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 AITS.org), 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.

 

The Times They Are A-Changin’–Should PMI Be a Project Management Authority?

Back from a pretty intense three weeks taking care of customers (yes–I have those) and attending professional meetings and conferences.  Some interesting developments regarding the latter that I will be writing about here, but while I was in transit I did have the opportunity to keep up with some interesting discussions within the project management community.

Central among those was an article by Anonymous on PM Hut that appeared a few weeks ago that posited the opinion that PMI Should No Longer Be an Authority on Project Management.  I don’t know why the author of the post decided that they had to remain anonymous.  I learned some time ago that one should not only state their opinion in as forceful terms as possible (backed up with facts), but to own that opinion and be open to the possibility that it could be wrong or require modification.  As stated previously in my posts, project management in any form is not received wisdom.

The author of the post makes several assertions summarized below:

a. That PMI, though ostensibly a not-for-profit organization, behaves as a for-profit organization, and aggressively so.

b.  The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) fails in its goal of being the definitive source for project management because it lacks continuity between versions, its prescriptions lack realism, and, particularly in regard to software project management, that this section has morphed into a hybrid of Waterfall and Agile methodology.

c.  The PMI certifications lack credibility and seem to be geared to what will sell, as opposed to what can be established as a bonafide discipline.

I would have preferred that the author had provided more concrete examples of these assertions, given their severity.  For example, going to the on-line financial statements of the organization, PMI does have a significant staff of paid personnel and directors, with total assets as of 2012 of over $300M.  Of this, about $267M is in investments.  It’s total revenue that year was $173M.  It spent only $115M from its cashflow on its programs and another $4M on governance and executive management compensation.  Thus, it would appear that the non-profit basis of the organization has significantly deviated from its origins at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Project management is indeed big business with vesting and compensation of over $1M going to the President & CEO of the organization in 2012 alone.  Thus there does seem to be more than a little justification for the first of the author’s criticisms.

I also share in the author’s other concerns, but a complete analysis is not available regarding either the true value of the PMBOK® and the value of a PMP certification.  I have met many colleagues who felt the need to obtain the latter, despite their significant practical achievements and academic credentials.  I have also met quite a few people with “PMP” after their names whose expertise is questionable, at best.  I am reminded of the certifications given by PMI and other PM organizations today to a very similar condition several years ago when the gold standard of credentials in certain parts of the IT profession were the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) certifications.  They still exist in some form.  What was apparent as I took the courses and the examinations was that the majority of my fellow students had never set up a network.  They were, to use the pejorative among the more experienced members among us, “Paper CNEs and MCSEs.”  In interviewing personnel with “PMP” after their name I find a wide variation in expertise, thus the quality of experience with supporting education tends to have more influence with me than some credential from one of the PM organizations.

Related to this larger issue of what constitutes a proper credential in our discipline, I came across an announcement by Dave Gordon at his The Practicing IT Project Manager blog of a Project Management Job Requirements study.  Dave references this study by Noel Radley of SoftwareAdvise.com that states that the PMP is preferred or specified by 79% of the 300 jobs used as the representative baseline for the industries studied.  Interestingly, the study showed that advanced education is rarely required or preferred.

I suspect that this correlates in a negative way with many of the results that we have seen in the project management community.  Basic economics dictates that people with advanced degrees (M.A. and M.B.A. grads) do come with a higher price than those who only have Baccalaureate degrees, their incomes rising much more than 4 year college grads.  It seems that businesses do not value that additional investment except by exception.

Additionally, I have seen the results of two studies presented in government forums over the past six months (but alas no links yet) where the biggest risk to the project was identified to be the project manager.  Combined with the consistent failure reported by widely disparate sources of the overwhelming majority of projects to perform within budget and be delivered on time raises the natural question as to whether those that we choose to be project managers have the essential background to perform the job.

There seems to be a widely held myth that formal education is somehow unnecessary to develop a project manager–relegating what at least masquerades as a “profession”–to the level of a technician or mechanic.  It is not that we do not need technicians or mechanics, it is that higher level skills are needed to be a successful project manager.

This myth seems to be spreading, and to have originated from the society as a whole, where the emphasis is on basic skills, constant testing, the elimination of higher level thinking, and a narrowing of the curriculum.  Furthermore, college education, which was widely available to post-World War II generations well into the 1980s, is quickly becoming unaffordable by a larger segment of the population.  Thus, what we are seeing is a significant skills gap in the project management discipline to add to one that already has had an adverse impact on the ability of both government and industry to succeed.  For example, a paper from Calleam Consulting Ltd in a paper entitled “The Story Behind the High Failure Rates in the IT Sector” found that “17 percent of large IT projects go so badly that they can threaten the very existence of the company.”

From my experiences over the last 30+ years, when looking for a good CTO or CIO I will look to practical and technical experience and expertise with the ability to work with a team.  For an outstanding coder I look for a commitment to achieve results and elegance in the final product.  But for a good PM give me someone with a good liberal arts education with some graduate level business or systems work combined with leadership.  Leadership includes all of the positive traits one demands of this ability: honesty, integrity, ethical behavior, effective personnel management, commitment, and vision.

