Ground Control from Major Tom — Breaking Radio Silence: New Perspectives on Project Management

Since I began this blog I have used it as a means of testing out and sharing ideas about project management, information systems, as well to cover occasional thoughts about music, the arts, and the meaning of wisdom.

My latest hiatus from writing was due to the fact that I was otherwise engaged in a different sort of writing–tech writing–and in exploring some mathematical explorations related to my chosen vocation, aside from running a business and–you know–living life.  There are only so many hours in the day.  Furthermore, when one writes over time about any one topic it seems that one tends to repeat oneself.  I needed to break that cycle so that I could concentrate on bringing something new to the table.  After all, it is not as if this blog attracts a massive audience–and purposely so.  The topics on which I write are highly specialized and the members of the community that tend to follow this blog and send comments tend to be specialized as well.  I air out thoughts here that are sometimes only vaguely conceived so that they can be further refined.

Now that that is out of the way, radio silence is ending until, well, the next contemplation or massive workload that turns into radio silence.

Over the past couple of months I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, and so have some new perspectives that and trends that I noted and would like to share, and which will be the basis (in all likelihood) of future, more in depth posts.  But here is a list that I have compiled:

a.  The time of niche analytical “tools” as acceptable solutions among forward-leaning businesses and enterprises is quickly drawing to a close.  Instead, more comprehensive solutions that integrate data across domains are taking the market and disrupting even large players that have not adapted to this new reality.  The economics are too strong to stay with the status quo.  In the past the barrier to integration of more diverse and larger sets of data was the high cost of traditional BI with its armies of data engineers and analysts providing marginal value that did not always square with the cost.  Now virtually any data can be accessed and visualized.  The best solutions, providing pre-built domain knowledge for targeted verticals, are the best and will lead and win the day.

b.  Along these same lines, apps and services designed around the bureaucratic end-of-month chart submission process are running into the new paradigm among project management leaders that this cycle is inadequate, inefficient, and ineffective.  The incentives are changing to reward actual project management in lieu of project administration.  The core fallacy of apps that provide standard charts based solely on user’s perceptions of looking at data is that they assume that the PM domain knows what it needs to see.  The new paradigm is instead to provide a range of options based on the knowledge that can be derived from data.  Thus, while the options in the new solutions provide the standard charts and reports that have always informed management, KDD (knowledge discovery in database) principles are opening up new perspectives in understanding project dynamics and behavior.

c.  Earned value is *not* the nexus of Integrated Project Management (IPM).  I’m sure many of my colleagues in the community will find this statement to be provocative, only because it is what they are thinking but have been hesitant to voice.  A big part of their hesitation is that the methodology is always under attack by those who wish to avoid accountability for program performance.  Thus, let me make a point about Earned Value Management (EVM) for clarity–it is an essential methodology in assessing project performance and the probability of meeting the constraints of the project budget.  It also contributes data essential to project predictive analytics.  What the data shows from a series of DoD studies (currently sadly unpublished), however, is that it is planning (via a Integrated Master Plan) and scheduling (via an Integrated Master Schedule) that first ties together the essential elements of the project, and will record the baking in of risk within the project.  Risk manifested in poorly tying contract requirements, technical performance measures, and milestones to the plan, and then manifested in poor execution will first be recorded in schedule (time-based) performance.  This is especially true for firms that apply resource-loading in their schedules.  By the time this risk translates and is recorded in EVM metrics, the project management team is performing risk handling and mitigation to blunt the impact on the performance management baseline (the money).  So this still raises the question: what is IPM?  I have a few ideas and will share those in other posts.

d.  Along these lines, there is a need for a Schedule (IMS) Gold Card that provides the essential basis of measurement of programmatic risk during project execution.  I am currently constructing one with collaboration and will put out a few ideas.

