All Along the Watch Tower — Project Monitoring vs. Project Management

My two month summer blogging hiatus has come to a close. Along the way I have gathered a good bit of practical knowledge related to introducing and implementing process and technological improvements into complex project management environments. More specifically, my experience is in introducing new adaptive technologies that support the integration of essential data across the project environment–integrated project management in short–and do so by focusing on knowledge discovery in databases (KDD).

An issue that arose during these various opportunities reminded me of the commercial where a group of armed bank robbers enter a bank and have everyone lay on the floor. One of the victims whispers to a uniformed security officer, “Hey, do something!” The security officer replies, “Oh, I’m not a security guard, I’m a security monitor. I only notify people if there is a robbery.” He looks to the robbers who have a hostage and then turns back to the victim and says calmly, “There’s a robbery.”

We oftentimes face the same issues in providing project management solutions. New technologies have expanded the depth and breadth of information that is available to project management professionals. Oftentimes the implementation of these solutions get to the heart as to whether people considers themselves project managers or project monitors.

Technology, Information, and Cognitive Dissonance

This perceptual conflict oftentimes plays itself out in resistance to change in automated systems. In today’s world the question of acceptance is a bit different than when I first provided automated solutions into organizations more than 30 years ago. At that time, which represented the first modern wave of digitization, focused on simply automating previously manual functions that supported existing line-and-staff organizations. Software solutions were constructed to fit into the architecture of the social or business systems being served, regardless of whether those systems were inefficient or sub-optimal.

The challenge is a bit different today. Oftentimes new technology is paired with process changes that will transform an organization–and quite often is used as the leading edge in that initiative. The impact on work is transformative, shifting the way that the job and the system itself is perceived given the new information.

Leon Festinger in his work A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957) stated that people seek psychological consistency in order to function in the real world. When faced with information or a situation that is contradictory to consistency, individuals will experience psychological discomfort. The individual can then simply adapt to the new condition by either accepting the change, adding rationalizations to connect their present perceptions to the change, or to challenge the change–either by attacking it as valid, by rejecting its conclusions, or by avoidance.

The most problematic of the reactions that can be encountered in IT project management are the last two. When I have introduced a new technology paired with process change this manifestation has usually been justified by the refrains that:

a. The new solution is too hard to understand;

b. The new solution is too detailed;

c. The new solution is too different from the incumbent technology;

d. The solution is unrelated to “my job of printing out one PowerPoint chart”;

e. “Why can’t I just continue to use my own Excel workbooks/Access database/solution”;

f. “Earned value/schedule/risk management/(add PM methodology here) doesn’t tell me what I don’t already know/looks in the rear view mirror/doesn’t add enough value/is too expensive/etc.”

For someone new to this kind of process the objections often seem daunting. But some perspective always helps. To date, I have introduced and implemented three waves of technology over the course of my career and all initially encountered resistance, only to eventually be embraced. In a paradoxical twist (some would call it divine justice, karma, or universal irony), oftentimes the previous technology I championed, which sits as the incumbent, is used as a defense against the latest innovation.

A reasonable and diligent person involved in the implementation of any technology which, after all, is also project management, must learn to monitor conditions to determine if there is good reason for resistance, or if it is a typical reaction to relatively rapid change in a traditionally static environment. The point, of course, is not only to meet organizational needs, but to achieve a high level of acceptance in software deployment–thus maximizing ROI for the organization and improving organizational effectiveness.

If process improvement is involved, an effective pairing and coordination with stakeholders is important. But such objections, while oftentimes a reaction to people receiving information they prefer not to have, are ignored at one’s own peril. This is where such change processes require both an analytical and leadership-based approach.

Technology and Cultural Change – Spock vs. Kirk

In looking at resistance one must determine whether the issue is one of technology or some reason of culture or management. Testing the intuitiveness of the UI, for example, is best accomplished by beta testing among SMEs. Clock speeds latency, reliability, accuracy, and fidelity in data, and other technological characteristics are easily measured and documented. This is the Mr. Spock side of the equation, where, in an ideal world, rationality and logic should lead one to success. Once these processes are successfully completed, however, the job is still not done.

Every successful deployment still contains within it pockets of resistance. This is the emotional part of technological innovation that oftentimes is either ignored or that managers hope to paper or plow over, usually to their sorrow. It is here that we need to focus our attention. This is the Captain Kirk part of the equation.

The most vulnerable portion of an IT project deployment happens within the initial period of inception. Rolling wave implementations that achieve quick success will often find that there is more resistance over time as each new portion of the organization is brought into the fold. There are many reasons for this.

