought up a highly relevant point that I had completely missed.
“Objection!” I interjected, “Evidence not entered as fact!”
“That’s gibberish” he replied.
“Not according to the television law shows I’ve seen.”
“Then you need to watch a higher caliber of law shows.”
Meanwhile, back in the PM world, there exists a surfeit of ideas that claim to be within the umbrella of legitimate project management science. Some of these (critical path, earned value) unquestionably belong, while others are at best suspect, at worst plunging whole sectors of project management theory into irrelevance. As my regular readers know, I regularly skewer these ideas, which nominally include:
…among others. I can rail to my blogger heart’s content against these theories and practices, but there is no final arbiter, a judge who can render a decision that all parties must respect going forward.
Or is there?
Note what the Agile/Scrum developers did. In the crushingly competitive IT market, they adapted just those project management concepts that they believed provided a competitive advantage, and paid less (or no) attention to those practices that were, well, irrelevant. What traditional PM practices are missing from most Agile/Scrum projects? Just:
For those concepts and ideas whose developers/backers desperately want to be considered relevant, there will be no judge, jury, and competing assertions tested for veracity in a finding-of-legitimacy setting. They can only submit articles, columns, and blogs, entreating their readers to use some of those concepts in order to be doing “real” or “legitimate” PM. In the meantime, the ultimate decider of relevancy – the free market – will pick and choose which ideas are indeed helpful in their markets, and which are, well, irrelevant.
The jury’s out on those areas I’ve regularly criticized in this blog. But I’m optimistic, though this optimism may be fueled by the sub-standard legal dramas I’ve been watching.