e.  Finally, there is still room for a lot of improvement in project management.  For all of the gurus, methodologies, consultants, body shops, and tools that are out there, according to PMI, more than a third of projects fail to meet project goals, almost half to meet budget expectations, less than half finished on time, and almost half experienced scope creep, which, I suspect, probably caused “failure” to be redefined and under-reported in their figures.  The assessment for IT projects is also consistent with this report, with reporting that more than half of IT projects fail in terms of meeting performance, cost, and schedule goals.  From my own experience and those of my colleagues, the need to solve the standard 20-30% slippage in schedule and similar overrun in costs is an old refrain.  So too is the frustration that it need take 23 years to deploy a new aircraft.  A .5 CPI and SPI (to use EVM terminology) is not an indicator of success.  What this indicates, instead, is that there need to be some adjustments and improvements in how we do business.  The first would be to adjust incentives to encourage and reward the identification of risk in project performance.  The second is to deploy solutions that effectively access and provide information to the project team that enable them to address risk.  As with all of the points noted in this post, I have some other ideas in this area that I will share in future posts.

Onward and upward.

Over at — Failure is not Optional

My latest is at this link at with the provocative title: “Failure is not Optional: Why Project Failure is OK.”  The theme and specifics of the post, however, are not that simple and I continue with a sidebar on Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign entitled “How Grant Leveraged Failure in the Civil War.”  A little elaboration is in place once you read the entire post.

I think what we deal with in project management are shades of failure.  It is important to understand this because we rely too often on projections of performance that oftentimes turn out to be unrealistic within the framing assumptions of project management.  In this context our definition of what defines success turns out to be fluid.

To provide a simplistic example of other games of failure, let’s take the game of American baseball.  A batter who hits safely more than 30% of the time is deemed to be skilled in the art of hitting a baseball.  A success.  Yet, when looked at it from a total perspective what this says is that 70% failure is acceptable.  A pitcher who gives up between 2 and 4 earned runs a game is considered to be skilled in the art of pitching.  Yet, this provides a range of acceptable failure under the goal of giving up zero runs.  Furthermore, if your team wins 9-4 you’re considered to be a winning pitcher.  If you lose 1-0 you are a losing pitcher, and there are numerous examples of talented pitchers who were considered skilled in their craft who had losing records because of lack of run production by his team.  Should the perception of success and failure be adjusted based on whether one pitched for the 1927 or 1936 or 1998 Yankees, or the 1963 Dodgers, or 1969 Mets?  The latter two examples were teams built on just enough offense to provide the winning advantage, with the majority of pressure placed on the pitching staff.  Would Tom Seaver be classified as less extraordinary in his skill if he averaged giving up half a run more?  Probably.

Thus, when we look at the universe of project management and see that the overwhelming majority of IT projects fail, or that the average R&D contract realizes a 20% overrun in cost and a significant slip in schedule, what are we measuring?  We are measuring risk in the context of games of failure.  We handle risk to absorb just enough failure and noise in our systems to both push the envelope on development without sacrificing the entire project effort.  To know the difference between transient and existential failure, between learning and wasted effort, and between intermediate progress and strategic position requires a skillset that is essential to ultimate achievement of the goal, whether it be deployment of a new state-of-the-art aircraft, or a game-changing software platform.  The noise must pass what I have called the “so-what?” test.

I have listed a set of skills necessary to the understanding these differences in the article that you may find useful.  I have also provided some ammunition for puncturing the cult of “being green.”

Let the Journey Begin — Mentoring a Better Project Manager

I have been involved in discussions lately regarding mentoring in the project management and IT business management field.  The question is: what does it take to build a better project manager given the rapidly changing paradigm defining the profession?

Having mentored many younger people over the course of a 22 year plus career in the United States Navy–and then afterward in private business–I have given this line of thought a great deal of consideration.  Over the years I have been applying personnel development and growth strategies as one assigned to lead both men and women among the uniformed military, civil service, and contractor communities.  Some of these efforts were notable for their successes.  In a few cases I failed to inspire or motivate.

Thus, I have kept a catalogue of lessons learned in helping me identify key elements in keeping people motivated in seeking a specialty or career.  Among these are the opportunity for growth, greater responsibility, and recognition of achievement.  Note that I do not mention compensation.  What I have found is that compensation, while important to one’s quality of life, is not a significant issue if that factor is viewed as equitable and commensurate to the effort involved.

