The Acronym Mill

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Are you failing to rake in the respect, admiration and monetary recompense that are consistent with your advanced level of project management expertise? If so, you need your own business or management model, complete with its own slick-sounding acronym, in order to truly set you apart and make you stand out in a crowd of (otherwise) management equals.
    This is easier than it looks. For example, someone can, say, set up a traditional Responsibility/Accountability Matrix (RAM), deconstruct them into detailed instructions with lot's of fuzzy terms like "strategic," "engage" and "implement", slap an acronym on it--like RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed)--and voila! They've developed their very own management model.
    I love reading the synopses in the management course catalogues I get in the mail (yeah, I know, I need to get out more). You can almost track the entire debate among the Agile management practitioners, the Scrum advocates and the more traditional Waterfall Model believers just by reading what the instructors or paper presenters believe they are bringing to the table.
    I know: I'm inviting a truckload of comments questioning my intelligence. But Agile management strikes me as little more than the practice of loosening up baseline change control parameters to the point of almost begging scope creep to hit your software project in a bid to acquire the kind of managerial latitude needed to deliver software faster. Throw in some trendy tactics, like re-arranging the desks in the office and bring along the ever-present admonition to achieve better communications (especially with stakeholders), and then you can profoundly influence the conversation on management theory around the globe.
    I first became aware of the practice of deconstructing already-existing management practices and trotting them back onstage re-packaged during the 1980s, when "Activity Based Costing" was suddenly a hot topic. For you gen-exers out there, Activity-Based Costing (note how easily the acronym falls off the tongue: ABC) was the idea that a project's basis of estimate should be created at the lowest level of the Work Breakdown Structure, or activity level, and "rolled up" to total project cost. Problem was, this was the way that valid estimates had been created since the dawn of project management. Besides, what's the alternative? Estimating based on the availability of the organization's resources? For manufacturing, process or asset management, that might be a workable approach, but it was never so in the realm of project manager. Nevertheless, a plethora of ABC-themed paper presentations' titles started appearing in project management and cost engineering seminars. True to form, of the ones I attended, the content was made up of deconstructing the act of generating the basis of estimate into some sort of process guide--almost like a recipe--and then sprinkling in vague but trendy management-speak terms to make it appear new, or more sophisticated.
    To engage in a bit of deconstruction myself, at the end of the day all management models are nothing more than formulaic attempts at telling other people how they should be managing their projects. I can see why such models are appealing to consultants. But, for the rest of us, do they really merit all of the books, articles and presentations devoted to them?

Posted by MICHAEL HATFIELD on: February 23, 2009 05:08 PM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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Dave Prior
Hi Michael, I understand the point you are trying to make regarding Agile, and to be honest, there was about a ten-year stretch when, suffering from a flawed implementation of Agile, I was in that camp as well. However, I think you may be a bit too dismissive of the Agile practice and the benefits it can provide. There are some environments where the culture and pace of the organization are completely at odds with a more traditional, or structured approach. I'm not saying that is a good thing, but when I walk into a gig, I have to be able to adapt what I do in order to suit the needs of the organization in which I'm going to be working. In some cases, an approach like Scrum, can be incredibly beneficial and more in tune with the client's needs or organizational culture. As for the idea on loosening up the change control parameters. What I have found in my practice is that it is precisely that "loosening" that comes with Agile that requires that my approach as a PM be even that much more disciplined. If implemented well, I believe it kinda falls under Uncle Ben rule -> "with great power, comes great responsibility". Anyway, just thought I'd chime in. I respect your opinion, but I disagree with your dismissal of Agile and the benefits it can provide.

Jesse Fewell
"all management models are nothing more than formulaic attempts at telling other people how they should be managing their projects" mean like the PMBOK, for example? How many people use the PMBOK as a color-by-numbers management manual? We will never do away with the human comfort response associated with formulaic systems. Instead of deriding that human nature, use it as a tool to coach people towards the right direction.

Bob Tarne
Michael - You're right, you do need to get out more. You can understand Scrum/Agile by reading course catalogs as well as you can understand space travel by watching Lost in Space. Agile is about delivering your product by working closely with your customers, not getting bogged down with process or documentation, and being able to effectively respond to change. PMI is accepting agile with the formation of an agile community. It's not just some trendy tactics.

Iain Cruickshank
Michael, I could not agree with you more. But the problem goes beyond project management. I have been in IT for many years and the one thing that has always bothered me about the industry is our constantly creating new acronyms or misusing the English language in an effort to sound like we have invented something new. It is childish and embarassing. Despite all the fancy terminology, industry statistics still report approximately 70% of our projects failing. For project managers, this does not show a profession which is making progress. If PM's (and IT in general) spent more time actually delivering solutions for our clients and less time trying to sound clever, we would achieve the professional respect we deserve. Thank you, Iain Cruickshank

Michael Hatfield
Well, obviously I like Iain's take the best. And many thanks to Mr. Prior for his thoughtful addition to the discourse. I would actually counter that I'm not so much dismissive of Agile as much as I'm deriding the hype behind it. Not to miss a chance to promote my book, Things Your PMO Is Doing Wrong, but I think the hot topic right now is implementation, and Agile PM only tangentially addresses it, whereas my book takles it head-on. When I was doing my research on Agile, I first became suspicious that it might be a back-door implementation strategy when I read about two aspects: 1) an almost extreme emphasis on communications, and 2) the element of pretending the "boss" really isn't in a position to order things. So, I wrote what I wrote and, as expected, some disagree. But that's cool, too. Thanks, everybody, for the discussion, and keep it coming!

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