According to Merriam-Webster, a “macguffin” is
an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.[i]
An example which is probably readily recognized by a majority of GTIM Nation would be the blue diamond in the necklace given to Kate Winslet’s character in the movie Titanic, named The Heart of the Ocean, but a better example (in my opinion) would be the Maltese Falcon figurine in the movie of the same name. In that 1941 film, while all of the characters appear to be obsessed with the location and ownership of the jewel-encrusted statue, murders actually take place, with the protagonist (the original Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart) often taken to be the murderer. In fact, when the Maltese Falcon statue finally shows up, it proves to be a fake. One final example would be the Ark of the Covenant in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the actual Ark, after being intensely pursued by virtually all of the characters in the movie, ends up portrayed as being unceremoniously boxed in a wooden crate, to be relegated to near-oblivion in a massive government warehouse (which we learn later is located in Area 51, Nevada, of all places). So, just to be clear: the macguffin, by definition, lacks in “intrinsic importance.”
Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…
I would like to reference my three criteria for usable management information. It has to be:
So, what we have in a macguffin is a plot device widely considered to be irrelevant, but used anyway in order to move the story forward. While macguffins can lead to wildly successful movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark earned $384M USD against a budget of $18M[ii], while Titanic earned over $2.1B USD[iii]), it would be good to remember that this is a device used in fiction.
With the use of a macguffin in fiction as a backdrop, let’s revisit some of the nostrums associated with “doing” PM “right.” Keep in mind that we’re not talking about inserting energy or conflict into a story – we’re looking at which techniques or strategies commonly associated with Project Management actually improve the odds of bringing projects in on-time, on-budget, with all of the scope particulars satisfied. I’ll score the techniques so:
Now, if, upon opening the Ark in the movie, the Nazis discover both the Maltese Falcon and the Heart of the Ocean inside of it immediately prior to having their faces melted, then that would make me rethink this whole irrelevance business.
[i] Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/MacGuffin on August 17, 2019, 19:42 MDT.
[ii] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, August 15). Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:43, August 18, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Raiders_of_the_Lost_Ark&oldid=910923959
[iii] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, August 17). Titanic (1997 film). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:45, August 18, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titanic_(1997_film)&oldid=911224908
A quick internet search on the topic of quotes about attitude returns hundreds of examples, the majority by famous people, including:
…among many others[i]. Virtually without exception their common thread is the idea that the value of a good attitude is widely under-appreciated, particularly when it comes to achieving a desired goal. My favorite, one that seems to encapsulate the others rather nicely, was from W.C. Fields, who said “Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than what people do or say. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill.”[ii] This quote of his replaces my previous favorite one from him, “Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.”[iii]
Circling back to ProjectManagement.com’s theme for August, Career Development, I can’t help but to wonder if the difficulties we PM-types are experiencing at the macro level – frustrations in advancing Project Management maturity and lack of widespread acceptance of its precepts as fundamental to business models – aren’t being caused (or at least abetted) by problems at the micro level, namely, how newly minted PM-types develop their careers. So, if there were one extraordinary scalable causal element common to both these problems, what would it be? I’m thinking it’s attitude.
Meanwhile, Back In The PM Seminar World…
Plucking two of the pieces from the W.C. Fields quote above, consider: “Attitude is more important than … education, …or skill.” Besides the extremely valuable opportunities for networking among attendees, isn’t the primary purpose of professional seminars to advance education, or skill among practitioners? Even the exhibitors’ hall is full of people who, yes, want to sell a product, but do so by educating passer-by on how their product or service can help them in their pursuits. And yet, if we are to take W.C. Fields’ quote at face value (or the myriad other similar celebrities’ or famous thinkers’ assertions), almost all of the paper presenters, all of the vendors in the exhibit hall, all of the time and effort spent in developing specific learning or coursework tracks, all of them ought to be considered subordinate to attitude.
This may be where the general thrust of common PM advancement initiatives could use a dose of perspective. I’ve related previously the story of a young Earned Value Management System auditor, who complained that the EV system in use did not calculate the Budgeted Cost of Work Performed (BCWP) by dividing cumulative actual costs by cumulative budget. The system admin stated flatly “That’s because that’s not the way you calculate Earned Value.” The auditor exploded. “Do you know PMI®? I’m a PMP®!”, as if that was supposed to stop all conversation that held to the contrary. This episode showcases a tendency for at least a few of those who become highly educated in certain aspects of Project Management to assume an attitude of superiority towards other management practitioners, and to proceed as if that command over the PM codex imparts a certain value to them over and above other members of the organization. I believe that, to the PMs who have been assigned their projects by virtue of being subject matter experts in the area of the pursued scope, this kind of attitude can be highly off-putting, and can easily have a dampening effect on the acceptance of both the PM techniques and the person hired to execute them. Just to be clear: I’m not saying this tendency is by any means germane to the Project Management industry. The disconnect between academics and real-world practitioners within the same subject, the so-called Ivory Tower effect, afflicts virtually all courses taught at the University level, save perhaps the hard sciences.
