‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’
That was a proclamation in the novel Animal Farm, by George Orwell and I offer up, not a proclamation but a declaration, followed by a disclaimer, but beginning with a statement – and that statement is ‘I am a worried man, no let me correct that, I am a worried project manager’.
Worried that I am speaking too much, that others (like myself) are speaking too much, that we as a group might have become boring, irrelevant and potentially be doing detriment to the profession that we all love; which is the main reason we speak at events and conferences and congresses in the first place after all, at least I hope that is why…
And the declaration is I am challenging all of the project management organisations and publications around the world (you may have seen a series of articles from 2015 at the same time as the PMI EMEA Congress in London and this year I am back again just before the PMI EMEA Congress in Barcelona but that is because it is at this time of the year I reflect on what I am doing, and look at the project community around me – and so, to be very clear I am not just attacking PMI ).
And finally the disclaimer; whilst it is true that I have presented at four PMI Congresses in the past (Amsterdam 2009, Milan 2010, Washington 2010, Dallas 2011) it is now 5 years since I have spoken at any of the regional congresses, apart from PMI Australia and PMI New Zealand and, as such, I hope to be looking at this in an objective way, as an attendee rather than part of the presentational team.
So what is my concern and why am I mentioning PMI? Well I’m not just focusing on PMI but the behaviour I am concerned about seems to be rather more prevalent within PMI and PMI Congresses than others. More prevalent please note, but the rest are not free of all guilt in this matter.
Let me explain.
I go to project management conferences, a lot. I go to speak sometimes and I always go to listen and when I go to listen then I want to be entertained, educated, challenged and enthused. Often I am and occasionally I’m not. And it was through thinking about how to select the best speaker and topic that I suddenly realised that perhaps I, and therefore PMI, was playing it way too safely. Perhaps, even worse than that, they were playing a dangerous game that could all end in tears.
PMI’s global membership currently exceeds 500,000, impressive of course. But then how many of these members are represented or have an opportunity to ‘take to the stage’ at the local events, national events or regional events? Very, very, very few I would say – perhaps 200, perhaps less?
I was struck recently by a project management peer who stated ‘there is a danger of devaluing these events through lack of change and diversity of speaker, message and approach’, this is from someone who proudly describes themselves as a ‘regular attendee of PMI events around the world’.
Now I considered this a very interesting thought, and one that offered up some challenges to myself personally as clearly I am ‘out there’ and I am a ‘regular speaker’ at project management events around the world. As a representative from PMI UK stated not so long ago, I am ‘on the circuit’.
But clearly people do speak at these events, apart from myself, and you and I could probably quickly bring to mind some names of people we have seen in the past, perhaps more than once, perhaps more than a few times. And it was at this point I got worried. Yes I could easily name some people and yes I could remember seeing them more than once at congresses and yes they were interesting and ticked all of the boxes I listed earlier for defining a good speaker but … what about all of the other project management professionals out there, why don’t they have a voice? Why do the same people seem to get the chance to speak their thoughts and not the majority?
PMI (and IPMA/APM for that matter), should not be perceived as a 'club' who indirectly 'help to promote' certain individuals/organisations as 'experts' time and again. They instead should be seen as a safe haven for those who wish to raise their voice and be heard on their experiences and their challenges.
To bring about some further objectivity (I am trying here but it isn’t easy since I realise might be part of the problem) I conducted a simple survey through LinkedIn and Twitter and this is what I found.
I started with simple positioning questions of ‘How many project management conferences had people attended in the last three years and then validated if the responses were from attendees or speakers.
There was a reasonable mix of respondents, both speakers and attendees ranging from none through to more than 6 conferences in the last 3 years.
I then asked one of the key questions ‘Do you feel there is a good mix of speakers at project management conferences?’, and here it began to get interesting.
Only 9% said ‘always’ so you could take from this that 91% think the opposite but really we should look at the 21% who declared ‘not often’ and ‘never’ – why do people feel this to be the case?
I offered survey respondents the opportunity to make some comment here and what was said included:
I then extended the questioning to assess if people felt that the same people got to present too often?
Only 10% felt that there were always new speakers, rather low don’t you agree? 21% were happy with the mix, also I would venture rather low, and a rather concerning 68% suggested that they felt the same speakers sometimes presented too often or they were clear that the same people spoke (too often).
Comments again included:
Considering the impact that those who felt negative about this issue I asked if people were ‘voting with their feet’ by not attending future project management conferences and received the following insights.
22% stated that ‘yes they had stopped going because of this very ‘issue’ along with a further 18% who were thinking of not attending in the future.
Some of the associated comments included:
Surely all this should make (all) conference planners sit up and pay attention?
