In last week’s blog I asked the rhetorical question How hard can Program Management be? This was an attempt to demonstrate how many of the clichéd bromides that pass for Program Management insight are really nothing more than, well, clichéd bromides. However, Program Management isn’t merely a coordination of similarly-themed projects within an organization’s portfolio, nor is it as simple as an up-scaling of known Project Management techniques. One of the factors that makes Program Management so much more than these has to do with its cyclical supply-demand dynamic. I’ll explain.
On the Demand Side…
In virtually every medium-to-large project organization I have ever been a part of, the demand for Project Management expertise either is or soon becomes highly cyclical. The cycle looks like this:
If something as amorphous as demand for Project Management expertise could be quantified, its graph would look like a sine wave, and a fairly uniform one, at that.
Meanwhile, Back In The
To be brutally honest, however, we PM-types are not completely disconnected from the creation and perpetration of this sine wave of demand. We go through our own cycles, which tend to include:
Notable is the fact that the supply curve tends to lag the demand curve. Make no mistake – the area in-between these lagging supply and leading demand curves represents a significant amount of intra-organizational conflict, conflict that is as predictable as it seems to be unavoidable.
In short, it must be acknowledged that at least part of the reason Program Management is so difficult is because we PM types make it that way.
The “insight” that Program Management (ProjectManagement.com’s February theme) is simply a collection of like projects in a governable portfolio is about as profound as asserting that a person ought to tie their shoelaces in order to run a marathon, and as about as useful. It’s also positively ubiquitous, which means it’s an irresistible target for a curmudgeon like me.
But first, a couple of self-references. In my second book, I lay out the argument that there are three types of management, Asset, Project, and Strategic, each with their own objectives, tools, and tactics, and that these objectives, tools, and tactics can (and often do) interfere with each other as their adherents attempt to advance the cause of the organization (or their own particular career at the expense of everybody else, which I address at length in my third book). This fact, when combined with the old conservative saying that there are no solutions, only trade-offs, provides the basis for some fairly important Program Management discussions.
Many project-based organizations have a team set aside for helping the actual workers generate proposals in order to attract more work. Indeed, I once worked for a Beltway Bandit that fully expected its employees to put in a significant amount of free overtime performing this function, and would quickly place those who didn’t on the top of the to-be-laid-off list. These types of proposals would augment those prepared by the full-time proposal prep team, and made up a significant portion of the proposal backlog. Now, these regular-workers turned proposal-writers would tend to write proposals to their existing customers, in areas where they were familiar and confident they could perform the work should they get a contract or task order released. But what happens when an RFP (Request for Proposal) is released that is on the fringes of the organization’s experience, and management is not as confident that they could bring the work in on-time, on-budget (the very point of Project Management)?
This is where things get really dicey in Program Management space. By way of illustration, let’s say you are the CEO of a medium-sized company, and you have your Chief Financial Officer (the leader of the Asset Managers), Program Management Office director, and head of the Strategic Management office, all in the conference room where the discussion centers on just such an RFP. The question before you: do you spend any budget or time preparing a response? It’s significant in size, and would represent a major addition to the Program Management portfolio, but it’s not really within your organization’s realm of experience. The discussion goes something like this:
CFO: I’ve had some of my analysts perform a Return on Investment calculation on this, and the results range from marginally profitable to moderate losses. My vote is no.
PMO Director: The closest projects we have to the one in the RFP are ABC and XYZ. They are both performing adequately, but not exceptionally. This RFP would require us to hire at least three more engineers or technicians, augment the training of a couple more, and we’ll need a sizeable investment in new equipment, too. I think we could bring it in under cost and on-schedule, but it’s more likely we’d be looking at a mild overrun or delay under a cost-competitive bid.
Strategic Manager: These types of projects are expected to proliferate in the next five to ten years, and we’re facing more and more intense competition from other companies for the types of projects that make up the bulk of our current Program Management portfolio. The way I see it, we have one of two choices: either we start to pursue work in these new areas of unfolding technology, or else we come up with a way of performing our current projects significantly better or cheaper than our competitors, and can reflect that in our proposals. Otherwise, we’re done.
