‘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
It was interesting; attending a PMO Symposium and lecturing at a local University I was asked the same question in the space of a week – and that question was ‘is there a minimum size for a PMO?’
Thinking across the range of small to medium sized companies then the answer has to be a resounding ‘yes’, partly because if you ‘do’ projects then a PMO is generally a good idea (what we mean by a PMO can mean many things to many organisations of course and we have to take that in to account). But also because if you only ‘do’ a few projects then when one comes along that demands significant investment from an organisation then the cost of failure is greater accordingly. A much larger organisation with a large project portfolio and equally large project community will be able to absorb and manage such a demanding project far more easily (and with reduced impact of failure).
So how small are we talking?
How about ‘one’?
Can the sole project manager also be the whole PMO? Well not really in truth – a sole project manager can’t act like a PMO of many people since they can’t act objectively with regards to their own project performance, they can’t spend time investing in self-development and in method improvements and so on.
So not ‘one’ then.
Can a PMO be implemented in a small company that has limited resources, a small team of project managers only – perhaps two or three?
Well perhaps not a ‘PMO’ as such but certainly a virtual equivalent with shared responsibility of some of the basic PMO functions that could be allocated to the remaining project resources – perhaps one person could focus on the training of project managers, another on method enhancements, and another on community aspects etc. In this way a lot of PMO duties could be delivered to a reasonably high level.
Yes I think a PMO can be applicable to all scales of project business but it might not be a permanent, dedicated unit of course, but more of a ‘part time PMO’.
The biggest risk to such a PMO is the ability to offer the objective insight and support to all project managers, and the business. The smaller the team then the harder it may be to do this in a constructive, non-emotional, positive way – not everyone has the skill to do this and with a close team of peers it isn’t always easy to do (or easy to receive at times).
Critical to any projects success is having a good project manager we all know but after that then it is pretty important to have a good project sponsor; but, like the saying goes, ‘you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives’ and the same is true of project sponsors.
The job specification
But what exactly is a project sponsor supposed to do? Well the responsibilities for project sponsors typically include:
OK, nice list but do we really have good project sponsors out there that work in harmony with project managers the world over?
The good, the bad and the confused
To judge that we need to look in more detail at what makes a good project sponsor.
The project sponsor is the key stakeholder representative for the project and provides the necessary support for the Project Manager with the primary responsibility of achievement of the project objectives and benefits. An inappropriate choice of project sponsor can seriously impact the possibility of success of the project and provide you, the project manager, with an unwanted additional overhead.
Now you can’t practically ask a sponsor for their CV/Resume and put them through a formal interview process, nice as it would be sometimes to utter the phrase ‘I’m sorry but I just don’t think that this is the job for you right now’.
A potentially bad project sponsor will exhibit some or all of these behaviours.
To be a successful partner in this project then they need to be connected to you the project manager and to the project team, if they are remote then that is a red flag for sure. And if they are too busy to meet, to discuss, and to aid then that paints that red an even darker shade. If they avoid helping in the assignment of project roles and responsibilities and never have time to ‘timely’ approve documents then you have a problem that is reaching critical status. Throw in a dash of blaming anyone but themselves for any problems then it is probably time to walk away. You are in real trouble (and so is your project).
A bad sponsor is potentially your worst nightmare.
Conversely a good project sponsor will behave in the opposite manner in these areas and will happily act as advisor to the project manager and will focus on removing obstacles in the path of project success.
All this is well and good but to be truly fair to project sponsors around the world how have they managed to gain this position of importance and how have the companies that they worked for supported them in this critical activity?
Let the campaign begin
It is said that a project is one small step for a project sponsor and one giant leap for the project manager. Wouldn’t you feel so much better if you knew that the project sponsors’ one small step made sure that your giant leap offered a safe and secure final landing?
It has been my experience that the skill profile of project managers continues to grow and more and more organisations are developing project managers in a disciplined and mature manner. But the same cannot be said of all project sponsors, many wrongly believe that the project sponsor is just a figurehead that is never called to active duty.
How wrong. How very wrong.
There is a lack of personal development support and sources of information and guidance for project sponsors and it is needed urgently I believe. And so I would like to launch the ‘Campaign for Real Project Sponsors’ where we see real investment in anyone who acts in such a key role.