I’m thinking that the counterproductive aspects of the toxic PM practitioner’s attitude have to do with the perception that they are in command of special, exclusive knowledge, and ought to be both respected and paid well to pass this knowledge along to the project teams (or seminar attendees) who seek it. I’m also thinking that, for the sake of the widespread acceptance of PM theory and the advancement of new practitioners’ specific careers, the opposite attitude, that of enthusiastically using PM techniques to advance the project teams’ goals, regardless of their level of appreciation, is not only appropriate, but sorely needed.
Now, if GTIM Nation will excuse me, my small snake (“Malfoy”) seems to have escaped his carrying pouch…
[iii] Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/w_c_fields_102057 on August 11, 2019, 11:39 MDT.
Many, if not most (or all) large organizations that perform a significant amount of project work will have some group or team that’s supposedly in charge of the institution’s Project Management capability. Sometimes it will bear the formal title of Project Management Office, or PMO; other times, it won’t, but will still fulfill the same basic function. These organizations will typically pursue a wide variety of techniques or capability advancements traditionally associated with PM, including:
…among others. And, to be fair, these are the obvious ways that the PMO will seek to expand its influence, and bring the organization’s Project Management capability to a point where most (if not all) projects can be reasonably expected to come in on-time, on-budget, and without claims against for failure to deliver the contracted scope.
But is this the way it’s supposed to happen?
Clues That You May Be Doing It Wrong…
Here are some signs that the PMO is doing the whole strategy implementation game wrong:
Any of these conditions should be taken as ipso facto evidence that your PMO’s strategy is failing, and in need of immediate correction. But where to begin to assess the errors in the existing strategy?
…And How To Get It Right
Fortunately, GTIM Nation has the inside track on this. Recall an axiom I often return to, that for any organization that’s providing a good or service, Quality, Affordability, Availability: pick any two. In other words,
It’s been my experience that those setting up or revamping an existing PMO will almost never consider this axiom. They blast ahead, confident in their ability to fulfill all three aspects. When confronted with any (or all) of the numbered phenomenon, they invariably attribute it to recalcitrance on the part of the organization, rather then their own selection of a non-viable PM advancement strategy.
However, if you, as head of the institutional PMO, encounter one or more of the numbered symptoms listed above, it’s almost always attributable to an unmet demand for PM information systems or services that are not predicated on the institution’s notions of what constitutes “quality.” The PMs are seeking an approach based on Strategy C above – at least from the institution’s perspective. Not to get back on an all-too-familiar soap box here, but there are numerous aspects of Project Management that are associated with a more robust capability that are, in fact, not only failing to advance PM, but are often guilty of detracting from it. Examples include:
The remedy? Make available a simple Earned Value Management System, shorn of the extraneous attributes (among others) above, with a minimum of data collection needs. Put it in place, and quietly provide its critical cost and schedule information to the projects’ decision-makers. Don’t breathe a word about what the PMO or institution believes the system should do, or contain. Let the PM dictate every last characteristic.
Then step back and, with a little patience, watch the surprise overruns and shadow organizations simply fade away.
As we wrap up ProjectManagement.com’s theme for July, Strategy Implementation, I would like to reference a couple of things for this week’s blog: last week’s blog, where I discussed the optimal technical approach for implementing a given strategy, and my favorite go-to structure for organizational behavior and performance issues within the project team, the one presented in Michael Maccoby’s brilliant book The Gamesmen (Simon and Schuster, 1976). A quick refresher of the worker archetypes Maccoby posits:
From last week’s blog, I passed along some lessons from Game Theory, that to advance a capability (in our cases, Project Management) the approach must have the following elements to maximize the odds of success:
Finally, Hatfield’s three critical elements of managerial leadership will come in to play:
Meanwhile, Back In Middle-Earth…
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series on the goings-on in middle earth, the character Gollum plays a major role, from being introduced in The Hobbit, all the way through to his death in The Return of the King. Gollum holds The Ring at the time of its introduction into the story line, and has become rather addicted to its powers, to the point that he refers to it as “the precious,” and becomes incredibly obsessed with re-possessing it.