The one comment that most caught my attention was this one:
For clarity I then removed those that had stopped attending, for whatever reason, and this gives us a somewhat terrifying future potential with 29% (almost a third) thinking about stopping attending conferences in the future because they are tired of hearing the same people (the ‘same old same old’ as previously noted).
Now I have to be honest, at this point the natural personal instinct is to stop and say nothing, after all it is in my own interest to bury this and not highlight something that I am a party to.
But those of you who know me will realise that once I start I have to finish and so we must continue our journey my fellow conference attendees. There is no escape from reality now.
Based on my ideas and this feedback I checked out the PMI congresses in EMEA and NA and APAC since 2010 and guess what? Yes, lots the same faces turning up year after year. If you just check the 2016 EMEA agenda you can easily find more than one person who has spoken at the same event in the last three years for example. But no names, it is not about anyone in particular but more about a concerning trend.
Using my own situation, and after talking to PMI in 2015, I learned that there was a 1 in 5 chance of speaking based on a ratio of sumissions to available slots for the 2015 congresses (no, it isn’t that simple as you will see later on). I assumed that this has increased over time due to a growth in membership and interest in speaking at these events, therefore for simplicity let us say that there has been a 1 in 3 chance of being selected anytime from 2010 to 2016. I presumed that perhaps it was lower in the early days and it is higher now but for simplicity, as I said, we will go for a 1 in 3 ratio.
So for Peter ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ Taylor to be selected as previously covered (Amsterdam 2009, Milan 2010, Washington 2010, Dallas 2011) means 1 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 which gives us an 81 to 1 probability, I am quite liking those odds, put me down for ten pounds, it is a reasonable gamble.
Now hold on to your hats and check out these odds… (using this 1 in 3 chance ratio)
I’ll take that wager, one pound down to win and I can retire tomorrow!
And for some balance:
And yes, those stats are real.
I put my concerns to Cindy W. Anderson, Vice President, Brand Management at PMI and she advised me that the PMI process went along two streams, in fact one was that speakers could be ‘invited’ to speak and not have to go through the call for proposals process. Now this was news to me.
So are some more equal than others?
So there you have it, we are where we are but I am more worried about where we end up. I started this article by saying ‘I am a worried man, no let me correct that, I am a project manager and I am worried’.
The question comes back down to not what is good for any one speaker or company or organisation with regards to project management, and not what is good for myself or that Lazy Project Manager guy either come to think of it, but rather what is good for the project management profession as a whole and that I strongly feel is ‘diversity’.
You might say, well Peter that wasn’t a very large survey was it? Or how scientific were the questions? (and therefore the responses) and you would be correct, but the results seem to confirm my suspicions and at the very least PMI, or other, might consider conducting a more substantive piece of research – using objective external resources of course.
Either way I don’t believe you can argue against the facts I laid out about speaker selection (or pre-selection in some cases) and the mind-boggling chances of speaking that often by chance (or blind selection). I was particularly taken aback by the comment ‘people known to PMI (generally someone who is a Fellow of the Institute, or has some specific background as an Institute-level volunteer)’ as this seems to suggest that once you are in the club then you are in for good and potentially there is no room for anyone else to join.
Of course there are new speakers at these conferences, I have seen some of them so I know they exist, but I question is that enough?
I’m probably doing myself out of some work here but why not go the ‘presidential’ route and say you get to speak at (for the sake of argument) three regional or global conferences and that is it, beyond that you make way for others, and no ‘special passes’ for the select few.
Or maybe, in order to nurture new speakers, those who have presented and reached their limit might be allowed to co-present with one or two new speakers to help them on their journey, perhaps do this no more than a couple of times in order to avoid this being a new route to seeing the ‘same old same old’ again.
After all if ‘we’ are the acknowledged ‘good’ speakers of today (I am just putting myself out there, it is really your decision if I am any good or not) then where do the speakers of tomorrow come from if we stop them getting a chance to share their ‘voice’?
I feel that we might just need something radical here to stop us all ending up talking to and listening to each other in a small room somewhere in the world, with a large banner that reads ‘Global Project Management Conference’ whilst the rest of the project management profession, in their millions, gets on with the ‘day job’.
We started this with a George Orwell quote from ‘Animal Farm’ and here is another Orwell quote but from his ‘1984’ book instead:
'He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.'
The future isn’t ours now is it?
What do you think?
 LinkedIn/Twitter promoted ‘SurveyMonkey’ survey – April 2016 – 109 respondents
 May 2015
The buttered cat paradox is a common joke based on the tongue-in-cheek combination of two pieces of wisdom:
Now consider what would happen if the piece of buttered toast was attached, butter side up of course, to the back of a cat and then the cat was dropped from a large height. Some people suggest that the following will occur. As the cat falls towards the ground, it will slow down and start to rotate, eventually reaching a steady state of hovering a short distance from the ground while rotating at high speed as both the buttered side of the toast and the cat’s feet attempt to land on the ground.