The wave of the future in developing our expertise in project management will be the ability to look at all of the performance characteristics of the project and its place in the organization.  This is what I see as the real meaning of “Integrated Project Management.”  I have attended several events since the beginning of the year focused on the project management discipline in which assertions were made that “EVM is the basis for integrated project management” or “risk is the basis for integrated project management” or “schedule is the basis for integrated project management.”  The speakers did not seem to acknowledge that the specialty that they were addressing is but one aspect of measuring project performance, and even less of a factor in measuring program performance.

I believe that this is a symptom of excess specialization and lack of a truly professional standard in project management.  I believe that if we continue to hire technicians with expertise in one area, possessing a general certification that simply requires one to attend conferences and sit in courses that lack educational accreditation and claim credit for “working within” a project, we will find that making the transition to the next evolutionary step at the PM level will be increasingly difficult.  Finally, for the anonymous author critical of PMI it seems that project management is a good business for those who make up credentials but not such a good deal for those with a financial stake in project management.

Note:  This post has been modified to correct minor grammatical and spelling errors.

Full disclosure:  The author has been a member of PMI for almost 20 years, and is a current member and former board member of the College of Performance Management (CPM).

That Guvmint Stuff

Attended a meeting this week in which the discussion surrounded whether EVM is a financial reporting requirement or a project management tool.

Cited was a 2009 report to Congress that indicated that program managers were still viewing EVM as external to their operations–that it is a reporting requirement. Five years have passed since then but there is more than a little confirmation of the currency of this observation around us: the lack of PM participation at professional meetings and conferences, the chestnut complaint that EVM and other indicators are “looking in the rear view mirror” despite significant methodological and technological advances, and the inability to anticipate and handle manifested risk despite the fact that EVM and other metrics provided early warning of those risks.

It is not as if EVM is totally being ignored. Industry increasingly uses EVM as one of many of its tools to determine progress In order to course correct. Long gone are the days when mention of EVM would elicit the response that they don’t do “that Guvmint stuff.”

Also, the aforementioned report to Congress is part of a statutory requirement, so it’s not as if we are dealing with an esoteric methodology of little importance or visibility. So what gives?

My opinion is that the problem is twofold. First, the Congressional reporting requirement causes PMs to treat the data as something to be overcome, knowing that politics is involved. This is a case where the underlying culture closed ranks rather than embrace the change. Second, PMs are rewarded by senior management on entirely unrelated criteria.

Keep in mind that when I talk project management that we aren’t talking about schedules with 50 activities and a couple hundred work packages. These folks are into double caps PM: tens of thousands of schedule activities, hundreds of WBS assignments at the cost control level, complex calculations of indirect and direct costs against resource assignments, technical performance measures against a baseline over multiple years, all under an intense oversight environment. That elephant cannot be eaten all at once, it has to be consumed one piece at a time and it takes a strong partnership between the government PMO organization and the private industrial base.

Even something that appears to be failure can, in fact, turn out to be success. Exhibit 1 in this case goes to the performance of the M1A1 Abrams tank. For years this project was held up by anti-“Guvmint” and anti-DoD types as an example of government waste.  This seemed borne out by DoD’s own analysis by the Project on Government Oversight entitled “The Army’s M1 Tank:  Has It Lived Up To Expectations?”  (Sorry–the report is removed thus no link).  Turns out that just a year later in Desert Shield/Desert Storm spending that extra money (and perhaps the extra scrutiny) was decisive in making the ground war a turkey shoot, with the Russian T72 outgunned and with inferior range, among other issues.

m1a1 tank

Having been an operational U.S. Navy military professional I understand the culture that views methods such as EVM as unnecessary intrusions into the job of delivering the maximum “bang for the buck” to the Fleet. After all, lives are in the balance.

But I believe there is an equally, if not more, important overarching consideration that must be kept in mind by the career military officer and senior civilian. It is the principle of the public interest. If we committed all of the funds to meet any possible threat we would have no funds for anything else. This is the danger to which, I think, that Eisenhower was referring when he invoked his famous phrase. It is assuming that one consideration trumps all others, akin to the after action reports that I would read in which an aviator became so concerned with one problem that he or she didn’t notice that the aircraft was falling out of the sky.

EVM and other analytical methods do have their origins in oversight, and no doubt there is still some hangover that influences perceptions from that history, though it hasn’t been the case for almost 20 years. But, I would argue, invoking this history doesn’t pass the “so-what?” test. After all, it is the public’s money and accountability is part of being a PM. Such standards are much higher in military officers.

Study after study (published but not on-line alas) have shown that the largest risk factor in project management is the PM. In the end it comes down to leadership, but leadership of a different kind.

I believe that educating and grading PMs on their ability to effectively use the tools given them–similar to the way they are assessed in flying the aircraft, leading their units, or fighting the ship–is the only way to gain their attention and, in the process, elicit full value from the tremendous talents and essential perspectives and experience that they bring to the table.

Fight the Project if we must characterize it that way. The enemy is entropy, which cannot be defeated, which never sleeps, and cannot be effectively overcome without the right tools and techniques effectively applied.

Obviously much education still needs to be done.