A Complementary Approach
B. Michael Aucoin (Author)
Publication date: 05/01/2007
A Complementary Approach
About the Author
B. Michael Aucoin is the President of Leading Edge Management, LLC, and Electrical Expert, Inc., located in College Station, Texas. He provides corporate training in project management and engineering management, drawing upon his extensive experience in the management of diverse technology projects and his skill in training. He also provides forensic consulting and litigation support in electrical engineering, including expert witness consulting.
Dr. Aucoin has experience in electric power, energy management, energy strategy, project management, and engineering management. He has worked for large and small technology companies, and has been a university researcher and lecturer. Projects he has worked on have been recognized with the R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine and the Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award from the National Society of Professional Engineers. Dr. Aucoin is also a recipient of a Third Millennium Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as well as an IEEE Working Group Award as co-editor of an electric power tutorial course. He is the author of From Engineer to Manager: Mastering the Transition (Artech House, 2002).
Dr. Aucoin received a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Science from the University of New Orleans, a Master of Engineering in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University, and a Doctor of Engineering from Texas A&M. He is a Registered Professional Engineer in Texas and has earned the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification from the Project Management Institute.
What’s Wrong with Project Management?
If you want to make God laugh, have a definite plan.
Sam, the project manager, had a “deer in the headlights” look as she prepared to address the stakeholder meeting and deliver more bad news.
Her project, like many of her peers’ projects, was late and over budget. Finishing the project would likely require that some features be abandoned or deferred. Sam felt bad about how things had gone astray and feared that the stakeholders would decide to terminate her project.
She began to speak. “Let us start with the status of the project and then talk about where to go from here.”
In this book, we will do just that: we will talk about the status of the project (and, by extension, project management) and where to go from here.
For too many projects and too many project managers, Sam’s story is familiar. As someone who provides training in project management, it is a story that I sadly hear all too often.
But, First ... What’s Right with Project Management
To begin talking about what is wrong with project management, let us first say that a lot is right with project management.
Every year, numerous projects are completed to the satisfaction of stakeholders and team members. These projects often proceed to conclusion without trauma; many other projects hit close to the mark with relatively little trouble.
Some projects even surpass all expectations and accomplish the truly remarkable. Such efforts deserve close study to discover the source of their energy, and we will spotlight examples of these projects in this book.
Clearly, effective management of projects, while elusive, is attainable.
There is much reason to celebrate these project management successes. If one gives any deference to either Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong, will go wrong) or Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics (the universe tends toward disorder), then any effort that overcomes these laws to accomplish something of value is a testament to human ingenuity, will, and industry.
Notwithstanding the project management successes, we all know that lots of projects are train wrecks. Of course, in any statistical population of performances, there will be those that underperform the mean. Nevertheless, this situation should not be acceptable to those who invest their time or money in troubled projects. While we cannot realistically expect every project to be phenomenal, it is reasonable to expect that every project will at least meet agreed-upon goals.
The prevalence of troubled projects suggests to many that if project management cannot produce success more reliably, then something is wrong with project management. “It is no exaggeration to claim that project management as a discipline is in crisis ....”1
Let us say simply that the overall impression of projects and project management is that they are disappointing. There is typically a mismatch between what is expected of projects, project managers, and project management, and what they actually deliver. This mismatch can be viewed from three perspectives:
• Expectations are unreasonable.
• Performance is not sufficient.
• Both expectations and performance are out of line.
Many who manage or execute projects in today’s Church of Real World Projects will eagerly stand and shout “Amen” to the proposition that expectations on projects are unreasonable. Project teams are expected to work miracles with unproven technologies on a blazingly fast schedule with the barest of resources, not to mention with team members who have never met because they are scattered around the globe.
This approach might work if a successful outcome were somehow guaranteed. However, with increasing expectations comes increasing uncertainty that the outcome will meet those expectations. These expectations also reduce the likelihood that the project will finish at all.
Depending on one’s perspective, a case can be made either way about the reasonableness of expectations on projects. Although it is appropriate to be realistic about what can be achieved, the topic eventually leads to a dead end for a simple reason: it is ultimately a moot point.
It is certainly possible, and perhaps likely, that expectations are unreasonable. It is also unlikely, however, that individuals with the power to make decisions will lower their expectations.
