I think it’s fascinating that ProjectManagement.com’s theme for January has segued to “talent” from December’s “success,” since these two concepts are simultaneously so similar and yet so different. Probably the best analogy I can use to illustrate this dichotomy has to do with my insane family, and the card game Spades.
Spades is played by two two-person teams, and it’s really rather simple. The high card played takes the trick, and spades is the trump suit. Prior to playing each hand, the teams bid the number of tricks they believe they can capture, with every bid trick worth ten points, each trick over the bid number worth only one point, but with each trick bid but not captured resulting in ten points being subtracted from that team’s score. The game is a favorite at college dormitories throughout the United States, and was, for the longest time, the go-to game for my family’s reunions. There was just something about this particular game that brought out the highly competitive nature of my siblings, uncles and cousins, and more than one girlfriend of mine was scared off by witnessing my playing in Spades tournaments with these people. That was okay – I loved playing the game, particularly since, without a fairly advanced knowledge of practical tactics, the player was at such a disadvantage as to render them comically ill-suited to contend with those sharks.
I had a brother-in-law describe playing Spades in his college dorm with a fellow who had attended the University of Arkansas, whose mascot is the razorback pig. This fellow had a red felt hat in the shape of a razorback, and, when it was clear that the opposing team was about to go set (this occurs when a team has bid more tricks than it can take), would lean down to the table’s level so that the jaws of the felt razorback rested on the edge. He would then nod his head ever so slightly up-and-down, giving the illusion that the razorback was speaking, and say “You’re set! You’re set!”
Of course, winning at Spades is easier when you get dealt a lot of spades and face cards, and it’s almost impossible to lose when you get dealt a lot of face cards that are also spades. But it’s when you’re dealt hands with few spades or face cards that reveals your true level of talent. Typically, games are finished when one team reaches 300 points. The player who can keep within a good hand of the competition after being dealt two or three poor hands in a row will find themselves in a better position to take home the first-place trophy than those teams whose chances are dashed by a bit of bad luck in card distribution (yes, of course there were trophies! What kind of competition doesn’t have them?).
Meanwhile, back in the project management world…
I have noticed a subtle and yet remarkably consistent indicator of which PMs are truly talented, and which are, well, not. This one manager I worked with arrived at the project site insisting that the reports he received be of a very specific, non-generic format. So specific, in fact, that to fail to provide these reports to him on his accustomed schedule in his unique formats would result in, shall we say, some very negative energy being expended towards his staff. To be blunt, he would make their lives miserable if he didn’t have his precisely-formatted reports on-time, existing management information streams (even superior ones) be damned. He simply refused to adapt to what was in-place; everything had to be changed to that with which he was comfortable.
It would be analogous to a Spades player who couldn’t cope with the hand he was dealt unless he had three or more spades, at least one of which was a face card, with three other aces or kings in the remaining suits. Yeah, most hands dealt contain those aspects, but in Spades one does not throw in the hand if it does not meet a minimum expectation. For some reason, talent-poor managers try to do something analogous in PM space. If the information streams in existence (I’m assuming that at least a basic Earned Value for cost performance and Critical Path schedule are in-place) don’t look and feel familiar, these “managers” will spend excessive amounts of money and time recreating the formats with which they are accustomed, reminiscent of projects where they were perhaps more successful, but certainly more comfortable with their circumstances. It’s simply a fact that many of the projects we are assigned, either as the manager or team member, will be novel to the point of deviating dramatically from anything we’ve previously encountered, and our ability to adapt to the new circumstances will determine not only our chances for success, but indicate our innate level of talent. Low-talent players will seek (or even demand) a return to environs similar to those with which they are familiar. Talented PMs will adapt to their new circumstances, and play the best they can with the hand they’re dealt.
Will they always be successful? No. I’ve been in Spades tournaments where I was dealt fewer than two spades per hand for the entire time, and my partner didn’t fare much better. I lost most of those games, amidst notable jeering from my insane family.
But a few times, my talented partner and I would actually pull out a victory that would not have happened if we had simply waited for better hands to be dealt. With or without red felt pig hats tormenting us.