In most cases, where financial rewards were considered inadequate compared to the job at hand, it was a negative factor in employee retention which, after all, is the key factor in developing someone to be a project manager or to eventually take any kind of senior responsibility.  In very few cases was it a net positive or a significant motivator, except in sales.  Young people tend to accept lower levels of compensation if they can see a path to advancement and greater rewards within a reasonable amount of time.  Firms that fail to provide this path, or that are not loyal to their employees in the manner of crafting career-focused compensation, can expect no loyalty in return.

The Foundation

Education, obviously, is the antecedent factor.  But one must view life as an educational journey in order to be effective in all of the phases of growth and responsibility.  The most common basic credential in proving one’s ability to learn is the Baccalaureate degree.  This is not a necessary condition.  I have known many brilliant people who were self-taught in any number of subjects.  But given that project management involves, in most cases, some technical knowledge and expertise, it is essential that the individual at least be exposed to that knowledge and demonstrate proficiency in the basics that underlie the area of competency.

But we can take this too far.  For example, in my experience, there are too many people that are extremely good in the technical aspects of what they are developing who make very poor project managers.  The reason for this is that a project is not an end item.  It is a social system consisting of people.  The people in the project management office are already proven to have a level of proficiency at their jobs.  If they do not, then that is where the greatest value lies in having a project manager, who must select the team, manage the team, coach the team, and lead the team.  The project is given resources, a scope, a project charter, and it is the project team that develops the plan and will execute against that plan.  A project manager that feels that they are the only technically competent member of the team will soon burn out.

Thus, the best project managers–the best managers of any kind–generally should have a multi-disciplinary education.  This education can be formal or informal, through accredited institutions, but also augmented by technical training and education, and perhaps graduate education.  I have often said that I would prefer to have someone with a strong liberal arts education in lieu of the dedicated specialist.  I can mold someone with a broad outlook and teach them to know what they need to know through a dedicated plan of adult learning, job assignment, and development.  It is also easier to explain concepts to someone at least exposed to information management, English usage and literature, history, human psychology, organizational behavior, mathematics, statistics, applied and theoretical science, and all of the other areas of knowledge which at one time or another must be referenced in running an organization in a technical field in the real world.  It is very difficult to teach someone to unlearn preconceived or bad habits, or an individual who has a doctrinaire attitude, or someone totally clueless about human motivations, emotions, and needs.  This is aside from winnowing out the run of the mill sociopath.

Proficiency in language and communication is also essential.  What is written is a direct reflection of one’s quality of thought.  Thus, when I find that a young individual does not have the verbal acuity necessary to be understood clearly, that is the first area of remediation that I undertake.  Writing a cohesive and logical sentence–or expressing oneself verbally in a clear and logical manner–is essential to one’s personal growth and the ability to work with others.

Step One — Beginnings

The first assignment for the individual slated for project management should be at the most basic level of proficiency, within one of the project management competencies.  This could be to work with project schedulers, systems engineers, cost managers, technical personnel, risk management, logistics, procurement, or any of the other areas necessary to support the organization’s projects.  But rather than developing a specialist who will then rise through that specialty to a senior position, the individual should be laterally transferred on a regular schedule from one specialty to another, given the appropriate skillset and expertise.

This method of variety in work assignment over time in the early stages of the individual’s career will lay the foundation for an appreciation of all aspects of the business.  It also establishes the culture of the learning organization, maintaining the interest of the individual through variety and personal growth.  The point of this method is to get the individual to a stage gate in assessing their capabilities and potential for further growth.

If the individual demonstrates the ability to adapt to different environments and challenges, to obtain new skillsets, and to thrive across multiple job assignments, they can then be advanced to the next level toward greater responsibility, perhaps involving supervisory or management duties.