Humans have an innate and endearing preoccupation with greener grass. Someone, possibly the folks in the marketing department, will salivate over the opportunity to promise something faster, better, or cheaper—or better yet, all three. Project sponsors, customers, and upper management are typically willing partners in the quest for the impossible or merely unlikely.
If there is little that can be done to push back on expectations, project managers and teams have two options.
The first option is to say no. Perhaps a widespread project worker strike would convince those with unrealistic expectations to back off, but such a strike is not likely to happen. Individual project workers may say enough!—but it will likely be to the detriment of their careers. Faced with such negative consequences, the second choice, and the one taken by the vast majority of people, is to grit your teeth and soldier on.
While it may be tempting to assign all the blame for substandard project performance to excessive expectations, we must also conclude that the way project management is practiced leaves something to be desired. Consider the following statistics.
In its 2004 survey of 10,640 projects, PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that only 2.5 percent of companies achieve budget, scope, and schedule targets on all projects.2
The 2004 Standish Group survey of information technology (IT) projects indicated that only 34 percent of such projects succeed while 15 percent fail completely and 51 percent are challenged with budget overruns, late delivery, or reduced benefits.3 Nevertheless, this performance is a considerable improvement over previous experience for the ten years that Standish has conducted the survey.
It is reasonable to conclude that mediocre performance has come to be expected as the experience of project management in organizations.
Perhaps there is an interaction between unrealistic expectations and mediocre performance. I once had a supervisor who stated that he took any project schedule estimates given by a subordinate and automatically cut them in half. His rationale was that engineers and software specialists were always purposely pessimistic in their estimates to avoid having to stretch their limits. I was glad we had that little conversation, because from that time forward, I automatically doubled or tripled any estimate I gave him.
The consequences of project failures and disappointments are significant. In a revealing analysis, Oak Associates applied the results of the Standish survey to financial performance.4 The impact of typical survey performance as compared with completing all projects successfully is an astonishing 58 percent reduction in sales and a 92 percent reduction in profit!
To restate, if performance on the failed and underperforming projects were improved so that all projects performed as expected, the gain in sales would be 136 percent and the improvement in profit would be an unbelievable 1135 percent!
It is amazing that companies can stay in business with mediocre project performance. It is also no wonder that organizations have a sense of disappointment in project management.
As shocking as these numbers are, perhaps the greatest effect of poor performance reaches beyond the business bottom line. When projects fail to meet financial and performance targets, morale suffers collateral damage. The most common intangible impacts are staff cynicism and negative cultural effects.5 Considerable stress is associated with projects that go poorly, and the effects can become additive. These consequences have a profound impact on the company environment and a detrimental effect on subsequent project work.
Companies that experience project failures also report that their relationships with customers suffer through decreased customer satisfaction or loss of competitive advantage.
Rules ... and More Rules
What is being done about project performance?
The majority of suggestions and recommendations in the project management community aimed at improving performance involve implementing better standard project management processes. This approach focuses on improving the maturity of project processes used in planning and executing the project.
Without a doubt, maturation of project processes is valuable and worthwhile, and it has been proven to increase the effectiveness of project performance. The downside of this approach is that it takes time and effort to make these improvements. Consider a widely used measure of maturity, the Capability Maturity Model developed by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Using this measure, the median maturity level across industries is level two,6 with level five being the highest level. The survey that determined this median concluded that there is “… a relatively low degree of project management maturity across industries.”7 For an organization to improve by one level in the maturity progression requires “a very concerted effort”8 and may take a year or more.
Insights abound about the problems and limitations of project management as it is practiced in organizations today. Fundamentally, it may be helpful to think about rewriting the rules.
Before we consider rewriting the rules, however, it is useful to take a look at some different perspectives on what is troubling project management. Why do so many people perceive that project management is failing to meet the mark? Four observations can shed some light.
Where Are the “Jump Out of Bed” Projects?
One of the primary reasons for high expectations on projects is that “... projects are important vehicles for implementing corporate strategy and effecting change.”9 While this explains the expectations, something else is at work here.
Observation 1: Most projects lack a compelling motivation.
Projects, and organizations, often fail to work on what is really important.
If you ask project stakeholders for the justification for their project, they will likely refer to customer requirements or financial benefits. There is nothing wrong with such reasons, and they are absolutely necessary.
