For those of you who are contemplating getting into the columnist/blogger business, I have a little bit of advice. Writers who address consistent themes – Project Management, for example – will often start out writing pieces while being motivated by the desire to communicate something. Whether because they have come across some valuable insight that they’ve never encountered in the literature previously, or are grappling with a blatant example of business model pathologies interfering in the way things “ought” to be run, or even for pure catharsis, entry-level technical authors will often write as if they need to get something off of their chests. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the more seasoned writers are usually motivated by something else.
It’s All In The Motive
That something else is a sense of what their target audience wants to read. Back in 1997, when I first started writing my column for PMNetwork, the Variance Threshold, I began by poking fun at accountants and protestors, people who often made the typical PM’s job more difficult. I had never seen an article or column in a PM trade journal that dared to satirize these professions, and thought it was long overdue. Based on reader response, I was correct.
Meanwhile, Back In 19th Century Italy…
Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923), the great Italian engineer and philosopher, is famous for the “80-20 rule,” or the principle that 80% of observable results tend to be attributable to 20% of causal agents (e.g., 80% of the foot traffic in your house tends to be on just 20% of the carpeted area; 80% of a company’s revenue will often be from just 20% of its customers). But he also theorized that people tend to arrive at their conclusions and beliefs through emotional or prejudicial means, and then, only later, assemble the verifiable facts that support these conclusions in order to give the semblance of having arrived at their beliefs logically.
Okay, my readers may well be asking, all this about writer epiphanies and Italian philosophers is very (yawn) interesting. What does it have to do with Project Management? Well, I’ll tell you.
Why Is Your PMO Here?
Rookie Project Managers can be under the delusion that they’ve been hired for their level of expertise, gained through education, certifications, or experience (what there is of it). This is not so. PMs are hired to deliver a specific scope on-time, on-budget. Your education, certifications, and experience are only signals to your employer that you have a better chance of delivering than candidate PMs who do not have such things, or at least these things in the quantity or quality you have. To be blunt, you are not being paid for your opinions per se; you are being paid to deliver your project on-time, on-budget. If you fail in this regard, having the most erudite opinions, articulated at John Milton-levels of fluency, and including quotes from Vilfredo Pareto, will mean exactly nothing. Conversely, if you do consistently deliver projects on-time, on-budget, then you could have no notion of who John Milton or Vilfredo Pareto were, spend a significant amount of time quoting Homer Simpson (“D’oh! D’oh!”) and you will be hailed as a managerial genius. It’s just the way our PM world works in the free, competitive marketplace.
It’s Your Motivation, Writ Large
Which brings us back to my previous two blogs, about fake experts and setting up your PMO. PMO directors are not paid to remind everyone else in the organization what a swell idea PM is, and how everyone needs to do it. Rather, PMOs exist in order to supply PMs with the information streams that provide timely, accurate, and (most importantly) relevant information they need in order to make informed decisions that lead to delivering their projects on-time, on-budget. It’s not about what you want to impart – it’s all about what your customers want to hear. Besides, what you want to impart may very well be based on your feelings, or prejudices. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that those PMOs that indulge in eat-your-peas-style hectoring about the need to engage in certain irrelevant or marginally informative processes and practices will usually fail, while those who enthusiastically pursue the mission of providing timely, accurate, and relevant information in the most economic way available will dramatically increase their PMO’s chances of success.
Don’t take it personally – I’m sure people’s opinions matter a great deal to others in a wide variety of venues. It’s just that Project Management isn’t one of them.
As I discussed in last week’s blog, fake experts are a definite problem, but they’re not the most difficult barrier in front of successful Project Management Office (PMO) implementation. I asserted that the most difficult issue before the PMO director is obtaining the support of the people from whom you need regular data feeds in order to create and maintain your portfolio management information system. In getting this participation, several common mistakes are made by the average PMO – it’s your job to avoid these mistakes. But first, you must avoid self-inflicted errors. Here are a few of those.
Another Quick Elimination Round
The Management Information System (MIS) experts have an expression: begin with the end in mind. If you, as a newly minted PMO director believe that your end-game is to have many (if not most, or even all) of the people in your organization convinced of the benefits of “doing” project management, and simply await your insight as to how best perform PM, then you have lost already. It’s pointless to examine how you came to believe this myth – the fact that you have arrived in such a position is ipso facto evidence of your inadequacy. Do yourself and those around you a favor, and resign. Get a job as an entry-level scheduler, and begin your education anew.