For others, their limitations will also identify how they can best contribute to the organization.  Perhaps one specific specialty appeals to them.  Advancement and opportunities for these individuals may be more limited, depending on the size of the organization, but that is not necessarily the case.  Subject matter experts (SMEs) are essential to the success of the project team, otherwise there would be no team.  In these cases, investment in further education and training in the area of expertise is essential to employee development and retention.  The experience that they garner from working in other areas of the business also increases their value to the organization since they do not have to learn the basics on the job.

Step Two — Intermediate Development

In the development of military officers the Services first focus on that knowledge necessary to the tactical level of the organization.  As the individual rises in rank and continues to prove their competency, they are first transitioned to the operational level–which is the area that bridges the intersection between smaller units, junior staff, and medium sized units involving a great deal of responsibility.  This may involve junior command of some sort.  The final step in this process is to teach the officer about the strategic level, which involves duties related to senior command or senior staff.

The rationale is that one must walk before they can be expected to run.  In the area of project management this will involve assignments over time serving in various competencies in support of projects of increasing dollar value and complexity.  Thus, for example, we may assign a junior individual to be a project manager with a small staff involving limited funds for the development and deployment of a system of fairly short duration–one to two years.  As they continue to develop over time we will assign them to roles that are a natural progression commensurate with their skills and track record.

As with employee development in step one, the purpose of step two (which may involve subsequent lateral assignments as the individual rises in the organization) is to get them to a stage gate to assess whether they will eventually be able to handle the most complex project assignments, involving the greatest risk to the organization.

Step Three — Professional Competency

A few years ago there was a famous bit of pop psychology running through the professional business community asserting that 10,000 hours of practice is required to turn someone into an expert.  It turns out that this assertion is not supported by the science.  There are a number of factors that contribute to one’s competency in a subject and it could be as simple as emotional affinity–or involve any number of factors such as socio-economic background and upbringing, education and training, the ability to concentrate, the structure of the mind, neonatal development, among others.  This is beyond the odd child prodigy that burns brightly before the age of 10 and then fails to maintain their advantage into adulthood.

But given that the individuals we have mentored have thrived under our adult pedagogic approach, as well as having survived under real life conditions as they were brought along in a progressive manner commensurate with their ability to grow and learn, their areas of competency should be readily apparent.  This should be the last step in the mentoring effort.

The challenge for project management today is to break down the traditional barriers constructed by line and staff, and division of labor thinking.  Project management now demands a cross-disciplinary skillset.  With our information systems able to provide a cohesive and integrated view of the condition of the project in ways that were impossible just five years ago, we need to develop a cadre of individuals who can not only understand the information, but who possess the critical skills, maturity, knowledge, education, judgment, and context to use that information in an effective manner.

Taking Chances — Elements Needed in a Good Project Manager

Completed the quarterly meeting of the NDIA Integrated Program Management Division, among other commitments the past couple of weeks (hence sparse blogging except on, and was most impressed by a presentation given by Ed Miyashiro, Vice President of the Raytheon Company Evaluation Team (RCET).  I would say that these are the characteristics, which are those identified as essential in a successful project manager, are needed regardless of area of expertise, taking into account differences of scale.

Master Strategist – Ensures program survival and future growth

Disciplined Manager – Executes contracts under cost, ahead of schedule with technical excellence

Shrewd Business Person – Maximized financial objectives and minimized risk

Engaged Leader – Leads for success up, down and outside the organization

Relationship Cultivator – Maintains and grows relationships across the broad global customer business communities

The third element describes “minimized risk.”  This is different than risk aversion or risk avoidance.  All human efforts involve risk.  I believe that the key is to take educated risks, knowing the probable opportunities.


Anchors Aweigh — Naval Leadership: Veteran’s Day Edition from “The Naval Officer’s Guide” 1943

As a young Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade I often consulted the Wardroom Library to find reading material, especially during the rare slack periods when the ship was undergoing upgrades and repair work in a shipyard.  One day I picked up two volumes that informed me for the remainder of my career.  One was entitled The Naval Officer’s Guide.  It was originally written by Commander (later Rear Admiral) Arthur Ageton.  Another was Naval Leadership by Rear Admiral J. L. Holloway Jr..  The first was a revised edition that expanded on some of the points made below.  The latter was from 1949 when Admiral Holloway was Superintendent of the Naval Academy.  It is this Admiral Holloway, by the way, who implemented the Holloway Plan that expanded the source of Navy officers to include undergraduate universities via Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) and Officer Candidate School (OCS).  If it had not been for Admiral Holloway my own pathway to a commission from the enlisted ranks almost 30 years later would have been much harder.

