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.
I think it’s fascinating that ProjectManagement.com’s theme for January has segued to “talent” from December’s “success,” since these two concepts are simultaneously so similar and yet so different. Probably the best analogy I can use to illustrate this dichotomy has to do with my insane family, and the card game Spades.
Spades is played by two two-person teams, and it’s really rather simple. The high card played takes the trick, and spades is the trump suit. Prior to playing each hand, the teams bid the number of tricks they believe they can capture, with every bid trick worth ten points, each trick over the bid number worth only one point, but with each trick bid but not captured resulting in ten points being subtracted from that team’s score. The game is a favorite at college dormitories throughout the United States, and was, for the longest time, the go-to game for my family’s reunions. There was just something about this particular game that brought out the highly competitive nature of my siblings, uncles and cousins, and more than one girlfriend of mine was scared off by witnessing my playing in Spades tournaments with these people. That was okay – I loved playing the game, particularly since, without a fairly advanced knowledge of practical tactics, the player was at such a disadvantage as to render them comically ill-suited to contend with those sharks.
I had a brother-in-law describe playing Spades in his college dorm with a fellow who had attended the University of Arkansas, whose mascot is the razorback pig. This fellow had a red felt hat in the shape of a razorback, and, when it was clear that the opposing team was about to go set (this occurs when a team has bid more tricks than it can take), would lean down to the table’s level so that the jaws of the felt razorback rested on the edge. He would then nod his head ever so slightly up-and-down, giving the illusion that the razorback was speaking, and say “You’re set! You’re set!”
Of course, winning at Spades is easier when you get dealt a lot of spades and face cards, and it’s almost impossible to lose when you get dealt a lot of face cards that are also spades. But it’s when you’re dealt hands with few spades or face cards that reveals your true level of talent. Typically, games are finished when one team reaches 300 points. The player who can keep within a good hand of the competition after being dealt two or three poor hands in a row will find themselves in a better position to take home the first-place trophy than those teams whose chances are dashed by a bit of bad luck in card distribution (yes, of course there were trophies! What kind of competition doesn’t have them?).
Meanwhile, back in the project management world…
I have noticed a subtle and yet remarkably consistent indicator of which PMs are truly talented, and which are, well, not. This one manager I worked with arrived at the project site insisting that the reports he received be of a very specific, non-generic format. So specific, in fact, that to fail to provide these reports to him on his accustomed schedule in his unique formats would result in, shall we say, some very negative energy being expended towards his staff. To be blunt, he would make their lives miserable if he didn’t have his precisely-formatted reports on-time, existing management information streams (even superior ones) be damned. He simply refused to adapt to what was in-place; everything had to be changed to that with which he was comfortable.
It would be analogous to a Spades player who couldn’t cope with the hand he was dealt unless he had three or more spades, at least one of which was a face card, with three other aces or kings in the remaining suits. Yeah, most hands dealt contain those aspects, but in Spades one does not throw in the hand if it does not meet a minimum expectation. For some reason, talent-poor managers try to do something analogous in PM space. If the information streams in existence (I’m assuming that at least a basic Earned Value for cost performance and Critical Path schedule are in-place) don’t look and feel familiar, these “managers” will spend excessive amounts of money and time recreating the formats with which they are accustomed, reminiscent of projects where they were perhaps more successful, but certainly more comfortable with their circumstances. It’s simply a fact that many of the projects we are assigned, either as the manager or team member, will be novel to the point of deviating dramatically from anything we’ve previously encountered, and our ability to adapt to the new circumstances will determine not only our chances for success, but indicate our innate level of talent. Low-talent players will seek (or even demand) a return to environs similar to those with which they are familiar. Talented PMs will adapt to their new circumstances, and play the best they can with the hand they’re dealt.
Will they always be successful? No. I’ve been in Spades tournaments where I was dealt fewer than two spades per hand for the entire time, and my partner didn’t fare much better. I lost most of those games, amidst notable jeering from my insane family.
But a few times, my talented partner and I would actually pull out a victory that would not have happened if we had simply waited for better hands to be dealt. With or without red felt pig hats tormenting us.
In previous posts I’ve discussed the unfortunate but very real phenomena of having a portion of the project team opposed to success, if success means that you, the PM, will benefit personally. Imagine your organization depicted by a bell curve. The split looks like this:
Don’t believe me? Consider the story of Joe Rochefort.
U.S. Navy Officer Joe Rochefort was the cryptologist who led the team that cracked the Japanese Imperial Navy’s JN25 code in the early months of the Pacific Theater of World War II. From the American entry into the war through early June of 1942, the Japanese Navy experienced one success after another, and the situation was dire for the Allies. After breaking parts of the Imperial Navy’s top-secret code, Rochefort became convinced that the next major attack would come against Midway Island, in the northern Pacific, but almost all of his colleagues disagreed. One ally in OP-20-G suggested a ruse, to announce in an open transmission that Midway was short of drinking water. The Japanese took the bait, and transmitted in their JN25 Code that their next target was low on drinking water. Rochefort was right.
