Project Management

Game Theory in Management

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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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Playing Favorites With The Projects In The Portfolio

Is Office Politics Downstream From Organizational Culture?

What Can The Breakup Of The Beatles Tell Us About The PMO Life-Cycle?

Creating A Strategy To Survive A Toxic Organization

Do PMOs Follow A Predictable Life Cycle?

Playing Favorites With The Projects In The Portfolio

Back when I was in fifth grade, I was troubled by the suspicion that my homeroom teacher wasn’t assigning grades based exclusively on academic merit. In a foreshadowing of a phenomena I would encounter from then on well into college, I came to believe that she would essentially take a reading of which clique the cool kids belonged to, and grade them more leniently, with the harshest evals going to the un-cool kids, the set that I definitely belonged to. I arrived at my belief after having taken a standardized test and scoring rather highly in three of the four categories, and at-grade level for the fourth, all while struggling in this person’s class. Even in my undergraduate program there was a professor notorious for never giving a man a grade better than C, nor any woman a grade less than B. I finally learned to avoid these frauds when I could, somewhat out of a concern for grades, of course, but more because these people’s whacked-out sense of perspective and proportion pretty much precluded them from having anything useful to teach me. Then there’s also the effect of under-correction where it’s needed makes the target weaker, while over-correction will often make it stronger.

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

While I do make an attempt to not be as naïve as a fifth grader in my expectations of institutions being managed based on performance or merit, I still find it highly disconcerting when I encounter examples of this not being the case. Unfortunately, virtually everything that I’ve seen written on the topic of project portfolio management addresses things like optimal resource allocation, or how to measure the individual project’s performance, or recommended ways of capturing scope, etc. I’ve never come across any discussions that key challenges of the PM working a project within a larger program or portfolio may have less to do with cost or schedule performance – the meritorious aspects of PM, if you will – and can be more influenced by some of the more gnarly aspects of organizational behavior and performance.

So, in a meritocracy, how should projects be placed hierarchically within an organization’s portfolio? Based on Corner Cube theory[i], the optimal criteria would include:

  • Asset Management: how profitable is this project? Note that the Contract Budget Base and Fee amounts are different figures.
  • Project Management: how successfully is this project being executed? This matters for a couple of reasons, one, to avoid overruns or delays eating into the expected profits, and two, as an indicator of which kinds of work the organization does best.
  • Strategic Management: does this project enhance the organization’s market share in a targeted industry?

At the other end of the scale, some of the sub-optimal criteria for the hierarchical placement of a given project within the portfolio include:

  • Does it have a large budget? While large projects are generally good for the organization, one that is performing poorly can easily wreck its home company.
  • If the project does have a large budget, is it somewhat routine work? This may be significant if there is a number of highly-placed, highly-paid managers who are not the most talented (think Maccoby archetypes Company Man and Jungle Fighter), but are nevertheless in need of a charge code. If the project is both big enough AND not requiring novel technical approaches to its problems, then it is probably safe to assign this category of manager to it.
  • Is it interesting, high-profile work? The gee-whiz factor should never be underestimated when it comes to which projects are perceived to be preferable within the portfolio.

Why does it matter where a given project is placed within the portfolio’s hierarchy? By no means absolute, but generally speaking the higher-status projects have better access to limited resources and greater latitude of managerial action (these projects have an easier time of bending procedures to attain a desired end), both of which are benefits of enjoying higher visibility among the organization’s executives.

As I’ve noted in previous blogs, complaining about such deviations from a merit-based rendering of the project portfolio is most likely futile. The silver lining here is that, if the projects enjoying premium placement within the portfolio are truly there due to the sub-optimal evaluation criterion in the second set of bullets, then they are more likely to attract the (Maccoby archetypes) Jungle Fighters and Company Men within the organization, leaving the coveted Craftsmen and Gamesmen for use on the other work.

Besides, the over-appreciated but under-scrutinized projects are more likely to go off the rails.

 


[i] Hatfield, M. A. (1995). Managing to the corner cube: three-dimensional management in a three-dimensional world. Project Management Journal, 26(1), 13–20.

Posted on: November 30, 2021 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is Office Politics Downstream From Organizational Culture?

