Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for April 2008

Blinded by the light – when project management methodology matters more than project success

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Many organisations believe (hope?) that strict adherence to a project management methodology  guarantees project success. These unfortunates have been blinded by the dazzling (but false) promise of whatever methodology they choose to follow, and their projects suffer for it. My feelings on this are strong, but with good reason. I’ve seen too many projects go awry because of blind devotion to methodology.   

The first step to fixing any problem is to recognise that it exists. So how can you tell if methodology has taken over your organisation? Well, here are a few warning signs:

  1. The focus is on following The Book rather than getting the job done: A classic sign of methodology madness is when things are done a certain way just because the process mandates it. This is sometimes seen in organisations with a strong project management office (PMO). To keep the powers that be happy,  project managers often end up following the letter of the process but not the spirit, using other (informal) means to get the job done. 
  2. There are templates for everything: The Book has a long appendix with templates for every conceivable action. You want to sneeze?  Sorry, it has to be approved first. Please fill in form SN123, and we’ll pass on your request to the appropriate committee for review. Expect to hear from us in a week or so.
  3. Signatures / Approvals for everything: This is a particularly pathological variant of the well known, “Responsibility without authority” challenge that project managers face. Here, in addition to the lack of authority, you also can’t use informal channels to get things done because you need to have a paper trail to prove authorisation.
  4. Every action is over-deliberated: Is every project action re-visited and re-analysed ad-nauseum? If so, your project’s suffering from process sclerosis (a close cousin of analysis paralysis), wherein mindless application of process slows progress to a crawl.
  5. Everything is cast in stone: You want to do some things in a different way? Sorry, that’s not possible. The methodology has a prescription for every conceivable project action. No exceptions. 
  6. Project management is a bureaucratic exercise: Project managers in methodology heavy organisations often end up becoming bureaucrats who spend  most of their time fulfilling the requirements of the methodology. This leaves them with little time to actually manage their projects. Methodology has become an end in itself. Good luck getting anything done – you’ll need it. 

Lest I leave you with the impression that I’m completely anti-methodology, let me assure you that I’m not. I’m a great fan of appropriate, well-considered use of project management processes. What do I mean by that? Well, many years ago a project management guru told me that every process employed in a project should be tailored to to that particular project’s needs and circumstances. Note his emphasis on the singular; each project is unique (by definition!) and must be treated so. Project management processes used in a project should be fit for purpose.

So I end with this thought: don’t let your organisation be blinded by methodology. Instead, insist that project management tools and techniques be used appropriately, in a manner that illuminates the way ahead on particular projects.

Written by K

April 28, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Managers aren’t good at listening

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 Are managers good listeners? This is the question Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan address in a note published in the April 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review. The research conducted by Barwise and Meehan indicates that managers tend to overrate themselves on their own openness to frank communication; the  gap in self-perception being greatest when the views expressed are contrary those held by the manager.  This conclusion is based on  360 degree surveys of more than 4000 US managers across a range of industries and functions.  

The authors believe there are two factors at work here. Bosses tend to:

  • Overestimate their openness to contrary views, as indicated by the wide differences between self evaluations and those of colleagues. 
  • Underestimate the extent to which the manager-managed relationship hinders their subordinates from communicating openly. That is, subordinates fear reprisals of some kind if they are the bearers of bad news or contrary views.  The authors reckon  this happens because bosses often unknowingly  send out subtle signals discouraging their subordinates from speaking openly.

To get around this,  they suggest that:

  • Managers should assume they are less open to frank discussion than they think they are.
  • Organisations should use 360 degree surveys specifically targeted to uncovering communication issues. They reckon that bad managers, when confronted with real data may be more open to changing their ways (Good luck with that, I say).

There’s no doubt (to me, at any rate)  that Barwise and Meehan are right in their observations about managerial openness to frank communication . Most of us – managers or not – don’t like to be contradicted, and that’s no surprise.  

On the other hand, I’m not so sure about their recommended solution. In my opinion fixes at the individual level, such as they suggest,  will not work.  I believe open communication needs to be fostered at the organisational level for it to permeate right through the corporate hierarchy. Put differently, it is an issue of organisational culture rather than management.  Some workplaces have a culture conducive to open communication; others don’t. Those that don’t would not be able to fix the problem by confronting managers with the results of 360 degree surveys (or any other data for that matter). Given the anti-communication culture of the organisation, the said managers would simply deny there’s a problem and worse,  may even confront those who they think are responsible for the negative feedback. In fact,  because of the latter, such surveys may not even indicate there’s a problem as subordinates would not risk saying what they really think.

I’m interested in knowing what you think about this. Let me know via your comments.

Written by K

April 24, 2008 at 6:02 am

Are project management skills generic?

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Jack’s a good friend of mine. A few days ago we were talking about this and that, when the conversation veered to project management:

“By the way, ” he said, “we’re looking for a new project manager for the CRM project I told you about last week. Would you know anyone who might be interested?”

“What kind of person are you looking for? Do you want someone with significant PM experience or do you want a CRM expert?” I replied. I have this annoying habit of answering a question with several questions.

We went back and forth a few times and ended up drafting out an advertisement for the position.

Let me ask you now: what do you think is more important for a project manager – domain knowledge (i.e. expertise in a specific subject area ) or project management skills and experience? 

My opinion? Although some domain knowledge is helpful and perhaps even important, many key attributes of a good project manager are skills which are applicable across a wide range of industries. I’ve thought so for a while, and this paper which I reviewed in an earlier post, appears to strengthen my position. After all, if practices are generic, skills should be too.

I set about performing an (admittedly unscientific) survey to see if this is indeed so. Here’s what I did: I looked at several online job postings for IT project managers. On sampling ten of these at random from a well-known local job site,  I found that many advertisements listed similar skill and experience requirements. Below I list the skills and attributes that appeared most frequently in the advertisements surveyed (frequency of appearance in brackets). 

  1. Communication skills (8) 
  2. Problem solving / analytical ability (6)
  3. Vendor / stakeholder management (6)
  4. Ability to work under pressure (6)
  5. Negotiation skills (5) 
  6. Understanding of project lifecycle /  methodology (5)

Note that I’ve incorporated similar attributes into a single point – e.g. Exceptional written and oral presentation skills and Good verbal and written communication skills have been combined under Communication Skills.

It is interesting that domain knowledge  does not appear in the list. This attribute came in just under the cutoff mark, with four ads specifying  it as a requirement. What’s even more interesting is the skills and attributes listed above are generic – i.e. they are applicable across projects in any domain.  So, my survey, for what it’s worth, indicates that the answer to the question posed in the title is, “Yes, the most important project management skills, as determined by what employers look for, are indeed generic.” 

Written by K

April 19, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Posted in Project Management

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