The Project Killer That Nobody Sees Coming

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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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In the 1933 film The Invisible Man, Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin, who has discovered a potion that renders him invisible. He plots (what else?) world domination, and either kills or materially causes the deaths of a lot of people before he is, himself, killed by police, who can detect his whereabouts by the footprints Dr. Griffin leaves in the snow. And now, for what has to be a record for the earliest introduction of my trademark segue,

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

I believe that a whole bunch of projects have failed due to one causal element, and it has to do with one of the most enduring, yet invisible PM pathologies: the ineffectual implementation of a desired strategy. It’s evident in the literature, the paper presentations, the tone of PM educators – they know the right answer, but nobody’s heeding them. To live out their careers as latter-day Cassandras appears to be their fate.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. After stepping on the Implementation rake hundreds of times, you’d think that everyone who crashed a project due to this would start to wise up. But, no: just check out some of the lower-level PM-themed conferences, and you will find them chock-full of eat-your-peas-style hectoring, especially in the Critical Path scheduling and Earned Value analysis sessions. Back when I was a regular attendee at such conferences, I found that I could expect pretty much the same presentation on the basics of Earned Value Management, with the addition of some extraordinarily tiresome scoldings to those organizations that weren’t doing it already. I have absolutely no idea how or why those paper presentation proposals kept getting approved. Invariably, at the next conference I would attend, some variant of this same presentation would be on the syllabus, without a scintilla of original research or experimental results, as if scolding by itself was an appropriate way of implementing a program.

However, as I pointed out in my first book, Things Your PMO Is Doing Wrong (PMI® Publishing, 2008), you can’t advance a capability maturity by leveraging organizational power. In other words, you can’t make your team get better at what they’re doing. They have to be led there, certainly; provided the right tools, no question. But any attempt at forcing a capability advancement will be inevitably blown to smithereens by one or more of the following land mines:

  • The Silent Veto. This is where some members of your team present as ready and willing to step up and commit to the level of intellectual and energy investment needed to implement your strategy, and then … they kind of disappear. The actual performance isn’t forthcoming, and they always have a really good excuse as to why they missed certain deadlines.
  • The Slow Roll. When I was writing the aforementioned PMI® - published book, I was in contact with my old PMNetwork columnist colleague, the brilliant Bud Baker, who was (at the time) a professor at Wright State University. Bud told me that, in his days in the military, their version of the Silent Veto was the Slow Roll, which is where the team actually does participate in the rolling out of the new capability or strategy, but just not quite enough to make it a success. The Slow Rollers seem to have an innate sense of how much energy is behind the impetus to implement the new scheme, and will make an excellent show of advancing the cause – just not quite enough to really make it happen.
  • The “it’s too hard” objection. I once inherited a team that included an Administrative Assistant who was clearly less than thrilled that I was being brought on-board. She would work out her frustration by asking for detailed instructions for any task she would be assigned. It got rather comical (though I wasn’t laughing at the time) when I had to provide her with step-by-step directions for doing basic filing. It finally dawned on me that she knew all too well how to do the job – she was just pretending that any task sent her way was too difficult, or dramatically outside the range of activities that she would nominally be asked to do. It was easier to either assign someone else, or do the task myself.

Managers used to a highly hierarchical organizational structure, such as that which exists in the military, will have a greater tendency to be agitated by these implementation-wrecking tactics by the Project Team, and will often resist understanding and working with or around them. As far as these managers are concerned, once the technical agenda has been set, and the specific tasks communicated and assigned to the staff, that should be enough; and, if it isn’t, well, that’s just a sign of some organizational behavior and performance pathology (laziness, incompetence, insubordination, etc.) that can be addressed through disciplinary actions. They seem to never stop to consider that the reason that their projects fail is due to a poor (or even non-existent) implementation strategy, as if the very need for an implementation strategy has been negated due to their advanced placement within the organization. They are the Project Managers, dontchaknow, and their insights and instructions must be followed! Or else! But the real world of Project Management is no respecter of persons. You are either effective at leading the Team to on-time, on-budget completion of the scope, or you are not.

“So!” I can hear GTIM Nation say, “If you’re so smart, how would you overcome the invisible man those implementation strategy landmines?” First, you…

Look at that! Out of pixel ink for this week. But, like The Invisible Man, GTIM Nation can expect a sequel.

Posted on: July 15, 2019 09:43 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Perfect. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this

Very interesting article, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Thanks - enjoyable and useful read

People engagement is key. At times some people lack confidence in their ability to perform certain task. Project leadership is key to galvanize people to action. Project leaders must identify this gaps and ensure a closure

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