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You Have To Let the Project Break So You Can Prove Yourself By Fixing It

Men of Fort Story operate an azimuth instrument, to measure the angle of splash in sea-target practice. 1942. (reversed)

Why do project managers have to create crises on projects to prove that the risk management steps you took are paying off? It’s very common in project environments. The project manager who scrambles to get things done, who stays late to get things fixed, who has problem after problem that gets the attention of management but who then gets things accomplished, albeit a bit late seems to get the promotions.

“There’s a go-getter who gets things done!” goes the cry from the executive office.

If you do your job as a project manager, you almost never have these issues because you balance the risks properly. But that will never get you promoted in most environments because your manager doesn’t think you’re doing any work/. Getting superior results is almost always irrelevant.

Similar problems happen in the military, too. A general who never actually fights because he prevents war is never considered as highly as the one who goes to war and then wins, even when the superior general wins before the fighting starts.

Bob Colwell touched on this several years ago in an article for IEEE Computer. (“Engineers as Soothsayers“, Computer, 37(9):6-9 [2004]) He had been Intel’s chief IA32 architect for years and had a technical expert’s inner view of the workings of what you would think was a technical company.

Not as much as you would think.

In 1996, Colwell had successfully brought in a large effort that led to the Pentium P6. One of the things he did was anticipate problems that had plagued other chip manufacturers. He hired ten extra workers who had experience in it because he believed it would allow him to find the problems before they exploded and deal with them early. He sat down with an Intel executive reviewing the project, who pointed that Colwell had done the hired and that part “came out right.”

I thought, Yes, that’s right, you should praise my foresight. I saved you a lot of money, and you’re lucky you have me on your team.

But then he said, “Looks like you didn’t need them after all.” I was staggered. What? No! They are the reason it came out right! He just smiled. I wasn’t smiling.

Michael Raynor might say that Colwell was attempting to create strategic options (having the experts on staff) that might not be required to put into play.

There are a couple of issues in play here. One is the difference between what Warren Kinston calls the “Organizational Life” domain of work and the “Disciplinary” domain. One is normal organizational workers and managers. The other are experts in a particular technical discipline.

They just aren’t going to understand each other because they using words in different ways when they talk about work.

The other issue is one of time span of discretion of the job roles and time horizon of the individuals. Colwell was anticipating a problem that may not have displayed for a long time. He could see that this was an issue. The executive couldn’t. He lacked both the knowledge of the domain, because he wasn’t a technical expert, and the time horizon necessary to foresee what potential issues might be that would require options.

Of course, as Mark Van Clieaf once pointed out to me in an email:

we also need to distinguish between

Time-span for planning and
Time-span for decision discretion (accountability)

two separate measures

Elliott Jaques, who discovered Time Span of Discretion, said that delegating the planning function was anathema (OK, he just said it was stupid and shouldn’t be done). The late Harald Solaas (who is sorely missed) wrote about Jaques comments to him during the late 1990s about this issue. He said that Jaques was clear: someone who is only accountable for putting together a plan only requires a time horizon of the time-span of the task. They don’t need a time horizon of four years for a three year long project. Time span measures the extent of the freedom and accountability.

So what can you do when you encounter this at work?

This may sound mad, but people who are successful know how to play the game. And here the game requires things to break. You need to have crises that you then step in and solve, looking like a hero. (Yes, this does sound like organizational Münchausen syndrome.)

Think about the definition of success in reality. It’s not “get this project done on-time and within budget” but “show us that you handle emergencies”.

And if you’re a manager who is in charge of project managers, don’t be an idiot.

[I’ve replied to the comments is at “If Your Boss Doesn’t Want You Preventing Problems, What Is Ethical To Do?“]

Image credit: Men of Fort Story operate an azimuth instrument, to measure the angle of splash in sea-target practice. 1942. Via Library of Congress. (reversed)

About

E. Forrest Christian is a consultant and writer with The Manasclerk Company who helps executive-level managers and experts translate their complex knowledge into products and materials that non-experts like clients and buyers understand. He has worked in functions as varied as web security, ghost writing, requisite organization, executive coaching, software design, environmental compliance, documentation, enterprise architecture, ISO 9001 and training. He even developed one of the earliest catalog websites in 1994 and has held certifications in IT security (CISSP), training and hazmat response. Forrest lives and works in the outer edge of the Chicago metro area in Valparaiso, Indiana.  [contact]

There are 7 comments .

Paul Holmstrom

This reminds me of a former client, a very competent and capable project manager. He moved to another company, took over a large sub-project with delivery 8 months later. He did a rapid audit of the sub-project and forecast that it would deliver two months late if issues were not addressed.

Big hulla-baloo. His boss and other sub-project leaders were even scornful. However, he had pinpointed the issues and delivered on time without additional resources, whereas all other sub-projects delivered 2-3 months after schedule.

Forrest Christian

The original draft for this came from years back. What is surprising is that there has been recent talk about how executives need to start getting hold of projects and managing the project managers because project management has already taken over the working of their companies. So after the horse is out, let’s think about figuring out how to keep the stable doors closed.

Paul, I have to ask: what happened to the people involved? Did he get anything for this?

Forrest Christian

I wonder how much of this is just the Scotty Principle at play. Which was best developed in a long essay by a chip fab engineer who detailed the entire long chain of padding required because the technical god was four or five removed from the C suite.

JP —

“This may sound mad, but people who are successful know how to play the game.”

It’s not mad, it just immoral.