New personnel may be going by what they observed from the initial embrace of the technology and not like the results. Perhaps buy-in was not obtained by the next group prior to their inclusion, or senior management is not fully on-board. Perhaps there is a perceived or real fear of job loss, or job transformation that was not socialized in advance. It is possible that the implementation focused too heavily on the needs of the initial group of personnel brought under the new technology, which caused the technology to lag in addressing the needs of the next wave. It could also be that the technology is sufficiently different as to represent a “culture shock”, which causes an immediate defensive reaction. If there are outsourced positions, the subcontractor may feel that its interests are threatened by the introduction of the technology. Some SMEs, having created “irreplaceable asset” barriers, may feel that their position would be eroded if they were to have to share expertise and information with other areas of the organization. Lower level employees fear that management will have unfettered access to information prior to vetting. The technology may be oversold as a panacea, rather as a means of addressing organizational or information management deficiencies. All of these reasons, and others, are motivations to explore.

There is an extensive literature on the ways to address the concerns listed above, and others. Good examples can be found here and here.

Adaptive COTS or Business Intelligence technologies, as well as rapid response teams based on Agile, go a long way in addressing and handling barriers to acceptance on the technology side. But additional efforts at socialization and senior management buy-in are essential and will be the difference maker. No amount of argumentation or will persuade people otherwise inclined to defend the status quo, even when benefits are self-evident. Leadership by information consumers–both internal and external–as well as decision-makers will win the day.

Process and Technology – Integrated Project Management and Big(ger) Data

The first wave of automation digitized simple manual efforts (word processing, charts, graphs). This resulted in an incremental increase in productivity but, more importantly, it shifted work so that administrative overhead was eliminated. There are no secretarial pools or positions as there were when I first entered the workforce.

The second and succeeding waves tackled transactional systems based on line and staff organizational structures, and work definitions. Thus, in project management, EVM systems were designed for cost analysts, scheduling apps for planners and schedulers, risk analysis software for systems engineers, and so on.

All of these waves had a focus on functionality of hard-coded software solutions. The software determined what data was important and what information could be processed from it.

The new paradigm shift is a focus on data. We see this through the buzz phrase “Big Data”.  But what does that mean? It means that all of the data that the organization or enterprise collects has information value. Deriving that information value, and then determining its relevance and whether it provides actionable intelligence, is of importance to the organization.

Thus, implementations of data-focused solutions represent not only a shift in the way that work is performed, but also how information is used, and how the health and performance of the organization is assessed. Horizontal information integration across domains provides insights that were not apparent in the past when data was served to satisfy the needs of specialized domains and SMEs. New vulnerabilities and risks are uncovered through integration. This is particularly clear when implementing integrated project management (IPM) solutions.

A pause in providing a definition is in order, especially since IPM is gaining traction, and so large lazy and entrenched incumbents adjust their marketing in the hope of muddying the waters to fit their square peg focused and hard-coded solutions into the round hole of flexible IPM solutions.

Integrated Project Management are the processes and integration of information necessary to derive actionable intelligence from all of the relevant cross-domain information involved in the project organization. This includes cost performance, schedule performance, financial performance and execution, contract implementation, milestone achievement, resource management, and technical performance. Actionable intelligence is that information that is relevant to the project decision-making authority which effectively identifies specific probable qualitative and quantitative risks, risk impact, and risk handling necessary to make project trade-offs, project re-baselining or re-scope, cost-as-an-independent variable (CAIV), or project cancellation decisions. Underlying all of this are feedback loop systems assessments to ensure that there is integrity and fidelity in our business systems–both human and digital.

No doubt, we have a ways to go to get to this condition, but organizations are getting there. What it will take is a change the way leadership views its role, in rewriting traditional project management job descriptions, cross-domain training and mentoring, and in enforcing both for ourselves and in others the dedication to the ethics that are necessary to do the job.

Practice and Ethics in Project Management within Public Administration

The final aspect of implementations of project management systems that is often overlooked, and which oftentimes frames the environment that we are attempting to transform, concerns ethical behavior in project management. It is an aspect of project success as necessary as any performance metric, and it is one for which leadership within an organization sets the tone.

My own expertise in project management has concerned itself in most cases with project management in the field of public administration, though as a businessman I also have experience in the commercial world. Let’s take public administration first since, I think, it is the most straightforward.

When I wore a uniform as a commissioned Naval officer I realized that in my position and duties that I was merely an instrument of the U.S. Navy, and its constitutional and legal underpinnings. My own interests were separate from, and needed to be firewalled from, the execution of my official duties. When I have observed deficiencies in the behavior of others in similar positions, this is the dichotomy that often fails to be inculcated in the individual.

When enlisted personnel salute a commissioned officer they are not saluting the person, they are saluting and showing respect to the rank and position. The officer must earn respect as an individual. Having risen from the enlisted ranks, these were the aspects of leadership that were driven home to me in observing this dynamic: in order to become a good leader, one must first have been a good follower; you must demonstrate trust and respect to earn trust and respect. One must act ethically.