My interpretation of the famous Don Eberly quote, that politics is downstream from culture[i], is that those things which become acceptable in a nation’s or society’s culture will make their way into public policy, sooner or later. It follows, then, that if the things that said culture embraces lead to a more productive, wholesome zeitgeist, it will become more successful; and, if this culture accepts and ultimately embraces the darker aspects of human behavior, it will eventually collapse, absent some form of a great awakening and subsequent reversal. If this axiom is reliable in the socio-economic sense, I was wondering if it was also relevant in the…

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

For the purpose of this analysis, I want to define a couple of terms that get used a lot, but have such broad connotations associated with them that they’ve become almost meaningless:

  1. A person is engaged in office politics when they behave in such a way as to enrich or benefit themselves while detracting from their organization’s or team members’ interests or goals.
  2. Organizational Culture is that set of beliefs commonly held by the members of the organization that determine each members’ place in the hierarchy. Note that these beliefs can be (a) openly articulated (e.g., mission statements or policy documents) or (b) not acknowledged formally, but should still be considered operative (e.g., not getting drunk at the company’s Christmas Party).

Did any member of GTIM Nation snicker at that last example? I actually worked for a large and (for a short time) successful, but ultimately dysfunctional company that would celebrate large project proposal wins with an open bar caterer for the Friday afternoon following the announcement. No other event would warrant this kind of celebration. This was a heavily project-centric organization, and the message that this particular aspect of its corporate culture was sending was clear: winning more project work is the ultimate good, far better than actually performing well on existing work, or mentoring younger workers, or anything else. So, at the only Christmas Party that I attended for this company, there was a disc jockey (a person who plays records in lieu of a band), some meatballs on toothpicks, cubes of cheese, crackers … and an open bar for the entirety of the party. I’ve never seen so many people unfit to drive in one place at the same time. And yet, since this type of behavior had all but received a green light from the organizational culture, it carried with it no political repercussions.

This particular company was out of business within a decade of this party.

Of course, one of the most (if not the most) common and effective tactics that those who engage in office politics employ is calumny against their perceived rivals. Here is where this all gets interesting, because the person who is actively engaged in office politics cannot do so safely if they are perceived as doing it. Nobody likes a (Maccoby archetype) Jungle Fighter, so they must do the office politics stuff in a way so as to not appear to be doing office politics. This is where we circle back to the concept of office politics being downstream from organizational culture: if the target of the office politician’s defamation or slander is actually at variance with the openly articulated (2a above) organizational culture, it’s easy to make such a variance known. It can be openly pointed out at a project review, or other meeting-type venue. But if the target hasn’t done anything “officially” wrong, what’s a Jungle Fighter to do? They must attempt to create a narrative that the target has done something that’s inconsistent with the informal set of rules employed by the organizational culture (2b above). Make no mistake – a sufficiently politically-savvy Jungle Fighter can still make really bad things happen, even within this relatively restricted arena. Look how much death and misery just one Iago did in Othello.

So, what can be done in organizational culture to dissuade such negative outcomes from this type of office politics? Two tactics can be very effective:

  • Introduce (or maintain), either formally or informally, a strong resistance to ex parte conversations. I once worked with a manager who would insist on bringing in to the conversation any third-party being discussed. This brought the then-routine practice of engaging in calumny to a screeching halt, at least within his organization.
  • Conduct yourself in accordance with your organization’s stated rules, of course, but moreover behave in ways superior to the unspoken code, as you learn what those standards are.

These modifications to the corporate culture won’t guarantee you safety from the office politics swirling around you. They will, however, make you a less tempting target for the Jungle Fighters, as they will be losing both their favorite weapon and likely targets.

And you just might end up making the corporate culture better for everybody.

 


[i] Eberle, Don, Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance, ed. Eerdmans, 2001; pp. 75-100

Posted on: November 22, 2021 10:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

What Can The Breakup Of The Beatles Tell Us About The PMO Life-Cycle?

Before Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison were joined by Ringo Starr to become the version of the Beatles that attained world-wide fame, they played in low-income, high-crime area clubs of Hamburg, Germany. By almost any measure the conditions were deplorable, and yet this environment led to their attaining many of the performance skills that would lead them to becoming the most acclaimed music group in history. Indeed, the difficult environment appears to have brought Paul, John, and George closer together as they not only survived, but advanced to the point of releasing the recording that brought them to the attention of Brian Epstein, whose talents as producer would bring them success. Paradoxically (perhaps), they were closer to one another during the difficult years, and more distant as they became successful.