CFO: I couldn’t disagree more. The PMO Director has his project teams performing well, and our existing customers know it. Since the point of all management is to maximize shareholder wealth, and our ROI analysis shows this to be a risky line of business, my vote remains no.
PMO Director: I said we were performing adequately, not “well.” StratMan is right: most of our competitors are also delivering projects on-time, on-budget. The contract values for this type of work are shrinking, and many of the recent ones are actually Firm Fixed Price. If we can’t do the routine much better, we’ll need to do the novel, and soon.
CFO: But if you hire the talent to put us in a position to win this type of work – not to mention the equipment and training you referenced – and don’t get the job, then we’ll be out those costs, with nothing to show for it.
Strategic Manager: We’ll probably be able to find some kind of work for the new staff, and we can turn around and sell the equipment, admittedly at a loss, but we wouldn’t have to eat the entire amount.
CFO: Any amount lost at all is unacceptable, particularly since we would be pursuing a project with a low-to-negative ROI.
PMO Director: Who calculated this ROI, exactly? I get that you can quantify the cost of the equipment, but did you take into account that we could re-sell it? Or that the new techs could be re-assigned?
CFO: Well, I’m not sure…
Strategic Manager: ROI is projected profit, divided by estimated costs, times one hundred, right? How did you capture the expected profit? This one project might return a 5% fee, but our performing it will put us in a position to attract several other projects like it, which we wouldn’t have a chance without having executed this one. Did you calculate that? If so, how?
CFO: I can’t believe you are implying that I haven’t properly quantified the needed parameters. Could you give me even a gross estimate of the increased odds of our attracting similar work in the future if we do this one job? Or even of the size of the contracts that you say will be coming out in the next five to ten years? If so, how did you calculate these?
Strategic Manager: Okay, I’ll admit to some gut-feel and subjective-take assertions here. Will you?
PMO Director: Gentlemen, I would appreciate, well, a little appreciation. If we don’t pursue this new work, then the pressure is on me and my project teams to perform better with lower costs in the existing arena to keep the competition at bay. And if we do pursue the new work, the pressure will again be on my teams to quickly and efficiently master the new techniques needed to bring the work in on-time, on-budget. No matter which one of you is satisfied, the whole Program Management gig just got a whole lot more difficult.
CFO: But I read on one of those Project Management blog sites OTHER THAN ProjectManagement.com that Program Management is simply collecting similar projects into one manageable portfolio! How hard can that be?
PMO Director: This hard.
Earlier this month, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced the hands of their “Doomsday Clock” to two minutes to midnight, or 23:58 (time zone not specified), citing several factors from around the world – mostly political – for the bringing nearer of The Apocalypse. I find the whole Doomsday Clock concept rather interesting as a vehicle for communications, over and above the actual content it’s attempting to pass along. This “clock” doesn’t relay usable information about time that any other clock would – the longest ever doomsday interval on this clock has been seventeen minutes to midnight (23:43), and the clock “started” in 1947. That means that, even if we assume the longest ever interval throughout, there have been over one hundred million opportunities for the predicted Apocalypse to come about (131,932,800, to be precise) since this “measurement” began. So, when these people say “two minutes,” they mean, well, something other than two minutes (not very scientific, is it?).
They’re somewhat inchoate in what they mean by “apocalypse,” as well. Although it initially served as an analogy for the threat of nuclear war, this clock has since expanded to include other global catastrophes, such as those supposedly caused by global warming, or developments in life sciences or technology they believe could invoke irrevocable harm to humanity[i]. Interestingly, attempting to alert the world to the dangers of technology believed to cause irrevocable harm to humanity was also the driving force behind the Luddites.
Finally, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (I was previously unaware that the word “bulletin” could refer to a collection of people) isn’t actually comprised of all scientists. Some members did not include any reference to a hard science degree in their bibliographies at all. One appears to be an anti-nuclear activist, and another is a writer for that bastion of even-handed reporting, the New Yorker magazine.[ii]
But, other than a group claiming to be scientists who are not, in fact, all scientists, using the logic behind the Luddite movement in 19th Century England, proclaiming with great fanfare an event that’s very bad, but not much more specific than that, occurring sometime in the future, but at a time other than the time units they publish, this whole announcement thing should probably be taken seriously.
Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…
It can’t be denied these people get a lot of press, so I was thinking about doing something similar. Just so we’re clear: my benefactor, the Project Management Institute®, has nothing to worry about as I set up my team alerting the world to the threat of Project Management Armageddon. I’m going to take the same “scientific” approach to my new mission as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have, which is to say, not very scientific at all. But, hey, they set the rules, and I’m just mimicking them.
First, I’ll have to come up with a catchy name, and its accuracy is not a concern. I think I’ll use “Bulletin of Management Scientists” (again, I was unaware that “bulletin” was a term referring to a group of people, but I’m not making the rules here). Since being an actual “management scientist” isn’t a prerequisite to being a member, I nominate myself, my Collie Gabriel, and my two cats, Kula and Dart. To those who think I’m being flighty here, I would counter that I’ve witnessed more managerial-like behaviors (especially the cunning variety) from these cats than from many executives I’ve worked for, and in a greater quantity than the number of hard scientific insights typically provided by New Yorker writers.
Next, we’ll have to define what the Project Management Apocalypse looks like. If it’s large projects, impacting thousands of lives and risking millions upon millions of dollars, going south in a big way, then The Big Dig project in Boston (among others) has established that the PM apocalypse has already occurred. That’s the thing about the PM Apocalypse: when specific projects crash and burn, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. But if we are to discuss a Project Management day of reckoning, then it can’t be localized, no siree. It has to be massive in scale, impacting projects all over the world. So, similar to that scene from the movie 2012 where a gigantic tidal wave dropped a super-carrier on top of the White House, I’m thinking our PM cataclysm involves dropping said super-carrier on PMI’s headquarters (unoccupied, of course) in Newtown Square, PA (which is 88 miles from the ocean).
Finally, we will have to tap into our friends, the risk managers, to calculate the odds of a cataclysmic tidal wave dropping an aircraft carrier on top of a specific facility in Newtown Square, so as to add a veneer of quantification to our warnings. They will probably (get it?) say that it’s not very likely. It’s then that we would alert them to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and their “work” on the justification for advancing the hands of their doomsday clock, and request a re-compute. I mean, if we’re literally 120 seconds from a thermonuclear exchange, global warming-induced climate catastrophe, or some other movie-worthy disaster, doesn’t that increase the odds of such an occurrence? Additionally, we could broaden the parameters by, say, requesting a mere 2% confidence interval, and loosening the ship-to-be-dropped particulars, as in “We’re 2% confident that, given an apocalyptic event, there’s at least a 1% chance some ocean-going craft will be dropped somewhere in the township of Newtown Square.” Cutting to the chase, this means that if at least one RM could assert that there’s a one in 200,000 chance of that ever happening, we have all the “experts agree!” references we need, and can begin issuing dire warnings to the management world.
And here’s what verifies our press release: the members of the Bulletin of Management Scientists team have indicated (by nodding their heads) that they agree with this entire document. And it had nothing at all to do with my waving pet treats up-and-down in front of their faces.
[i] Doomsday Clock. (2018, January 27). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:27, January 28, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Doomsday_Clock&oldid=822550768
[ii] Retrieved from https://thebulletin.org/2018-doomsday-clock-statement at 19:36 MST on 27 January 2018.
Since January’s theme is talent, and given my status as the foremost contrarian blogging for ProjectManagement.com, it’s only natural that I would focus on something that afflicts us all: the presence of no-talent hacks, either in the project team itself, or (worse still) in the role of Project Manager. We’ve all encountered them, since these people can be somewhat ubiquitous. But what can be done about them? They didn’t appoint themselves into their places of authority, so someone in the hierarchy has been fooled into thinking that the particular bungler can contribute to the project, or else increase the chances of an on-time, on-scope delivery. And yet, here they are, doing the precise opposite of contributing, and endangering the success of those around them. Clearly, the un-talented must be countered, neutralized, or at least avoided until they expose themselves for what they are. What are the tactics for doing so?