You just need to accept that by doing the right thing, you will be passed over.

Isn’t character what you are in the dark?

Forrest Christian

JP, what is the right thing if not to do the thing that the company is paying you to do? (Ruling out breaking basic moral code.) If the company is rewarding firefighters who let things go wrong, then this is what the hierarchy wants.

If you are leading this group of people on the project, and you don’t allow the fires to grow that they can then fight and thereby gain the attention of those who can promote them or give them better pay, you aren’t working for your people.

What do you do when your boss comes to you and tells you to do something that you know isn’t going to work? Do you acquiesce and try to prepare for the inevitable failure? Or do you keep on complaining?

What about the Scotty Principle? IF you tell Capt. Kirk the truth — that you can hit Warp 9 pretty much any time you want but it’s really bad on the dilithium crystal enclosures and they take your team a month of full time work to exchange — he will want to travel at Warp 9 all the time because that’s what he’s like and the ship will sooner or later either have to be taken out of commission for repairs way too early or will end up being stranded out in the middle of the Gamma Quadrant because they all blew at the same time. (See Mr. Murphy for more.)

I’ve been there. I had to spend $500,000 to do something stupid that we know would fail as part of RBAC rollout for an international bank because the boss demanded it. He couldn’t back down once he said it because that would have cost him face, even though it was impossible due to known constraints in the connection between the two. (That pesky speed of light!) It was only when it failed in production that he could finally blame us (“idiot technical nerds!”) that we could finally implement what we all knew was all that would work.

Is it more ethical to waste the shareholders’ money and in the end bring down a major system, costing the bank another few million in lost revenues, and obey him? Or would it have been more ethical to lead him to believe that we were doing what he asked and in the end never do it, but do what would work?

These are not easy issues. But we do have to keep in mind that the company is paying someone above us as project managers who has created this environment, so this is what the company wants. The shareholders elect the board that is responsible for the CEO who is responsible for everyone under his or her command. This is therefore the system that they approve.

And the reality may be that you see too far for the roile in which you work. You foresee problems that your manager does not. Since he cannot foresee them because his time horizons are too short or because he cannot resolve all the complexity of the issues out that far, he has no interest in paying you to do that work. Often, you will be told NOT to solve the future problems. Work on them, prevent them, and you will be disobeying a command, so to speak, and at least here can be quickly fired for insubordination, and so by lose any severance or access to any post-firing benefits.

Who do we serve? Is it The Company, whatever that is? Is it the manager we report to? Is it the people who are under my management? Is it my family? Is The Profession? Is it my own ego?

I’m not saying it’s the right situation. A naturally organized company has clear authorities and accountabilities, especially in projects. This madness doesn’t happen. If I can, this is what I would create for my people so that they can be free to show me everything they have. I want things clear so that people aren’t in these moral binds where they have to do bad work.

Paul Holmstrom

There are probably two sides to this. One ethical, the other capability.

I have had the privilege of working with career development for project managers at one of the largest state authorities in Sweden. I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing several very capable project managers of very large infrastructure projects. None of them had the shoot-from-the-hip attitude that you describe. When we worked out descriptors for good work and risk signals they were very aware of the risk in the behaviours you describe when you root them out.

As to unethical people higher up in the organisation the only solution is to leave so as not to get corrupted oneself. I have left companies twice for not sharing the ethics of a higher manager. As there was no crisis I did not have to act quickly. Thought about the issues seriously and started looking.

As a consultant I occasionally come across a potential client whose ethics I do not share. After leaving the initial meeting I hoped that they would not call back so that I would not have to explain. Worked every time. Probably because I did not seem as interested and engaged as I should have been.

Forrest Christian

I updated this ethics discussion in a newer post If Your Boss Doesn’t Want You Preventing Problems, What Is Ethical To Do?.

The dilemma for project managers isn’t caused by unethical companies, simply by ones that are poorly run. In a company where managers are incapable of judging someone’s work effort (or not allowed to) displays that can be easily understood are often used as proxies. In project management, this is often Working Hard, which is almost always seen as spending long hours and constantly fighting fires. If you have no emergencies because you take care of the issues before they explode, you will never be seen doing heroics.

This is common in software in which managers — because they are so often incapable of using the conceptual language that makes up the basis of modern programming — often have no idea how to judge performance. They see a project manager who calmly goes through his day taking care of business in an organized and intelligent way and think, “Well, he’s not working that hard: he must have had an easier project.”

They see the overwhelmed PM who keeps running from one falling apart thing to another (actually running, usually) and think, “Here’s a guy who is really dedicated.”

People in poorly run companies get promoted or even not fired by attracting attention to their work ethic. If the company values people who fight fires, you will need to let some fires burn in order to keep your job.

All too often a great PM who keeps things moving smoothly will get fired, then replaced by one of those “can-do” fire-fighters. When the projects then go south, the old PM gets the blame for not having created the right systems. Or something. But he is the one who will get the blame.

In this reality, you can try to leave the company but you may not be able to. The reality in the States is that if you have a sick kid or an illness yourself, you can’t afford to rock the boat because if you get fired, you will have a massively expensive insurance premium, if you can get it after your COBRA option runs out. The reality of my society forces us into these ethical binds quite often. If you can walk away, great. But lots of people in the US simply can’t and keep their family taken care of.

There isn’t a good answer to this. In the end, you have to protect your family and if you have no other options, you have to at least learn to put on the displays that your boss believes he is paying for.

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