Yum! Spiders! Eat ‘Em Up!

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Program Management: Why Is It This Hard?

As we look at next-generation Project Managers (ProjectManagement.com’s theme for March), I’m reminded of a bit of fun I have at my younger son’s expense. He’s completing his second year of medical school (at one of the United States’ top schools, I must add), and his breadth and depth of knowledge is truly impressive. My undergraduate degree is in English which, on the face of it, would appear to require significantly (if not massively) lesser amounts of academic rigor. In order to lay claim to having the intellectual acuity to even engage him in conversation, I like to remind him that, whereas Shakespeare’s and Milton’s works are considered masterpieces even today, 17th Century medicine is an embarrassment. In the 1600s, health was thought to be based on a balance of four bodily fluids, or “humours,” one of which was blood. If the doctor believed that your particular ailment needed some sort of re-balancing of these, he would often prescribe bloodletting, usually with leeches. A common “treatment” for a fever was to have the patient swallow a spider.[i]

And, while I’m fairly sure that Shakespeare and Milton will still be considered masters of insight and art four hundred years hence, I’m also confident that what today’s doctors think is advanced medical technique will strike M.D.s in 2418 as hopelessly obsolete, if not out-and-out backwards.

Meanwhile, Back In The Soon-To-Be Project Management World…

Which brings us to next-generation Project Managers. When I was first starting out in project controls, we computed the time-phased budget (Planned Value? Please. It’s the Budgeted Cost of Work Scheduled, or BCWS) by hand, and entered typed it, along with the Earned Value and actual costs amounts, onto the Cost Performance Report templates obtained from the Government Printing Office, using IBM Selectrics (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, I don’t want to hear from you), which were considered state-of-the-art back then (mid 1980s, if you must know). Today’s cost processors pull the BCWS (and, usually, the Earned Value) from the Critical Path Method software package automatically and receive the actual costs straight from the organizations’ general ledger, all but guaranteeing that each component of the main Project Management information system agrees with the others, accomplishing all of this in a fraction of the time it used to take.

But have we really advanced Project Management science?

Consider the fact that, ironically, on average 45% of all Information Technology projects go over budget. That may seem to be an unfair evaluation metric, since both Agile and Scrum were developed as adaptations to traditional PM techniques to address the unique attributes of software development projects. But it does point to a singular fact: the technology surrounding PM may advance, but the organizational behavior and performance attributes of bringing in scope on-time, on-budget remain stubbornly present, even ubiquitous. Why is that?

A Quick Jaunt Back To The 17th Century

I think it’s for the same reasons that Shakespeare endures while humour-balancing doesn’t. Technology advances, but human nature tends to stay the same, generally speaking. In other words, the next generation of Project Managers may not need to know how to change the ribbon cartridge on an IBM Selectric, but I can almost guarantee you that they will struggle with getting the head of the accounting department to collect costs based on the Work Breakdown Structure, particularly in newer organizations. I often refer to Michael Maccoby’s work in the book The Gamesman, and his four archetypes of workers. But surely the most chilling example of The Jungle Fighter type was clearly illustrated in the character of Iago from Othello. For those of you not current on the tragedies, Othello is married to the beautiful Desdemona, and his main officers and companions are Iago and Cassio. Cassio is loyal, but Iago is a villain who manages to convince Othello that Desdemona is being unfaithful with Cassio. He does so by manipulating people and circumstances to make it appear to the Moor that all of this chicanery is happening right under his nose, and has been for some time, when, in fact, both Cassio and Desdemona are perfectly innocent.

Of course, the end result for your typical Jungle Fighter isn’t the death of those at the top of the organization, but the techniques of calumny, deflection, and altering the narrative for their own selfish ends are common tactics of the archetype. In other words, The Bard had The Jungle Fighter type pegged 373 years prior to the publishing of The Gamesman. It follows, then, that the best insights that we PM-types can pass along to the next generation has to do with things like capability maturity, or adapting traditional practices to better suit new technologies, like what happened with Agile and Scrum development.

The alternative is to continue to try and get pretentious with more “advanced” techniques within the Project Management world, such as more convoluted statistical analysis under the “risk management” rubric, even though there’s very little chance such techniques will stand the test of time. Indeed, if we as the collective PM community continue to promote such techniques, we could at least include a recipe book for making all this spider-swallowing more palatable – for posterity’s sake, of course.

[i] Retrieved from https://www.baus.org.uk/museum/82/17th_century_medicine, 1400 hours on March 3, 2018.

Posted on: March 05, 2018 10:44 PM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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Thought provoking as usual Michael. Thanks.

Very informative, Michael and thanks for sharing.

Well written Michael, that will keep me scratching my head for a while.

Thanks for sharing

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