Oftentimes officials in other governmental entities–elected officials (especially), judges, and law enforcement–often fail to understand this point and hence fail this very basic rule of public behavior. The law and their position deserves respect. The behavior and actions of the individuals in their office will determine whether they personally should be shown respect. If an individual abuses their position or the exercise of discretion, they are not worthy of respect, with the danger that they will delegitimize and bring discredit to the office or position.

But earning respect is only one aspect of this understanding in ethical behavior in public administration. It also means that one will make decisions based on the law, ethical principles, and public policy regardless of whether one personally agrees or disagrees with the resulting conclusion of those criteria. That an individual will also apply a similar criteria whether or not the decision will adversely impact their own personal interests or those of associates, friends, or family is also part of weight of ethical behavior.

Finally, in applying the ethical test rule, one must also accept responsibility and accountability in executing one’s duties. This means being diligent, constantly striving for excellence and improvement, leading by example, and to always represent the public interest. Note that ego, personal preference, opinion, or bias, self-interest, or other such concerns have no place in the ethical exercise of public administration.

So what does that mean for project management? The answer goes to the heart of whether one views himself or herself as a project manager or project monitor. In public administration the program manager has a unique set of responsibilities tied to the acquisition of technologies that is rarely replicated in private industry. Oftentimes this involves shepherding a complex effort via contractual agreements that involve large specialized businesses–and often a number of subcontractors–across several years of research and development before a final product is ready for production and deployment.

The primary role in this case is to ensure that the effort is making progress and executing the program toward the goal, ensuring accountability of the funds being expended, which were appropriated for the specific effort by Congress, to ensure that the effort intended by those expenditures through the contractual agreements are in compliance, to identify and handle risks that may manifest to bring the effort into line with the cost, schedule, and technical baselines, all the while staying within the program’s framing assumptions. In addition, the program manager must coordinate with operational managers who are anticipating the deployment of the end item being developed, manage expectations, and determine how best to plan for sustainability once the effort goes to production and deployment. This is, of course, a brief summary of the extensive duties involved.

Meeting these responsibilities requires diligence, information that provides actionable intelligence, and a great deal of subject matter expertise. Finding and handling risks, determining if the baseline is executable, maintaining the integrity of the effort–all require leadership and skill. This is known as project management.

Project monitoring, by contrast, is acceptance of information provided by self-interested parties without verification, of limiting the consumption and processing of essential project performance information, of demurring to any information of a negative nature regarding project performance or risk, of settling for less than an optimal management environment, and using these tactics to, euphemistically, kick the ball down the court to the next project manager in the hope that the impact of negligence falls on someone else’s watch. Project monitoring is unethical behavior in public administration.

Practice and Ethics in Project Management within Private Industry

The focus in private industry is a bit different since self-interest abounds and is rewarded. But there are ethical rules that apply, and which a business person in project management would be well-served to apply.

The responsibility of the executive or officers in a business is to the uphold the interests of the enterprise’s customers, its employees, and its shareholders. Oftentimes business owners will place unequal weighting to these interests, but the best businesses view these responsibilities as being in fine balance.

For example, aside from the legal issues, ethics demands that in making a commitment in providing supplies and services there are a host of obligations that go along with that transaction–honest representation, warranty, and a commitment to provide what was promised. For employees, the commitments made regarding the conditions of employment and to reward employees appropriately for their contribution to the enterprise. For stockholders it is to conduct the business in such as way as to avoid placing its fiduciary position and its ability to act as a going concern in avoidable danger.

For project managers the responsibility within these ethical constraints is to honestly assess and communicate to the enterprise’s officers project performance, whether the effort will achieve the desired qualitative results within budgetary and time constraints, and, from a private industry perspective, handle most of the issues articulated for the project manager in the section on public administration above. The customer is different in this scenario, oftentimes internal, especially when eliminating companies that serve the project management verticals in public administration. Oftentimes the issues and supporting systems are less complex because the scale is, on the whole, smaller.

There are exceptions, of course, to the issue of scaling. Some construction, shipbuilding, and energy projects approach the complexity of some public sector programs. Space X and other efforts are other examples. But the focus there is financial from the perspective of the profit motive–not from the perspective of meeting the goals of some public interest involving health, safety, or welfare, and so the measures of measurement will be different, though the need for accountability and diligence is no less urgent. In may ways such behavior is more urgent given that failure may result in the failure of the entire enterprise.

Yet, the basic issue is the same: are you a project manager or a project monitor? Diligence, leadership, and ethical behavior (which is essential to leadership) are the keys. Project monitoring most often results in failure, and with good reason. It is a failure of both practice and ethics.