First off, one must recognize them, which is not always easy. After all, they did fool someone into getting their undeserved position, and that someone had to be in a position of authority. If that person can be fooled, others can be, too, and it’s up to you to, well, not be fooled. I’ve often referred to Michael Maccoby’s book The Gamesman, where he describes four basic archetypes of workers as The Craftsman, The Company Man, The Jungle Fighter, and The Gamesman. Of these, the inept can be Company Men, but Jungle Fighter is the archetype where concentrations of the untalented tend to congregate. They employ the Jungle Fighter’s strategies of calumny and deceit in order to hide the fact that they have little or nothing to contribute. Within the Jungle Fighter archetype’s strategy, however, I have noticed three favored tactics:
How to counter these tactics? Cultural norms can be radically different, of course, but in the West, it’s simple, really.
Again, the unqualified are somewhat ubiquitous in most areas of human endeavor, and Project Management is not excepted. But keep in mind: when you resist these people, you are in danger of hurting your own career trajectory, since the standard response from the typical project team member is to let them be. These people got ahead for a reason, and are expecting everyone else – and I do mean everyone – to respond passively, if at all, to their antics. They will become aggressive when confronted or frustrated – you can count on it. But, if you are among the talented, you just might pull it off, and earn the mostly silent, but undying appreciation of the rest of the organization.
I didn’t care much for my fifth grade teacher. She could distribute the standardized material as well as anybody, I suppose, but when she came up with her own materials and tests, well, let’s just say she introduced a high degree of variability. This was perhaps nowhere more apparent than the astronomy module of the science class.
Like every fifth grader, we were expected to memorize specific stars, the major constellations, and their locations at each of the equinoxes. Now, when I look up into a cloudless night sky, I see stars and planets, just like everyone else. What I did not see were those lines between the stars that made up the constellations. I can’t see them to this day, but there they were, in all of the hand-drawn study materials we had to ingest to survive the quizzes and exams. So, at this point we weren’t so much learning about the nature of astrophysics as much as we were being taught the patterns that some ancient stargazer superimposed upon what he saw when he looked up into the night sky. Keep in mind that those interconnecting lines do not actually exist; and, even if they did, they rarely assume the shape of the people, animals, or objects they supposedly represent. To expand on this level of ambiguity, this particular teacher would hand-draw (rather crudely) the constellations, but turn them over, or around, in order to make their identification on her dopey tests that much harder. Clearly a path to academic excellence if ever there was.
Consider the following graph:
These data points indicate the distance that the twelve brightest objects in Ursa Major are from Earth. They vary from 44 to 249 light-years. While these bright heavenly objects appear somewhat two-dimensionally in the sky, they are, in fact, quite far apart, which makes the practice of imagining lines between them – and the subsequent objects depicted – even more strange, at least to me.
Now, Ursa Major is translated as the “Great Bear.” However, other ancient cultures also had stargazers, who connected those dots a bit differently, hence its other names, “The Wagon,” or “The Plow” (or, for our Great Britain-dwelling cousins, “The Plough”). So, even among those who see those stars somewhat two-dimensionally there’s some degree of disagreement about exactly what creature or object is being represented. I mean, seriously, what kind of ink blot could be interpreted by three different people as looking like a bear, a plow, and a wagon? Given the additional three-dimensional data depicted above, I believe some other names would be more appropriate. Take another look at the graph. In Rorschach Test-fashion, what do you see? I think it could be any of the following:
…any of which are at least as representative as “Great Bear” is to the two-dimensional arrangement.
Meanwhile, back in the Project Management world…
How do we, as Project Managers, identify talent within our project teams? Is it not that the person under evaluation tends to interpret the data in front of them similar to the way we do, or has demonstrated a predilection for employing a similar technical approach to nominal PM problems? In other words, these people connect the dots the same way we do, leading us to conclude that they are “talented,” when, in fact, they may be doing little more than confirming our own biases and prejudices. And, once we have identified the “talented” members of our teams, do we not tend to place them in places of authority, where their judgements and decisions will often have more weight, or long-term impact to the success of the project team?
Don’t think that the members of the project team aren’t looking to assimilate such judgements as they become aware of them. The precise opposite of being open to any tactic that will help improve the odds of successful project completion, they are being rewarded for adapting attitudes and strategies that they learn from the Project Manager, in hopes of being so rewarded. In other words, even if they don’t see a great bear in the scattered points of light in the nighttime sky, they may say that they do in order to survive their equivalent of the fifth grade science examination.
In short, the truly talented members of your team may very well be the ones who refuse to see the camel in repose.