With this knowledge, OP-20-G would render to the Midway Force’s commanding officer, Raymond Spruance, virtually the entire Imperial Navy order of battle for their attack on Midway, intelligence with a value that cannot be overestimated. The Americans were out-numbered, both in ships and planes, and the IJN personnel were better trained and more experienced. They were, in fact, outclassed in every single way but one: the USN had the Japanese order of battle, thanks to Rochefort. The Japanese weren’t even aware that the United States Navy had a presence in the area until well after the battle had been joined.
The result of the ensuing battle has been accurately described as the turning point of the Pacific War. The Japanese lost four front-line aircraft carriers, dozens of planes with irreplaceable crews, and the initiative in the Pacific. The Americans lost one already-damaged carrier, the Yorktown, a minority of the aircraft committed, and a handful of support vessels. If ever the margin of victory in a major battle could be attributed to a single individual, the result of the Battle of Midway being materially brought about by Joe Rochefort’s cryptology breakthrough has to qualify as a leading candidate. So, Rochefort was recognized, rewarded, promoted, right?
Unfortunately, no. Apparently, Rochefort didn’t suffer fools gladly, and had several encounters with one on a previous assignment aboard the battleship Pennsylvania. This particular fool ended up on Ernest King’s (then Commander in Chief of the Navy) staff. This person disliked Rochefort personally, and strongly advised against him receiving any recognition for his work. Keep in mind that Rochefort had just contributed mightily to changing the course of the Pacific War and, by extension, the future of Western Civilization. No matter. He had made an enemy, and this enemy would have his revenge. Rochefort ended up receiving the Legion of Merit, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Central Security Service Hall of Fame; however, only the Legion of Merit was awarded to him while he was alive. All of the other awards where given posthumously.
I think any manager, but especially Project Managers, need to keep in mind that, in those instances where you have achieved notable success, anybody within your organization who had opposed you, your ideas, or the scope you pursued stands to lose status as their opposition is revealed to be misguided at best, and treacherous at worst. And, if they fall under Category D above, you know they are perfectly capable of using calumny or slander to mitigate the damage to their status via throwing shade on your accomplishments.
Have you experienced a high-profile success recently? Good for you.
Now watch your back.
I know, I know, I’ve written quite a bit about how certain science fiction franchises, specifically Star Wars and Star Trek, appear to have some parallels with the Project Management universe, but this particular parallel is so strong that I can’t resist connecting the dots. Some fans of Star Trek: The Original Series began writing stories around the characters and settings of that television series since its cancellation in 1969 (if not before), and many of these stories made their way into “zines” (short for “magazines,” zines are amateur-published/posted periodicals). Unfortunately, most (if not the vast majority) of these contributors weren’t professional writers, or even particularly gifted amateurs, and it reflected in their prose in a variety of ways (poor character development, lack of respect for the pre-existing canon, wretched plot structure). One particular writing pathology that became noticeable as a trend was the introduction of extraordinarily young and talented characters whose exceptionalism strained credulity. Usually female, these characters came to be seen as little more than the authors’ projection of an idealized version of themselves into the Star Trek canon, and gained the nickname “Mary Sue.”[i]
Mary Sues tend to have the following characteristics in common:
While the existence of Mary Sues in a given story would invariably render that narrative less believable and the plot, well, amateurish, their preponderance actually led to a backlash due to the perceived damage they were doing to the existing Star Trek canon, challenging previously-accepted tenets of who the already-established characters were, and how they interacted with each other and their fictionalized, futuristic world.
Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…
I’ve noticed that the fare in PM-themed periodicals and seminars can be largely categorized in one of three ways:
It’s this last category that tended to bore me the most, until I realized we in the Project Management world were experiencing our own version of the Mary Sue effect in Star Trek fan literature. Then this type of story moved from the merely boring and into the realm of positively irksome, and thence on to potentially damaging to the existing PM canon.
Think about it: when was the last time you read or saw any kind of presentation that detailed exactly how and why a project disaster occurred, and who specifically was to blame? I never have. In fact, I’ve attended a presentation (at a project management-themed conference, no less) that discussed one of the largest overrun and delayed projects in history, and the presenter only wanted to talk about how swell the concepts of Earned Value and Critical Path were.
Conversely, in presentations that address notable successful projects, it seems that many people were solely responsible for its victories, particularly the presenter. Could it be that we have our very own version of the Mary Sue effect in play? Consider the following table:
In Star Trek fan literature, the backlash against stories that contain Mary Sues has become so widespread that many authors that indulge in that genre will avoid introducing any female character, for fear of having such an introduction tagged with the “Mary Sue” label, and automatically repelling potential consumers of the work. While this may be a bit extreme, it was, nevertheless, probably necessary to ensure that this particularly cheesy character device be avoided in the future. Similarly, I would be happy to initiate an analogous backlash against those specific-project presentations that employ a similar device to the Mary Sue. They don’t advance project management science much, if at all, while providing an avenue for the project teams’ (or individual presenters’) own aggrandizement.
And that, my friends, strains credulity, and ultimately damages the pre-existing canon. Particularly if said presenter has violet eyes, or blazing red hair.