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

In my last couple of blogs I’ve been discussing the possibility that most organizations – including Project Management Offices, or PMOs – go through an observable and repeatable cycle, oscillating between levels from difficult and marginal to effective and successful, and back again. While I have become convinced of the near-inevitability of these cycles, I am also confident that the time spent in the difficult-and-marginal stages can be shortened, and effective-and-successful ones prolonged if the PMO Director recognizes the cycle and the place the PMO is occupying within it. But to distill the relevant elements of the transitions between waypoints in the cycle, we have to figure out the probable causes of such transitions to see if there’s a way to manage them better. And for this analysis, I want to return to the Fab Four.

In 1966 The Beatles released the album Revolver, immediately prior to what would turn out to be their last tour. The year before they had performed live at Shea Stadium, a venue so loud that they had difficulty hearing themselves play. What’s clear is that, in this phase of their association, they had virtual complete economic and artistic latitude to do whatever they wanted in the music realm. However, within a year three events would unfold that, in my opinion, lead to their assuming a downward trajectory, eventually splitting them apart.

The first of these events was Paul McCartney’s idea that their next album should be a concept album, created as if by a fictional group who could function as a sort of stand-in for The Beatles. While Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would end up as an unmitigated commercial and artistic success, George Harrison was quoted later as saying that he wasn’t particularly keen on the concept, and enjoyed recording Revolver much more than Sargent Pepper’s. It also marked the point in the history of the group when Paul McCartney took on a notably larger role in setting the artistic direction, or what we PM-types would refer to as the strategic approach. I think that the significant takeaway from this is that, even though Sargent Pepper’s was a success, not everyone on the Project Team was completely okay with the shift in direction.

The second event came about when the group decided to stop touring, also in 1966. McCartney had maintained that performing live was an essential part of their function as a music group, but the others disagreed. It was only after a pair of weather-impacted appearances in the United States made the whole touring experience untenable that McCartney changed his mind, and the group stopped doing live performances (well, at least on a scheduled basis. Their last live performance, on the roof of Apple Corporation, was somewhat impromptu when it happened in 1969.). While all four agreed to stop touring by 1966, I think it’s notable that all but McCartney wanted to stop earlier, showing yet another crack in strategic agenda consistency.

Finally, when Brian Epstein died in August of 1967, the cracks in their strategic agenda cohesiveness became fissures. Paul wanted the managerial functions to be assumed by his in-laws, while the other members of the group wanted to work with Allen Klein. While McCartney would eventually abandon his push to have his wife’s father and brother work as The Beatles’ managers, he would, interestingly, refuse to actually sign his name on to the contract the others drew up with Klein[i].

What do these events all have in common? I think a significant amount of conflict was introduced into the strategic decision-making of the group because some questions had never been adequately addressed, specifically:

  • Whose artistic vision/strategic approach was most responsible for their amazing success?
  • If the answer to the first bullet was clear, should that person also be setting the artistic/technical direction for the group going forward?
  • Who was best able to manage the non-musical interests of the group?
  • If those decisions should not have been made by one person, were all four ready to accept the choices rendered by a simple majority vote?

And so it is, I believe, with the lifecycle of the PMO. If the team is objectively performing at a high level, but the reasons for the realized success aren’t obvious, the door has been opened to conflicting versions of the success narrative. These conflicting versions will necessarily obfuscate whose vision for the PMO going forward should be heeded, and whose should be dismissed. Additionally, if and when the difficult decisions on the subject of the PMO’s strategic direction are made, but at least half of the organization is opposed, then the PMO becomes fractured, unable to respond to changing business environments, or even maintain its previous status.

Oh yeah, one last thing: if one of the principals of the PMO wants to bring in a spouse who knows nothing of PM for technical advice, the organization is definitely on the downward slope in its lifecycle.

 


[i] YouTube video, Why Did The Beatles Break Up?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVlaaH_1Ig8. Most of the hard data in this blog came from that source.

