Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fractals and Management

In project management the theory is that we have some bad projects, but that in the main most projects are well run, on time, and on budget in all companies. In fact it's not even true for most companies. Why is that?

The project management discipline has been, in its modern critical path guise, around for over 50 years. So practice of that age should now be delivering repeatable and predictable results. The usual advice given to people on how to acquire a skill is: practice, practice, practice. Well we've been practicing project management for decades and yet we seem to be no better at it. Of course the unwritten assumption in the skill acquisition adage is that you're practicing the right thing!

If so many companies have problem projects then the question has to be why? The usual approach to answering this question is to conduct lessons learned sessions and then change procedures to ensure that it doesn't happen again. And yet it does! No amount of fiddling with methods, tools, or procedures seems to make things better.

Benoit Mandelbrot, Nobel Prize winner, developed the concept of fractal geometry. One of whose points is that as you magnify a given shape you see the same shape, and as you increase the magnification you see the same shape again.

So what as this to do with projects?

Well maybe it's not just the projects that are troubled. Look at the management level above the projects. Are they troubled? And are the layers of management above them also troubled. Like the fractal under the highest magnification maybe they are images of the layers above them. Projects will reflect the behaviors of the management system within which they exist. If top management is reactive and panicky then all the layers below them will exhibit the same attributes.

Bad management must be a systemic issue because if it weren't then good management would have exercised the practices from the body corporate.

So if you see a number of troubled projects don't just look at the individual projects, also look at the management milieu that they exist in. Look at he management chain and if you see fractals then you know you have a serious problem.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

PM and the Narrative

One of the key skills in politics is the ability to control the narrative. In other words how to control the story that is being told and understood about a particular issue. Whether it be Immigration, Syria, Financial reform, Climate change, politicians and other players in these issues are always striving to frame the issue in a way that is favorable to their agenda.
A classic example is the narrative told about the defeat of the German Army in WW1. According to the Nazi's the army was never defeated. Yet the true story was that at the end of 1918 they had been handed a series of defeats by the British, French, and American armies. They were in full retreat and their leaders were asking for an armistice. But that narrative was rarely heard in Germany. It was one of the enabling myths that led to the rise of Hitler and WW2.
The same skill is essential for project managers when it comes to how their project will be viewed within the company. For if you don't portray the correct story about your project others, your opponents will describe it in their terms. They will seize on any slippage in schedule or increase in budget to portray your project, and by association you, as a failure. Office gossip can tarnish your project. Remember that in the political sphere perception is everything. Recovering the situation once the narrative turns negative is very difficult.
The only way to avoid an erroneous opinion of your project is to make sure that you are constantly out there preaching the value of your project and the success it has achieved so far. In addition make sure that your team is also sending out the same message. Loose lips sink projects, to paraphrase a famous WW2 slogan. There is always someone on every project who loves recounting the latest setback in catastrophic terms. They use adjectives with careless abandon and paint everything in lurid tones. Find these people and sit in them. Start every team meeting with a brief recital of the benefits of the project and how much progress has been achieved. It is easy to get tied up in the toils of daily problems and forget the primary purpose of the project. It our job to make sure that doesn't happen.
Every situation has a narrative. You can rest assured that if you don't write it then someone else will, to your detriment.