This idea appeared on the British panel game QI, as well as talking about the idea, they also brought up other questions regarding the paradox. These included ‘Would it still work if you used margarine?’, ‘Would it still work if you used I Can't Believe It's Not Butter?’, and ‘What if the toast was covered in something that was not butter, but the cat thought it was butter?’, the idea being that it would act like a placebo.
The supposed phenomenon was first observed in the New York Monthly Magazine, which published the following poem in 1835:
I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side!
A study by the BBC's television series Q.E.D. found that when toast is thrown in the air, it lands butter-side down just one-half of the time (as would be predicted by chance)] However, several scientific studies have proven that when toast is dropped from a table it does fall butter-side down at least 62% of the time.
Why is this?
Well when toast falls out of a hand, it does so at an angle. The toast then rotates. Given that tables are usually between two to six feet there is enough time for the toast to rotate about one-half of a turn, and so it lands upside down relative to its original position. Since the original position is butter-side up then the toast lands butter-side down.
Now ignoring the paradox and concentrating on the simple piece of buttered toast dropping from your hand you could address this ‘risk’ in two ways. The first being that you rip out all of your kitchen fixings and tables and then re-install new ones that are at least 10 feet off the ground. This will result in any future toast drops have a 50/50 chance of turning sufficiently to end up buttered side up – a saving of 12% of cases using the Q.E.D. experiment results.
But this would be pretty costly and impractical.
Alternatively you could just be more careful when you eat buttered toast. Sit down. Don’t rush. Have the butter and toast on the table together. This would potentially deliver greater end results regarding a significant reduction in dropped buttered toast in the first instance and therefore the percentage of cases where the toast falls buttered side down would be irrelevant. Risk management needs to be relevant, appropriate and reasonable.
Besides, cats hate having toast stuck to their backs!
(50 Shades of Project Management that is anything but grey!)
At a recent major conference for project managers, after the opening keynote speech, the audience was invited to ask questions of the renowned ambassador for the project management profession.
One question that somewhat took the speaker aback was ‘when will project management be sexy?’ A great question I felt and one that the speaker responded to reasonably well (eventually, after the initial shock…) but a question that has made me think about the concept of ‘sexy project management’ for some time since that particular event.
What do we mean, in this context, by ‘sexy’?
Well the dictionary offers us three possibilities:
1. Concerned predominantly or excessively with sex; risqué: a sexy novel
2. Sexually interesting or exciting; radiating sexuality: the sexiest presenter at the conference 3. Excitingly appealing; glamorous: a sexy new car
I think we can leave options 1 and 2 alone, of course there must be some real sexy project managers out there and I am sure one or two of them partake of the whole ‘physical’ stuff (perhaps even occasionally with another project manager and perhaps even without the safety aid of a WBS) but for the purpose of this conversation I am going with option 3 ‘Excitingly appealing; glamorous’.
Many (way too many) people think of project management as dull and worthy, and boring and necessary, and as ‘well someone has to do it I guess but I’m glad it is not me’. An example of this can be seen with a simple experiment – find a project manager and ask them two questions, the rule being they must answer fast with their first thought, the first thing that comes to mind. Do that and it will most likely go something like this:
‘What are you?'
‘A project manager’
‘What do you do?’
‘I... er … manager projects’
And there you have it – explaining project management in an attractive way is not so simple, for any of us – experienced project managers or would be project managers.
Probably not overly scientific but there was a survey of 1.000 Australians asking to name the top ‘sexy’ professions and this is what they came up with:
5 sexiest professions for men are.
5 sexiest professions for women are:
Seriously! We are less attractive than lawyers!
There are plenty of other similar surveys (mainly from dating sites I note with interest – in this case maybe you should not put ‘project manager’ down if you are lonely and single.
But I digress; back to the important question of ‘How do we make project management sexy?’ Perhaps we can consider those who are entering our ‘profession’ these days what is it that attracts them to this job? I mean there must be some reason that these people decide not to be soldiers, lawyers, doctors etc and instead choose to be project managers (or at least study to be project managers).
I took the liberty to check out a number of UK Universities who were offering a project management degree. What did they say to attract people to their courses, and to project management?
