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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Trust Your Judgment

Colonel Jeanne C. Sutton of the U.S. Air Force, a former chief of International Programs in the Acquisition/Theater Defense Deputate of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, had been appointed as a project manager three weeks earlier and only three weeks remained for her team to release a bid for a very complex project.

As she recalls, management mandated the simplifying and streamlining of solicitations but her staff was totally unable to put those requirements into practice. They could not free themselves from their usual way of doing things. They prepared a huge document written in mumbo-jumbo, telling bidders how to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. Sutton knew that it would be impossible for her to go through the entire document in the little amount of time that was available.

A good friend from outside her organization agreed to help. He quickly created a small team of “independent experts” to review the solicitation and to offer constructive suggestions. Despite the turgid text, they developed a list of critical areas that would significantly make the text more understandable and enable contractors to respond more intelligently and submit more attractive bids.

Sutton describes how she helped her team move forward given a formidable schedule:

“Of all the issues, I decided to take a stand on the program schedule. My staff established 17 firm deadlines over a 6-year period. I insisted that there be only two firm dates: project start and project completion. After all, any contractor worth his salt would know how best to go from start to finish.

They were stunned. I gave them a full two hours to rehash their argument that the only way to do the job was the way it had always been done. That was the tried and proven method. At the end of the two hours, I made my decision — there would be only two dates.”

During the following three days Sutton’s staff made more changes that reflected the ideas of the independent experts. She then gave them an additional day to incorporate the changes and to meet with her again for finalization and release.

On that day, they all assembled around the conference table with copies of the revised solicitation. Sutton asked if they felt that the new document  met her guidelines. One man, Tom, proudly gave her a copy for review and said, “Yes ma’am, the changes were made and we are ready.”

This was the test. She could have allowed them to release it and thereby show that she trusted them fully, but something still didn’t feel right. Sutton asked everyone to leave the room, except for Tom.

The first page she turned to in the revised solicitation was the schedule page. The multiple deadlines stood out like a sore thumb. Not saying a word, Sutton took her pen and crossed out every date between project start and finish, while looking sternly at Tom. She then asked if she had to go through the entire document to make sure all the changes had been made. Tom apologized profusely and assured her that no other changes had to be made. Sutton rose and walked out of the room and never mentioned the incident to anyone.

Sutton’s professional interactions with Tom didn’t stop here. As she says:

“Several months later, we were faced with another issue that demanded an immediate response. It was extremely critical and needed the most careful planning. Some of my best people, who would have done a great job, volunteered to lead the project — but not Tom. Since that embarrassing incident, he had studiously avoided me.

I deliberately picked Tom for the project. He was happy she did, because this gave him a chance to prove himself. And he sure did. Tom did an extraordinary job. Today he is one of the best people on my staff and my most ardent admirer.”

Through her story Sutton shares a few key lessons about that interwoven fabric of trust and judgment.

·       Trust does not recognize organizational boundaries. You may trust your contractor, you may distrust your employees, and you may be right in both cases.

·       There are situations, however, where the most important element to trust, is your own judgment.

·       After a key team member has failed you, give him or her a quick opportunity to rebound. This gives the person the chance to reestablish his or her capability and relationship with you. 

Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J., 2000. Project management success stories: Lessons of project leaders. Wiley, 109-110.