For the rest of us, who are unimpressed by process per se but do know how to deliver results, there’s hope. Going back to the “begin with the end in mind” motif, what are the legitimate ends we seek? Well, we don’t debate the efficacy of project management theory. It’s pointless to do so. Rather, we seek to demonstrate its utility in the starkest fashion available. Those who already appreciate PM will outperform those who don’t, if given the opportunity. So, let’s give them the opportunity.
“Iceberg, Right Ahead!”
The PMO director is best served by asking the people who need to know the cost and schedule performance information of the projects within their portfolios what it is that they need to know in order to make informed decisions. I worked for a rather large organization that did a lot of project work, and a newly-installed CEO had the foresight to ask his program and project managers to tell him what is was that kept them awake at night. The majority of respondents replied that it was the fear that they were sitting atop a project or program that was getting into real cost/schedule performance trouble, and no one would tell them about it. Either because the information streams that would raise flags didn’t exist; or, if they did, the lower-level PMs had convinced themselves that they could manage their way out before the project neared completion, this was the thing that robbed them of their peace of managerial mind.
Offer your program/project managers a suite of report formats, and let them choose what they want to see in order to make them confident that the disasters-in-the-making are being identified early and accurately. Some of them may select traditional formats, such as Gantt Charts or Cost Performance Reports (CPR) in Format I. Others may opt for something more intuitive, such as a histogram that compares the calculated Estimate at Completion (EAC) with that project’s budget at completion, revealing those projects most likely to overrun, come in on-budget, or underrun.
It’s Really Not That Hard
Once the formats have been selected, boil down the data requirements to their bare minimum. Getting all huffy about how the project teams MUST provide a long list of items proving they are obeying procedure is a sure symptom of PMO failure. For many reports – even the traditional ones – much valuable information can be gleaned from nothing more than a time-phased budget (based on the Work Breakdown Structure), the monthly cumulative actual costs, and an estimate of the percent complete as of the end of the reporting period. This drives many process-oriented PM “experts” crazy, but it’s true. And, most importantly, such an approach will establish that basic PM techniques in cost and schedule performance information stream creation will alleviate that which keeps the key decision-makers up at night (literally). It’s those times that the information streams that the new PMO needs to establish get larded down with unnecessary requirements that participation from your key data feeds dries up, and rarely returns.
And yet, many PMOs make this exact error. I wonder if their leaders failed to read my blog from last week, and have too many fake experts on board.
As December’s theme of Human Resources transitions to January’s of Project Management Offices (PMOs), I thought I’d blog about their point of intersection: as you align the personnel who are to populate your PMO and, by extension, feed your PMO the data it needs to perform portfolio-wide analysis, what are your biggest barriers to success? If you answered “acquiring the talent I need, and placing it where it can do the most good,” then go to … the back of the class. Well, the back might be a bit far, but talent acquisisiton isn’t your biggest problem. It’s a problem, and I’ll address it – it’s just not your biggest.
Can We All Agree On One Thing?
I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomena captured by Hatfield’s Incontrovertible Rule of Project Management #14: you can put 50 PM experts in a room, and they will not agree on the color of an orange. It follows, then, that if there is such a disparity of opinion about what makes up the optimal approach to performing project management, there will also be little agreement about what sort of talent is required for the successful implementation of a PMO. So, all these so-called experts will invariably disagree about the makeup, approach, and performance parameters of the PMO. How can the fakes be distinguished from the legitimately helpful experts? Here’s a quick list. If the howling debaters exhibit any of the following, suspect them immediately.
Let’s return to that room of 50 PM experts. If half of them disagree with the (right) half on the previous points, there will be no more than two at the end of the evaluation (rounding up). To specifically identify the true talent among those two (or to winnow down the field in one fell swoop), ask them if a “bottoms-up” estimate at completion (EAC) is preferable to a calculated one. If they answer in the negative, that’s the person you want setting the technical direction of the PMO.
Next Up: THE Problem
Now, on to the main barrier to PMO implementation success. As I discuss in my first book, your biggest problem isn’t selecting the optimal critical path scheduling software, or cost processor, or setting up an adequate training program, or establishing relations with stakeholders, or any of the other commonly-held “musts” involved in doing a PMO. No, your biggest problem is obtaining the level of participation your information systems need to generate value. Any true portfolio management information system will require timely and accurate data input from each of the participating projects. If any of the projects you are counting on for participation elect to opt out of the system, your PMO is doomed. In order to maximize your PMO’s chances for success, you absolutely, without fail, must…
Look at that! I’m out of space for this week. I’ll cover the tactics that will amp-up your PMO’s chances of success next week. If you can’t wait until then, click on the hyperlink and order your own copy of Things Your PMO Is Doing Wrong (PMI Publishing, 2008).
