I once had the unhappy experience of working as a project controller for a woman who had a very poor concept of good management in general and Project Management in particular. Among her sillier quirks was her oft-stated opinion on the optimal answer to the common job interview question “Where do you expect to be in five years?”, or its derivative, “What do you hope to accomplish in this position, should it be offered you?” This wonderful answer she had in mind, that would instantly impress any interviewer? It was “I want to be in your job.” I suppose she thought it was the perfect combination of audacity and ambition-signaling, but I found it kind of puckishly threatening, should I ever hear it in the capacity of interviewer. Sure enough, that exact response showed up in an e-mailed list of “stupid interview answers” that I received years later.
I bring this up in order to examine the implications of PM-oriented software continuing to advance in both sophistication and ease of use. Though I have often decried what I’ve tagged the “black box syndrome,” where project controllers or PMs input certain data elements into either Critical Path or Earned Value Methodologies (CPM/EVM) software packages and expect the “right” answer to simply pop out in one of the available report formats, the hard truth here is that those analysis techniques that used to require an experienced/highly educated hand to process and deliver is now do-able by more medium-to-entry-level practitioners using the right Management Information System(s). Some of these implications include:
- By the inescapable rules of supply and demand, what was previously considered advanced skill in PM information production and analysis is now becoming more commonplace, and will tend to erode the salaries that it had previously commanded…
- …meaning that, if a given PM or PM Analyst wishes to be paid wages previously experienced, they need to get better at what they do.
- However, it also means that the software developers creating these more and more advanced tools will need to understand the epistemological challenges in front of the PM community writ large, and avoid chasing down useless information products.
Though the first two bullets look like bad news, the third one is, in my opinion, clearly good news, because I have seen precious little indication that recent improvements in the software tools in the PM realm represent an advanced grasp of these challenges. They seem to be stuck in re-inventing that which is already in existence, with an occasional foray into sniping a bit of information that actually belongs in the Asset Managers’ realm (specifically, the general ledger). And it is this aspect where our friends, the PM Guidance-producers have, ironically, helped those who tend to be stagnant in their PM capabilities. I’ll explain.
Certain PM Guidance-producing tracts advocate for information streams that add no real value to the PM’s toolbox. Consider the following pieces of information that some PM packages offer:
- Comparisons of original budgets to actual costs, at the line-item level.
- Analyzing the percentage of activities that have start-to-start relationships in the schedule network.
- Forecast odds of a specific task being impacted by a so-called “risk event.”
- Identification of a given project’s “stakeholders,” who must be “engaged,” usually without serious analysis of their status as friend, foe, or neutral.
- The generation of Ishikawa, or fishbone diagrams, that have no clear guidance on what constitutes a proximate, or even a material, cause.
- There’s actually at least one CPM program that allows you to check a box on any particular activity’s detail sheet that forces it onto the critical path, regardless of the schedule logic.
- …among many others just as dopey.
If these initiatives are the ones the PM-generating software engineers are pursuing, then they are wasting their time, and the day that software-assisted entry-level practitioners can displace the more experienced PMs gets pushed further into the future. In a very real sense, the software companies creating such tools are being very philanthropic – they’re virtually guaranteeing continued demand for those PMs experienced enough to not waste time on such information streams.
And, for those experienced PM-types who do think that comparing budgets to actuals is a swell idea, you should keep volunteering for those various guidance-generating organizations that agree with you. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, you’ll be doing real PMs a huge favor, as you both take your viewpoints out of the real world of Project Management, and continue to mis-direct the software companies that would otherwise reduce the demand for true PM expertise.
PM philanthropy indeed, without even knowing it.