“There is scarcely anything more disheartening, more destructive of discipline or loyalty than the (leader)* whose philosophy of life is based on the principle of ‘Don’t do as I do; do as I say.” — Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs

For all of my extensive and varied education, these two volumes–despite the significant differences in time, human generations, society, and Naval organization–had and have provided me with more practical advice regarding leadership than any other sources.  I believe that the reason why this is the case is that the advice contained in the volumes was forged under the most demanding and dangerous conditions, certainly more than I could imagine during the relatively high tech Naval era of the latter Cold War against the Soviet Union and the one-sided conflict that was the First Gulf War.  We certainly did not have to worry about an enemy of equal or greater strength in battle at sea, we did not need to worry about Kamikaze or submarine attack, nor any of the other dangers in war that could lead to an instant entry into oblivion that was experienced by that earlier generation.

What we shared in common, however, spoke to me across time; one sea service officer to another.  We had more in common than one would imagine.  After all, the sea itself had not become any less dangerous over that time, the inherent dangers of operating a ship had certainly not lessened despite modern modes of navigation and ship control and–most importantly–the demands on people under stress operating under hazardous and arduous conditions had not changed.  In fact, with greater reliance on technical expertise and new technology, the stresses and pressures on the average sailor had probably increased in ways unimagined by either of those two leaders and, thus, magnified the importance of leadership.  Our war games were not “make believe” operations performed under controlled conditions–we operated as if at war in all phases of operations–and so the inherent dangers were real.  When conflict did call as in Desert Storm/Desert Shield, the Navy was ready because it had already performed under the same conditions.  In the words of the Chief of Naval Operations who had addressed a change of command which I had attended in 1981: “the United States Navy has been at war continuously since December 7th 1941.  We will never again allow ourselves to be surprised.”  On more than one occasion during Cold War operations we confronted our adversary in dangerous games of cat-and-mouse, and in one significant operation–had cooler heads, that is effective leadership, not prevailed–we could have been at the front line of the start of World War III.

I came across Ageton’s book again recently and revisited it.  The language in the volume is from its time, and so one must read the text in a manner to take into account the differences between the mores and language found in it compared to that of a more modern era.  If you wish substitute “people” for “men” when you read the excerpts.  Back then the Navy–as American society as a whole–was a male dominated organization of Anglo-Saxon descent.  The main leadership of the Navy came almost exclusively from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and so its structure–mirroring its 18th century British roots–was structured around a neo-aristocratic commissioned officer class who ruled over its enlisted men, though the experience of war, chronicled in the new science of naval leadership–soon revealed the weaknesses in this system and helped engineer its de facto and then de jure fall.  At its worst the Navy at the time was hidebound, hierarchical, and too overly concerned with tradition.  Its punishments, when judiciously meted out, would be considered relatively barbaric by today’s U.S. Navy standards.  It had many positive characteristics as well.  Developing strong, independently minded, ethical, disciplined, and imaginative leaders was one of them.  That is the concern of the contributors in the book regarding leadership–the ability to overcome and discard one’s ego to bring together the collective effort of others in a common purpose by instilling confidence, justice, and mutual respect, while acknowledging individual contributions in that effort and effectively checking the efforts of others to undermine that common purpose.  Thus, the authors were the first of a vanguard in the liberal tradition of overcoming previous hierarchies and social prejudices to forge a new means of approaching the world through the application of knowledge gained through hard experience.

The advice below applies to any organization, from the smallest to the largest, but most especially to business and government in our own time, despite the distance of time.

