Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Development of Valid Project Management Principles Requires Partnering with Project Managers

The upcoming several blogs will provide a brief overview of the new book: Becoming a Project Leader: Blending Planning, Agility, Resilience, and Collaboration to Deliver Successful Projects, to be published in 2017 by Palgrave. The book was written by the blog's co-authors Alex and Jeff in collaboration with Terry Little and Bruce Maas. These blogs will highlight the four roles assumed by successful project managers as depicted in the following figure:

Figure 1: The four roles of the project manager
Whereas the Industrial Revolution emphasized skill and task specialization, the current information revolution has led in the mid-1990s to the use of the project method as the predominant management strategy for structuring organizations. As summarized succinctly by Tom Peters in 1999, “All white-collar work today is project work.”1
Paradoxically, the sharp increase in the popularity of the project method has been accompanied by an increasing dissatisfaction with current project management results. As accurately summarized by the opening statement of a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review, "Projects fail at a spectacular rate.”2 This point was emphatically remade in a recent issue of the same journal: “Why don’t most project managers sound the alarm when they’re going to blow past their deadlines? Because most of them have no earthly idea when they’ll finish the job.”3 And why don’t they have any idea when they’ll finish? Because prevailing project management principles and practices were developed by the research community without intensively involving practitioners. As a result, their prescriptions are not only inadequate but also misleading.
In one of our previous blogs published January 2016 we shared the story of Jim Carroll, a VP of a large industrial organization, who was a member of a group of experienced practitioners at the Construction Industry Institute who developed a list of nine principles they believed essential for project success. Alex argued vehemently with Jim that these principles were inadequate. Failing to convince him, Alex asked Jim to go home and reflect on the projects he himself had led in the past, to see if applying the nine principles could explain the success or failure of these projects. To his great credit, Jim took this assignment very seriously and the following day he humbly told Alex that there was no correlation between the nine principles and the success and failure of his own past projects. The important message of this story is that even when experienced practitioners attempt to develop project management principles, they may fail unless they systemically reflect upon their own experience.
The overall objective of our research has been to develop practice-based principles for managing projects. Believing that management is best learned by emulating exemplary role models, we’ve based this book on more than two decades of research that has attempted to capture the proven practices of some of the most competent project managers. Toward this end, we’ve used multiple, complementary approaches to collect firsthand data on the practices of successful project managers, focusing our studies on a selective sample of the best practitioners in leading organizations.
Our first approach consisted of field studies and structured research tools, which included two-to-four-hour interviews and up to one-week-long observations of practitioners from various organizations such as AT&T, Bechtel, DuPont, General Motors, IBM, Motorola, PPL Electric Utilities, Procter & Gamble, and Turner Construction Company. Our second approach involved facilitating reflective dialogues among project team members. We collected most of the cases, stories, and practices through our role as the facilitators of the project management knowledge-development and knowledge-sharing communities in three organizations: NASA (five years), Procter & Gamble (three years), and Boldt (two years). Overall, more than 200 project managers from over 20 organizations participated in our studies. To make sure the principles we developed were a valid interpretation of the stories we had collected, we adopted a third approach: testing our interim results in real-life situations through consulting engagements.
Our intensive collaboration with the best practitioners enabled us to define the four primary roles of project managers (Figure 1) illustrated by four metaphors (Figure 2). In the following blogs we will expand each of these four roles.

Figure 2: Metaphors for the four roles of the project manager


1.  Peters, T. The Wow project. Fast Company 1999; April(24): p. 116.
2.  Lundin, R.A., Arvidsson, N., Brady, T., Ekstedt, E., Midler, C., and Sydow, J. Managing and Working in Project Society. 2015, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3.  Klein, G. Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review 2007; 85(9): p. 18-19.

Terry Little was program manager for over 25 years at the Department of Defense, and is considered by many to be the best program manager in recent DoD history. Mr. Little served as Executive Director of the Missile Defense Agency—the senior civilian in an organization of approximately 8,000 employees—while also directing the $14 billion Kinetic Energy Interceptor Program. Previously, he was the first director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence, which enhanced all acquisition activities through streamlining contracts, devising incentives, and overseeing contractors.

Bruce Maas is the Vice Provost for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Maas has served as the director of the EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute, the leading professional association for information technology in higher education, and he is presently serving as the board chair. He is also a member of the Internet2 External Relations PAG and Co-Chair of the Internet2 Global Summit Planning Committee. In addition, Maas is a member of the Board of Directors of Unizin and is serving a three-year term on the Board of Directors of IMS Global.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Leadership Development By Failure: A Case Study

This month we feature a story penned by Jeff Russell, co-executive director of the Consortium for Project Leadership at UW-Madison.  Excerpt:
... Experience is an ongoing process, and good leaders need to make the most of it. Some look but don’t see; some listen but don’t understand. As T.S. Eliot said, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”
Experience necessarily involves failures, and you certainly shouldn’t miss the meaning of those. Failures can prepare you to be a leader—as long as you take the time to reflect on them. When you’re reflective, you think about outcomes and impact. You develop judgment.
By “failing,” I don’t mean simply “making a mistake. Failing can involve falling short in a duty or an expected action. It can also refer to a situation in which you don’t make the most of an opportunity. I’m all too familiar with both scenarios and can speak from personal experience about the benefits of failure. ...