Sadly what I found was that they said very little that gave any indication that project management was an exciting, energising, fun and important job. Here are a few examples:
‘The MSc Project Management is designed for those who wish to develop their project management skills and abilities’
‘Project management is now a mainstream management discipline in many organisations. This course provides a solid grounding in the principles and practice of project management with the overall aim of increasing your ability to contribute to business effectiveness’
‘It is designed to meet the increasing demand for professional project managers, both nationally and internationally, who are able to provide the increasingly sophisticated management required to meet the challenges of providing and managing projects across a broad spectrum of organisations’
‘The course focuses on developing skills for careers in project management including both theory and applied aspects, and is mapped against key professional body competencies. The knowledge, understanding and skills can be applied to a range of environments that bring together resources, skills, technology and ideas to realise benefits or achieve objectives, operating within the multiple project constraints of cost, scope, time and quality requirements’
Nothing particularly thrilling in these ones, worthy statements all of them, but how do they use this to attract those future project managers? What about the thoughts on project management itself?
‘Project management is about how you deliver a defined set of changes at the right time, the right cost and the right quality’
‘Project Management is the application of appropriate management strategies in order to effectively coordinate the realisation of complex and dynamic projects. The applied skills and competencies of a project manager are necessary for the successful completion of large and complex projects, particularly within the ever-changing marketplace’
‘Project management is about managing the technical, cultural, political and financial aspects inherent in all projects’
‘In every business, and in every industry, there is a need for effective project management’
‘A successful project manager balances the conflicting goals of resource usage, quality of product, time to market and customer satisfaction. The programme is intended to provide the student with the technical and process skills to undertake the role of a project manager in the modern business environment’
OK, I am a project manager and know how great this job can be but for goodness sake even I am yawning at this point. There must be something more engaging to say about project management surely?
‘In the twenty-first century, the dynamic and challenging world of business has encouraged the increasing use of project management across the sectors’
‘Organisations, businesses and governments are more aware than ever of the strategic importance of effective project management’
‘Offer a foundation of essential management skills required to align and cascade corporate strategy throughout the organisation’
And this can’t be argued with either.
‘The line between success and failure in any project is a lot of pressure on any manager’s shoulders. Empowering yourself with project management skills and business acumen will ensure you can be a successful, dynamic leader’
But for goodness sake you wise and clever educational leaders find something more interesting to say, something (dare I say it) ‘sexy’ to say to attract the very best of the best to the courses you offer.
Now I freely admit this was a fast and dirty check on Universities websites so please if you head up such a course and you have something really attractive, exciting, energising and ‘sexy’ that you do say about project management please do let me know I would be delighted to read it.
Moving away from the universities what about the project organisations we all know and love?
PMI, when speaking of the PMP states ‘The PMP recognizes demonstrated competence in leading and directing project teams. If you’re an experienced project manager looking to solidify your skills, stand out to employers and maximize your earning potential, the PMP credential is the right choice for you’
Axelos when referring to the PRINCE2 qualification (foundation) states ‘The purpose of the foundation qualification is to confirm you have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the PRINCE2 method to be able to work effectively with, or as a member of, a project management team working within an environment supporting PRINCE2’
And APM, when describing the RPP , state ‘APM Registered Project Professional (RPP) is a pan-sector standard for those able to demonstrate the capabilities of a responsible leader, who have the ability to manage a complex project and use appropriate tools, processes and techniques’
Again, all oh so worthy and technically accurate, but so what?
Let me give an example of what I am talking about.
My son is taking driving lessons to learn to be able to drive on his own eventually. Now the DVLA describes the mandatory practical test (there is a theory component as well) as ‘The practical driving test is designed to see if you - can drive safely in different road and traffic conditions and know the Highway Code and can show this through your driving ability’
Now why does my son what to take this test?
Why does he want to be a qualified driver?
Certainly not so that he ‘knows the Highway Code’ or so that he is able to ‘drive safely in different road and traffic conditions’. Nor is it because he is desperate to be able to parallel park, reverse around a corner or complete a ‘three point turn’ (as I still call it). All of this is, of course, important but this is only a means to an end. He wants ‘Freedom’. He wants to escape us, his parents. He wants to be able to visit his girlfriend without catching two buses, especially when it is cold and raining. He wants to be able to take his mates out and about town. He wants to be able to stay out later. He wants a whole lot more than the technical capability of being able to safely control a mechanised object.
If there was no end-result of ‘Freedom’ then he wouldn’t have bothered. ‘Freedom’ and ‘Independence’ are the ‘sexy’ factors that make him want to get out there and take the driving lessons, to read the Highway Code, to take practice theory tests, and to revise and practice ready for that all important test date. And so it should be with project management.
That one question that took that unsuspecting speaker aback has an answer already.
‘When will project management be sexy?’
Now! It is already. We just need to find the words to describe it in the right way and, you know what, those students currently studying for their degree in project management know that it is ‘sexy’ already.
Feels good doesn’t it?