But, as the timeless song says, “Is that all there is?”
Would projects be more successful if teams felt that what they were doing was critical to someone? Would teams be more motivated if they felt some strong emotional push to achieve the end results?
The motivation we’re talking about here is not just the rational “I know this is in my best interest” type of reasoning. The motivation we seek is the impetus to get out of bed in the morning and get into the office because the project is that important.
It may come as a bit of a shock that organizations often do not work on what is really important. This is not to trivialize the projects that are done and the products they produce. It is simply an observation that project management, strategic management, and portfolio management do an inadequate job of establishing a compelling reason for the projects selected.
What do we mean by a compelling reason for the project? This justification is far more than the benefits to the customer and the financial benefits to the organization. The key issues are: What is it about a project that makes us eager to work on it? What will make us want to drop everything to work on this project? What will provide a satisfying reward for everyone at the end of the project?
Projects are often executed distantly removed from the “soul” of the organization (if the organization can be said to have a soul). This is largely a result of the misperception that project management is simply a method for executing a company’s operations.10
If the overall company strategy can be considered the soul of the company, project managers and their projects are often considered cogs in the machine, not prime movers. This perspective is illustrated in the PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey: organizational considerations caused 59 percent of project failures.11 If projects are important, why do organizations fail to support them well?
Make Sense ... and Make Success
Organizations do an inadequate job of establishing a common understanding in project teams and stakeholders of where the project is going. In project management circles, this is frequently cited as poor communication. Good communication and common understanding are critical to project success, and poor communication is a pervasive problem.
While many reasons contribute to the difficulty encountered in reaching a common understanding of project goals, it seems that what is commonly called poor communication is better approached as difficulty in making sense of the project.
Observation 2: Projects and organizations have a hard time making sense of the project.
While communication processes and techniques are important, in reality the difficulty in communication comes largely from two sources. First, poor communication is really a symptom of the lack of compelling motivation. Second, project stakeholders pay far too little attention to the processes of communication on a project.
The distinction between communication and sense-making is important and valuable. A focus on communication implies that early in the project there exists a definite and reliable embodiment of what everyone is working on, presumably what is described in the customer requirements or specifications. While this may be true for some projects, it is often a fallacious assumption.
In reality, many projects are commissioned with an evolving understanding of the end point. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, but it becomes a huge problem if everyone involved doesn’t understand this reality. The project processes must be consciously designed and executed to accommodate this evolving understanding.
Improvement in communication focuses on technique; sensemaking focuses on collectively developing and understanding the end point. Conventional communication remedies are predominantly aimed one way: to enhance the team’s knowledge of the documented end point. This is the perspective illustrated in the famous line by the prison “captain” in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Sense-making assumes that everyone on the team has a valuable perspective to bring to the table. It is this network of the team in conjunction with the customer, sponsor, and stakeholders that together identifies and then creates the solution.
Observation 3: Project teams struggle with complexity and ambiguity, as well as with pressures to resolve these issues quickly.
Contemporary projects are affected to a significant degree by complex and ambiguous issues. Many projects attempt to incorporate unproven technologies. Other projects commit to specific results with only a rudimentary definition of what is to be accomplished. Virtual teams are assembled with no history of experience together. Overlaid on these complexities is usually a tight schedule and a paucity of resources.
These issues of complexity, ambiguity, and time pressure greatly exacerbate problems of making sense. It is no wonder that most teams vacillate between two approaches: running hard and hoping to figure it out, and being frozen by the incomprehension of it all.
Project managers are typically taught to take steps to lower project risks. Accordingly, a common approach is to attempt to eliminate complexity and ambiguity. However, this approach is not compatible with the real world.
None of us is clairvoyant. Even the most thoughtful, enlightened planning process will not eliminate the unknown or unforeseen. To believe that we can “control” the future through planning is folly. We are better off accepting this reality and adapting accordingly.
If the environment at the start of a project is uncertain, the appropriate approach is to accept—and adapt to—the complexity and ambiguity. Adaptation requires agility. Unfortunately, however, many processes in an organization work against agility.
To a large extent, conventional project management is the application of rules (and to an increasing extent bureaucracy) with the aim of establishing predictability. In many cases, this approach is important and necessary, but it stifles the ability of teams to be quick and creative.