Posted on: November 16, 2021 08:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Creating A Strategy To Survive A Toxic Organization

In last week’s blog I discussed a sequential series of steps that Project Management Offices can (will?) go through as they cycle between states of disarray and excellence. I have to admit that, when I saw ProjectManagement.com’s theme for November, Organizational Culture, the temptation was to pass along horror stories of orgs that I had worked for that took “dysfunction” to amazing levels. Upon further review, though, I began to realize that each of those horrific teams had one thing in common: they had distinctly moved away from (or abandoned altogether) basing hiring, firing, and promotion/demotion decisions on merit.

Of course, railing against non-meritocracy-based organizations is easy. But such finger-wagging helps not at all those caught in such establishments. In most cases, if the truly talented could leave, they would, meaning that the two most intuitive remedies for the condition of being caught in a toxic work environment – leaving, or getting everybody to behave as if they’re in a meritocracy, – aren’t practically available. So, what’s left? What’s needed is a strategy for surviving the toxic work environment, one that provides for maintaining an existing status at least, provides hope for advancement, or transfer across (or even up) to a nearby organization. And for that, let’s take a look at one of the most potentially toxic environments on Earth, the dysfunctional family unit.

I’m going to adjust the definitions of the archetypal roles assumed by children in a dysfunctional family unit gleaned from the Out of the Storm website (https://www.outofthestorm.website/dysfunctional-family-roles) for use in a business setting, so:

  • The Golden Child is a clear favorite, almost to the point of never being perceived as doing anything wrong.
  • The Mascot overtly displays loyalty to the parents in an attempt to avoid the more negative aspects of being in that particular family.
  • The Lost Child attempts to go about their business with minimal interaction with the negative familial environment.
  • The Scapegoat receives the brunt of the blame for everything that’s wrong with the family, whether it’s deserved or not.

This interpretation brings the dysfunctional family roles more in line with my favorite organizational archetype structure, that proffered by Michael Maccoby in his book The Gamesman (Simon and Schuster, 1976):

  • The Gamesman sees his particular industry as a type of game. Because of this, he is more likely to have mastered the “rules,” as well as being more likely to take chances.
  • The Company Man tends to assume the persona of the team around him.
  • The Craftsman doesn’t care so much about who he works for, but cares a great deal about the quality of his particular output.
  • The Jungle Fighter gets ahead through political machinations and deceit more than actual performance.

When I was doing the research for my third book The Unavoidable Hierarchy: Who’s Who In Your Organization, And Why (Routledge Publishing, 2016) I was struck by the similarities in these two structures, even before I learned about other analogous categorizations (e.g., archetypes in massive, multi-player online role-playing games posited by Richard Bartle). Combining these structures with the game theorists’ favorite tool, the payoff grid, we see:

 

 

 

Talent/Merit

Low

High

Loyalty

High

Company Man/ Mascot

Golden Child/Gamesman

Low

Scapegoat / Jungle Fighter

Lost Child/ Craftsman

 

Based on this analysis/structure, the way to formulate a strategy to survive the toxic work environment is as follows:

  • If you’re a Golden Child, your merit is assumed, true or not. The only real threat here is if you are ever perceived to be disloyal, which is probably the angle that the Jungle Fighters will use to attack. Really not much you can do about this, but that’s the price for succeeding in a dysfunctional organization.
  • The Mascot can try to establish their value to the organization, but, by definition, the toxic work environment doesn’t reward talent as much as it does loyalty. Simply continue fawning over showing support for you superiors, and you should be okay.
  • The dysfunctional organization views the Lost Child/Craftsman as necessary in pursuing the team’s goals, but unwelcome. This archetype is the one most likely to recognize any errors in the stated technical agenda, making their exposure more likely. If you are in this category, simply continue making yourself valuable to the execution of the technical agenda, and try to keep off of the exec’s radar screen. You can outlast them, or last long enough to leave on your terms.
  • I lumped the Scapegoats in with the Jungle Fighters because, generally speaking, neither can point to a specific contribution to the technical agenda as a reason for their placement in the group. However, it’s not unusual for truly broken teams to try to force a Craftsman into this bracket in order to minimize their influence. If you are a true contributor, and find yourself in this category, do whatever it takes to move towards Lost Child/Craftsman. Otherwise, it will become fairly easy to make your work life more miserable, if not bring it to an abrupt end altogether.