I once worked for a company whose CEO had a philosophy about employee attitudes that was remarkably telling. It was that every employee should come to work every day at least a little bit scared. I remember hearing about it, and at first thinking it was a bit creepy, but the more I thought of it the more I could kind of see his point: it’s easy to imagine a complacent workforce being or becoming a poorly-performing workforce.
But upon further review, I think my initial reaction was the correct one: it is a creepy philosophy, particularly for an upper executive to have. But this blog isn’t about feelings of creepiness in evaluating business models, so I’ll be a bit more precise. The notion that an organization’s employees need to be consistently and acutely aware that their jobs may be in jeopardy in order for them to perform optimally is a sure sign of poor leadership – tyranny, even – and organizations so afflicted will almost always under-perform their confident rivals. Here’s why.
The easiest and most obvious piece of evidence (Exhibit A) has to do with our own experiences. Recall instances where you were enthusiastically pursuing an activity or task. Compare that to an activity that you didn’t want to do, but had to. It’s been my experience that, in the case of the former, I brought my best effort forward; but, in the latter circumstance, I did just enough to get a pass from the person who had forced me to do the chore. Of course there are many gradation levels in-between, but by invoking these extreme examples you see my point. To put it in the lexicon of my cited CEO, the workforce that arrives every morning at least a little bit scared will usually be out-performed by the workforce that shows up every morning at least a little bit enthused.
Exhibit B has to do with Hatfield’s Incontrovertible Rule of Management #12: The manager-leader must have three characteristics to succeed:
Notice than invoking fear in one’s own team is not included in the three necessary characteristics. Shorter version: are there successful teams comprised of non-anxious members? Of course there are. Are there failed teams comprised of highly anxious personnel? Of course. Therefore, team anxiousness cannot be the sine qua non of successful performance.
Then why did this CEO believe to the contrary? Consider this definition of “tyrant” from Dictionary.com:
2. any person in a position of authority who uses power oppressively or despotically.[i]
Now consider how much easier it is for “any person in a position of authority who uses power” to ignore Hatfield’s Incontrovertible Rule of Management #12. They don’t have to do due diligence in keeping up with developments in their field of expertise, since their frightened team members will obey direction even if it’s the wrong approach. The tyrant need not care about his team members personally since, again, they will obey the direction given out of fear, if nothing else. And, ironically, tyrants tend to behave in such a pathological manner because they, themselves, are not afraid, having been exempted for various reasons from the negative consequences of their poor decision-making.
And that, ultimately, is why tyrants make such poor leaders. Once their people begin arriving to work afraid, even to a small degree, the tyrant has insulated himself from criticism, even in the instances of the most obvious of errors. Besides making the organization so led miserable, this insulation is a virtual guarantor of management failure.
As I continue with December’s theme of Human Resource Management, my attention was grabbed by the stories of the self-driving cars, and their progress in being introduced to major metropolitan areas. They make some mistakes, sure, but so do human drivers. I’m sure this question will be hotly debated for generations, but what criterion should be invoked to decide if the robots driving cars are superior to their average human counterparts? And, if the question is relevant for robot versus human automobile operators, can an analogous question be asked of robot versus human project management?
Yes, I know that the job of project management is largely one of dealing with situations and circumstances that no one could have foreseen (not even risk managers), meaning that we PM-types largely laughed at all the headlines warning the professionals in the more mundane fields that their jobs would some day be taken over by machines, and that day would come around sooner than they thought. We were immune! No machine could manage a project!
Well, let’s take a look at that. Just as a broken clock is right twice per day, so, too some of the people who consider themselves better-than-average project managers prone to making poor decisions most of the time. Since a Magic 8 Ball could be expected to only return good decisions on a random basis, relatively simple robots could replace the poorer project managers right away.
Consider also that some PM decisions are fairly automatic, and could be reduced to algorithm. Check the following table:
Think of PM capability as a continuum, with purely random right answers on one end, and ingeniously insightful project decisions at the other. Hatfield’s Rule of Management #11 is that the 20% worst managers who have access to 80% of the information needed to obviate a given decision will out-perform the 80th percentile best managers who only have access to 20% of the information so needed. This being the case, if the appropriate Earned Value and Critical Path methodology systems are in place, robots would only have to better the lowest PM quintile to become a viable alternative! Let that sink in for a moment.
As for me, I hope the robot that I’m replaced with is less like C3P-O, who comes across as a bit fussy, and more like Robot B-9, from the television series Lost In Space. At least he could project electric shocks from his hands/claws, which could come in handy with respect to interactions with other project “professionals” (see my blog Should We Use Electric Shocks on the Risk Managers?).