From the Maccoby archetypes, it’s easy to see the Jungle Fighters as a nest of Gollums, physically unattractive and intensely obsessed with only their own self-advancement, somewhat obvious in their machinations to detract from project performance. But that’s not reality: any of the Maccoby Archetypes can be turned into detractors. From my three critical elements, the first, that of selecting the optimal technical approach, is key, for if the PM selects a sub-optimal (or even poor) strategy in pursuing the project’s scope, then:
…all while the
Four Maccoby Archetypes, three implementation strategy guidelines derived from Game Theory, and three Hatfield Rules of Managerial Leadership, and all have as their linchpin the need for an optimal implementation strategy, or technical approach. That’s the One Ring To Bind Them All, the “precious,” the indispensable element of strategy implementation. If you don’t have it, get it.
And if you do have it, don’t let creepy, glowy-eyed trolls thwart you by biting off your finger.
Among Game Theorists a favorite game for analyzing cooperation or defection among non-related biological units in a common environment is The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The basic version of the game goes like this: you are a prisoner, and your jailer comes to you and says that he will cut your sentence if you rat out your cellmate. The dilemma comes about when you realize that your cellmate will receive the exact same offer. There are four possible outcomes:
In the 1980s, Robert Axelrod sponsored a tournament of computer programs playing multiple iterations of the Prisoner’s Dilemma against each other. Both conventional wisdom and the Nash Equilibrium had informed that the optimal strategy would be to always defect, since the player would never want to be on the receiving end of the Suckers’ Payoff, and always defecting was the only way to guarantee that. However, in the event, the winning program, named “Tit for Tat,” did not enact that strategy. Instead, it initially did not inform. Thereafter, it did whatever the opposing program did on the previous iteration. After the competition, some analysts looked in to why Tit for Tat’s strategy was successful. To that end, they developed some variants to compete against the original. One defected on the first iteration, and then did the Tit-for-Tat strategy; another cooperated the first five iterations, and then performed the Tit-for-Tat strategy, among others. All of the variants failed. The analysts concluded that Tit for Tat succeeded due to three factors:
I Would Normally Write “Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…” At This Point, But I’ve Been Talking PM This Whole Time…
For some time I had been struggling mightily with which broad-based PM implementation strategy could be considered optimal as I was doing research for my first book, Things Your PMO Is Doing Wrong (PMI® Publishing, 2008) when it hit me: make the implementation strategy incorporate Tit-for-Tat’s three factors! Consider:
I would like to call GTIM Nation’s attention to the first factor of the Optimal Strategy, that of making the advancement in capability extremely easy to implement, since it does contradict much of what passes for insight on what needs to be included in a PM advancement effort. Conventional wisdom holds that, in order to implement a valid, or quality, or advanced, or authentic (choose your superlative) Project Management Information System, the person directing the effort must include such things as a robust risk management system, or a quality program, or a communications management plan, or a comprehensive set of procedures, or training, or, or, or. The list is as long as the number of self-styled experts who have latched on to some aspect of PM that lies outside the mainstream ideas of Scope, Cost, and Schedule, muddying the waters of a clearly articulatable approach to a common management problem.
And here’s the infuriating part: once all of the ancillary “experts” have larded up the implementation strategy so that it’s anything but simple to roll out, they will turn around and claim that any system that actually is easy to install simply must be invalid. To be fair, it’s basic human nature to reflexively reject the notion that complex problems could have a simple solution. But the cynic in me can’t help but believe that another factor is that, should the experts’ pet analysis technique become ensconced in the PM codex as being a key or critical component of a truly valid PMIS, then those experts’ area of expertise will see an increase in demand, making them and their like-minded comrades more valuable to organizations struggling with the best way of advancing PM.
I have incorporated these three factors in the implementation strategy for small organizations, all the way up to very large portfolios, and it has always delivered an effective PMIS in an unexpectedly brief amount of time, all while demonstrably advancing PM maturity. GTIM Nation knows that I’m no ringer for the Game Theory crowd – I have often called out deficiencies in their approach, usually for failure to take into account sufficient parameters to provide a strongly analogous “game.”
But not this time. This time, Game Theory has painted a great big epistemological arrow for we PM-types to see what the optimal general implementation strategy ought to include. The fact that it happens to exclude risk managers is just icing on the cake.