“Leadership is that character…which instills loyalty in subordinates and at the same time displays loyalty to superiors.  Loyalty is the basis of the morale so necessary to the successful prosecution of…objectives….If there is one thing to be learned from naval history, it is that men rather than ships are the major factor in determining victory….leadership…is the responsibility of the American naval officer.  Naval officers have the benefit of naval regulations, and the customs of the service….Naval officers will never be leaders as long as their men give only the measure of obedience required by naval regulations.  They will be leaders only when their men look to them with confidence and are eager to win their praise….How is this to be done?  Primarily by setting the example, by practicing what is preached.  American(s)…are not accustomed to discipline.  As civilians, they resent orders of any kind.  They have a strong sense of equality which has both advantages and disadvantages.   Its advantages enable…(them)…to show initiative, quickness of understanding, and cooperation.  Its disadvantages require effective leadership in the maintenance of order and discipline.  When…identified their own interests with those of their officers, there is released a reservoir of initiative, energy, and devotion, which produces surprising results.  A well-coached football team demonstrates what eleven men can do under such circumstances.  Aboard ship the same teamwork must be developed….The officer who knows how to stimulate and utilize the potentialities…will bring out their best and will win their loyalty and respect….Officers can guide, influence, and mold men.  But their greatest success will depend on the example they set….There is scarcely anything more disheartening, more destructive of discipline or loyalty than the (leader)* whose philosophy of life is based on the principle of ‘Don’t do as I do; do as I say.” — Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, USN, in “Chapter XXIII: Leadership and the American Bluejacket,” The Naval Officer’s Guide by Commander Arthur Ageton, USN, 1943, pp. 496-498.

“True discipline is intelligent obedience of each for the consequent effectiveness of all.  It is willing obedience to attain the greatest good by the greatest number.  It means laying aside, for the time being, of ordinary, everyday, go-as-you-please and do-what-you-like.  It means one for all and all for one–teamwork….To sum up: Machines are nothing without men.  Men are nothing without morale.”  — Admiral Ernest J. King

“We must also realize that men are not effective, individually or collectively, unless they are imbued with high morale.  Morale may be defined as a state of mind wherein there is confidence, courage, and zeal among men united together in a common effort.   In brief, it may be considered mental teamwork….The means of building, and maintaining, high morale and the consequent effective teamwork can be summed up in one word–discipline–a word very much misunderstood and very much abused.  True discipline is intelligent obedience of each for the consequent effectiveness of all.  It is willing obedience to attain the greatest good by the greatest number.  It means laying aside, for the time being, of ordinary, everyday, go-as-you-please and do-what-you-like.  It means one for all and all for one–teamwork….To sum up: Machines are nothing without men.  Men are nothing without morale….I take leave to commend to your individual consideration three pieces of what may be called ‘philosophy’ which I have found helpful.  The first is ‘Do the best you can with what you’ve got’–that is, don’t expect perfection in men or in tools.  The second is a modern version of ‘Don’t worry about water that is already gone over the dam’ but, rather, pattern your thoughts and deeds on ‘Where do we go from here?’  The third is, so to speak, interlocked with the other two; it is this: ”Difficulties’ is the name given to things it is our business to overcome.'” — Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, in “Chapter XXIV: The Responsibilities of Leadership,” The Naval Officer’s Guide by Commander Arthur Ageton, USN, 1943, pp. 499-502.

“I take leave to commend to your individual consideration three pieces of what may be called ‘philosophy’ which I have found helpful.  The first is ‘Do the best you can with what you’ve got’–that is, don’t expect perfection in men or in tools.  The second is a modern version of ‘Don’t worry about water that is already gone over the dam’ but, rather, pattern your thoughts and deeds on ‘Where do we go from here?’  The third is, so to speak, interlocked with the other two; it is this: ”Difficulties’ is the name given to things it is our business to overcome.’” — Admiral Ernest J. King

*Substitution mine.  In the text he uses the word “officer.”  I use “leader” to modernize and emphasize his points.

Note:  I have changed the title of the post to reflect the fact that I used, in actuality, the 1943 edition of the Guide.