Organizations generally do not fully take advantage of the creativity and agility of their teams. This creativity is essential to dealing with complexity, ambiguity, and time pressure. Clearly, project teams need tools to access creative skills successfully and to use them effectively for project success.
In conventional project management, much attention is directed to the uncertainties and risks that are inherent to the product of the project, and relatively little to the interpersonal uncertainties. In many cases, little can be done up front about the former. But by directly and deliberately addressing the interpersonal uncertainties, the team develops the ability to greatly improve its handling of the product uncertainties.
Limitations of Standard Approaches
As with just about any human activity, improvements can be made in project performance. The relevant question is, “Which methods will provide the benefits we seek with a reasonable effort?”
Peruse a project management bookshelf and you will find all sorts of prescriptions for improving management performance. Numerous courses are available to improve various aspects of project performance. The options available are dizzying.
The vast majority of these methods are founded on a common theme: improvement in the execution of the rules that embody project management processes. This approach is entirely valid and beneficial, and it has been proven time and again to be helpful in project performance.
Yet many in the project management community express the sense that these methods don’t quite scratch the itch. What is needed is not just another rule-based approach. What is needed is an entirely new approach that does not discount, but instead takes advantage of, all the benefits of existing rule-based project management methods.
What Is Missing?
What is it that separates the wildly successful projects from those that fail, or those that are merely mediocre? Is it mature project processes? Good documentation? A skillful and charismatic project manager?
While these ingredients can be helpful, they still may not be sufficient.
The fundamental problem with project management is what is missing, and what is missing is life, what is missing is people.
We need to breathe life into projects. Life animates—an individual, a team, a project, or a company. Giving life to a project involves making it more human.
When was the last time you described a project as being full of life?
Most projects in organizations are approached robotically, based solely on financial projections, specifications, and earned value. These ingredients are absolutely necessary to satisfy the business requirements of any project. But is that all there is? “When a Boeing engineer talks about launching an exciting and revolutionary new aircraft, she does not say, ‘I put my heart and soul into this project because it would add 37 cents to our earnings per share.’”12
Observation 4: Project management has enough domain tools. What is needed now for project success are maturity, social skills, and passion.
The significant issues on projects involve people. These issues either give life to the project or drain life from it. “[T]echnical project management tools and methods are so well developed and widely used that it is time to turn the focus on developing leadership skills.”13
Here is where this book comes in.
Where does life come from on a project? Where do we find the tools for mastery of the complex project? The answer to these questions is the right brain.
The inherent objective of any project is to bring smiles to the faces and pride to the hearts of all those associated with the project. The key to achieving this objective is the right brain.
The right brain provides access to the compelling motivation that projects need for success. We connect and communicate most effectively with other team members and stakeholders through the right brain, which is the way we tap creativity. The right brain has an amazing capability to handle complex, ambiguous problems and to make decisions quickly on incomplete, “intuitive” information using its impressive processing power.
The right brain is the vehicle for making the transition from existing rules that are limited in their effectiveness for contemporary projects, to discovering and applying new approaches that are more suited for the world as it is. In essence, the right brain holds the key for moving from conventional project management approaches to a more effective, complementary project management style.
Our abilities to work collaboratively with others depends to a large extent on right-brain processing, not the least of which is how we process information and situations that have a moral component. The ability to act according to the welfare of others guides effective teamwork and leadership, which are crucial to projects in organizations.
But more than all this, the right brain is the door through which we embark upon and fulfill the personal development needed to overcome the formidable challenges of today’s projects. In short, the right brain is uniquely equipped to tackle all the challenging issues faced by contemporary project management.
Unfortunately, the right brain is commonly not understood, and is therefore treated with skepticism; its capabilities are ignored or avoided. The irony is that we all use the right side of our brains, knowingly or not.
This is not to say that project management should rely entirely on the right brain. Not only is that not possible, but it is not desirable: left-brain approaches are equally valuable and needed.
Those who integrate right- and left-brain approaches to project management will realize many benefits on an individual level; research and experience demonstrate that an integrated approach also offers valuable business benefits. To practice right-brain project management, you won’t need extensive training. In fact, you learned long ago how to put your right brain to work.
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