Read the rest of the story over at The Lifelong Learner blog.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

How a Pickup Truck Taught Us That Research Can’t Be Detached from Practice

In 2001, the British management business leader and philosopher Charles Handy vividly described the pace of change: “All of the world’s trade in 1949 happens in a single day today, all of the foreign exchange dealings in 1979 happen now in a single day, as do all the telephone calls made around the world in 1984. A year in a day is exactly how it feels sometimes.”1

In spite of these vast world changes, the theory of project management has remained largely unchanged. As noted by P.W.G. Morris: “Modern project management… emerged… in a period that was more inflexible and less complex and where events changed less rapidly than today…. It [the theory of project management] is in many respects still stuck in a 1960s time warp.”2   

Practitioners must recognize that the prevailing theories and the basic assumptions of their discipline have a great impact on their own thoughts and practices. Albert Einstein explained it very succinctly: “It is the theory that describes what we can observe.” Indeed, in his 2005 seminal article, Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices, Sumantra Ghoshal cites Kurt Lewin’s argument that “nothing is as practical as a good theory.” Ghoshal stresses, however, that the “obverse is also true: Nothing is as dangerous as a bad theory.”3 Management theory stuck in the 60s may not only be old and irrelevant, it may also adversely affect our performance in terms of cost, time table as well as quality.

If conventional methods of project management can exacerbate rather than alleviate project problems, then we should not be surprised to learn about the widespread poor statistics of project results. One key reason is that the research is detached from practice.4 Attempting to respond to this concern, Cicmil et al. suggest that “what is needed to improve project management practice is not more research on what should be done” but rather a better understanding of “the ‘actuality’ of project-based working and management.”5  

We attempted to follow this recommendation and to develop a “theory of practice” by studying the “actuality” of projects. However, as Alex learned in one of his first studies, learning from practice requires more than just going out to the field. In this study, Alex examined the factors affecting the optimal size of a construction crew. His list of factors was very elaborate, and included among others the worker's experience, foreman's training, and complexity of work.

He collected data via field interviews and on-site productivity measurements both in Texas and Israel. However, only after he completed collecting the data did he learn that he failed to include one simple but sometimes very crucial factor. It turned out that for some trades in Israel, the deciding factor for the size of the construction crew was no more nor less than the size of the pickup truck carrying the workers from their remote villages to the site. Literature surveys and field pre-testing of the interview guide were insufficient. Deep acquaintance with the phenomena under study is the key.

Only when the researcher acquires a rich and intimate knowledge of the subject, or when the practitioner serves as an active partner in helping the researcher formulate the right questions and design the right research tools, will any of us learn something meaningful.6

1.          C. Handy, (2002). The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 101.
2.          P.W.G. Morris (1994). The Management of Projects. London, UK: Thomas Telford  Services, p. 217.
3.          S. Ghoshal, (2005). Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices. Academy of Management Learning and Education 4, 1 (March): 75-91.
4.          Sandberg and H. Tsoukas (2011). Grasping the Logic of Practice: Theorizing Through Practical Rationality. The Academy of Management Review 36, 2: 338-360. 
5.          S. Cicmil, T. Williams, J. Thomas, and D. Hodgson (2006). Rethinking Project Management: Researching the Actuality of Projects. International Journal of Project Management 24, 8: 675-86.  
6.          Laufer, A. ASK Magazine, NASA, Issue 8 May 2002 http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20020070475.pdf

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Timing Is Crucial

In last month’s blog, Colonel Jeanne C. Sutton of the U.S. Air Force shared a story that reaffirmed the value of trusting your judgment. This month, we’re relying on her experiences once again, in clarifying the value of timing and quick action.

In this instance, Sutton found herself in a nervous state. She was just given a new assignment on short notice. To make matters worse, she found herself swamped, trying to complete projects from her previous job while doing her best to learn her new job.

After only two weeks in the new job, she was summoned downtown to her boss’ office. Upon arrival, Sutton was surprised to see that he had also invited three senior executives from the company that had been involved in her predecessor’s firing. They were cordial in their greetings and expressed support for her as the new program manager.

Then they began to brief her boss on everything that they thought was wrong with her office’s solicitation for a bid, and described Sutton’s staff’s actions in inflammatory terms. Her boss defended Sutton’s lack of background knowledge, but gave her multiple action items. She assured everyone she would get to the bottom of their concerns and get back to them. As Sutton recalls:

“Now, I had a quick decision to make. I could either sit back and smile benignly, playing puppet-on-a-string to both my boss and the contractor executives, or I could stake my claim as THE program manager and demand to work one-on-one with the contractor’s leadership to resolve issues at my level.

So, with a slam of my hand on the table, I informed the executives that I would not tolerate them running to my boss first and taking his valuable time for things I was hired to take care of. I shocked everyone, including my boss, with my directness. They never dared challenge my authority again.”

Sutton made certain they always got their answers, which kept her boss from being put on the spot again. The power relationship she established has paid off, and the program has benefited because issues are worked and resolved at her level before they become problems at a higher level.

Through her story Sutton shares a few key lessons:

·       Firmly and directly establish your power as leader. Anyone can raise any concern or complaint and expect proper response. However, you are responsible for the management of your project and that should be obvious.

·       When there is neither time nor data, leaders use their judgment to bypass in-depth analysis and move rapidly to a solution.

·       Timing is crucial. Competent leaders can sense when to pounce and when to pull back. At times, the most crucial thing is spontaneity of action.

The rationale that led Sutton to her quick reaction may be nicely explained by using the boiling frog analogy. According to the boiling frog tale, a frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough. If a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out.

The lesson of this tale is that people should make themselves aware of minor deviations, lest they suffer a major, often catastrophic, loss. Thus, to make sure that “they never dared challenge my authority again,” Sutton had to take the risk and react immediately and decisively

Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J., 2000. Project management success stories: Lessons of project leaders. Wiley, 111-112.