Dark subject, I know. But if you are in such an organization, don’t bother to tape a hard copy of this blog on your dysfunctional boss’ door. If he isn’t maladjusted, nothing here is relevant. And, if he is, then he won’t take a long, hard look at his management style, and contemplate returning to a merit-based system. He’ll just frantically hunt for the person who dared to tape such a communication to his door.

 

Posted on: November 09, 2021 11:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Do PMOs Follow A Predictable Life Cycle?

Alexander Tytler (1747-1813) was a professor of history at the University of Edinburgh[i], and asserted in his writings that democratic forms of government had a lifespan of roughly 200 years. During that time, he theorized, they tend to go through the following stages, in order:

  • Bondage
  • Faith
  • Courage
  • Liberty
  • Abundance
  • Selfishness
  • Complacency
  • Apathy
  • Dependence,

…after which the cycle begins again.

Similarly, in Geoffrey Moore’s classic Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers (Harper Business Essentials, 1991) a template-like structure is posited, with recommendations included for those instances where predictable business scenarios unfold sequentially due to failures in the management strategy or business model. I believe that Project Management Offices are also susceptible to following a predictable pattern, or structured life-cycle, but I would add in a leading indicator when such phases enter into transition mode: an accompanying Organizational Behavior and Performance marker which, when taken together with the nominal PMO life-cycle transition, provides a clear indication of the trajectory that the PMO is taking.

My list of stages that many PMOs will encounter looks like this:

  1. The project-based organization will experience one or more project disasters, where the budget is overrun, key scheduled milestones are missed, and the customer(s) are disappointed.
  2. Some executive will suggest – or a long-ignored PM-type will be finally heeded when they recommend – the creation of a centralized PM function, or “area of excellence,” in order to help alleviate current PM difficulties, and avoid future ones.
  3. With much enthusiasm and a tentative budget, the new PM organization is started, with a combination of existing and newly-hired personnel.
  4. The new PM organization will set out to write procedures and guidance documents, or import already-existing ones, and attempt to persuade all of the project teams to perform work as written. Almost everyone will comply, either because they recognize the inherent value of doing so, or because they don’t want to be seen as incalcitrant.
  5. As the Earned Value and Critical Path Methodologies take root, project problems are revealed early enough to prevent overt disasters, and the overall portfolio begins to perform noticeably better.
  6. Large overruns and delays become a distant memory, and smaller ones become less frequent. As a sense of complacency sets in, the budget supporting the PMO comes under scrutiny.
  7. One PM will refuse to implement the PMO’s processes, citing some (invariably invalid) reason that their work falls outside the purview of the guidance. Once they get away with doing so, other PMs will also look to escape such directives.
  8. With so many PMs opting out of the PMO’s view, it can no longer justify its budget. Funds go away, along with the truly talented members, until…
  9. A project disaster occurs, and the cycle begins anew.

However, I have become convinced that another, more organizational and behavior-based cycle is also in play as these steps unfold. During Steps #2 and #3, talent is not necessarily the most important determiner of who gets hired or promoted. It’s not unusual for the coin of the realm for a new management team to be loyalty, not talent. The new PM executive team may feel uneasy about the prospects of their canned strategies working in the new environment, not because they feel that these strategies won’t work, but because they don’t know the level of the existing organizations’ willingness to execute the new technical approach to advancing the PM capability. Of the previous numbered steps, only #5 and #6 truly need PM talent to pull off. All of the others can be performed by the medium-level performers. This leads to something of a dilemma for the PMO Director – do you attract and retain the talent needed to find and implement potentially novel solutions to the organization’s PM difficulties, or do you hire and promote those whom you trust to execute an already-derived strategy, with minimal (or no) course corrections needed? With very rare exceptions, each time the dilemma is resolved in favor of the loyal over the talented, the PMO moves away from operating as a meritocracy, which increases the odds that the steps will continue towards their unattractive end-state. Is there a way to interrupt this cycle, with its pessimistic implications? I believe so, but it involves…

Ooops! Look at that. I’m out of pixel ink for this week. Check out this blog next week for my recommendations of how to escape the PMO’s predictable life-cycle.

 


[i] Wikipedia contributors. (2021, October 15). Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 04:50, November 1, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alexander_Fraser_Tytler,_Lord_Woodhouselee&oldid=1050002662

Posted on: November 03, 2021 05:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)
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