Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire – Laura Dribin

Give a man a fire and he’s warm for the day. But set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Terry Pratchett

Everyone wants to be a hero.  Children dream of joining the fire department to fight fires or police department to save a life.  We love heroes.  We give them awards, we sing their praises. 

Even when a business runs into problems, they look for some employee(s) to be heroic and save the day.  And often this is how large strategic initiatives are pulled out of the flames.  In fact, some companies are always in firefighting mode using their heroic employee(s) to “fix” the fires. 

Superhero Business Woman with tablet

Fighting fires is no way to run a business.  Putting out a fire is way more expensive than implementing safe consistent practices that utilize fire alarms and fire extinguishers to minimize risk.  Putting out fires is tremendously disruptive and the after affects can linger long after the fire is extinguished. 

Let’s use a scenario.  You have a wood burning fireplace in your house.  There is no covering over your fireplace to keep the cinders contained. One cold night, you decide to enjoy the warm, cozy fire, but you leave your house to grab some brandy for a hot toddy. While you are out, the cinders spread, start a fire and burn down your house.  Fire fighters come and put out the fire. There is quite a bit of damage.  No worries, your insurance help you to rebuild.  So you build a new house with a new wood burning fireplace. Do you use a cover to protect your house?  What about fire extinguishers or smoke alarms or escape plans for your family?  Or do you rely on your heroes, home insurance and fire department, to mitigate all risks?  It doesn’t make sense, right? So what sense does it make for a business to consistently rely on heroes to save the day?

I looked up the job description for a fire fighter and what I found was extremely interesting.  Out of 10 task descriptions, only 1 actually forces them into extinguishing a fire.  The remaining nine descriptions involve best practices, governance, continuing improvements and education.  http://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/recruiting-hiring-advice/job-descriptions/firefighter-job-description.aspx  

Firefighter and Lieutenant helmets

So why do so many companies rely on heroes to fix their problems? I know that every now and then, there is a fire in a company that needs everyone to scramble and may need that hero to successfully complete that task. But too many businesses make this the norm.  I believe that heroes become a crutch for businesses and a symptom of an organization in a reactive mode (of firefighting) rather than a proactive mode of driving the company’s direction. 

As I speak with my clients and potential clients, I am no longer surprised when someone conveys to me that their best project manager is hero-like.  I am often pointed to the heroes that seem to excel at getting the job done right.  The project they are running has a big issue that may result in the project failing and the “heroic” project manager ends up pulling the project out of the burning building. 

I am not a believer in heroes in business.  Too often I find that the “hero” might have saved the project from failure but what isn’t addressed is that they also may have caused the fire in the first place.  Leadership sees that the hero knocked down walls and moved mountains to fix the problem and saved the day.  Yet, at the time that the hero is saving the day, no one is realizing that if the hero had worked through their preventative process (better planning process and methodology), the problem might not have occurred.  (Remember, fire fighters have 9 process improvement tasks and only one firefighting task.)  When heroes are fighting fires, often someone will get burned.  Long hours, stressful periods of time, finger pointing….

One of the largest programs that I ever worked on earlier in my career was an eye opener.  The program was huge and budgeted at $100 million.  We worked hard to properly plan and then proceeded to a risk management plan.  We came up with contingency plans for the risks that seemed most likely.  We even put cut-over dates in our plans for the contingency plans.  Fast forward, this huge complicated program had some smoke alarms going off but any major fire was prevented by switching directly to the contingency plan with little fanfare.  If something happened, we already had worked through how we would deal with it.  (This versus the hero mode of something happening and then all hands on deck to try and figure out how to address it while the fire was burning.  )   In the end, one of the key stakeholders said that this program was so easy.  They didn’t see why they needed a program manager.  This effort was non heroic in their eyes because fire prevention is less visible than firefighting.

A well run organization should not be in a constant need for heroic actions.  It should be striving for a process that minimizes the need for heroes.  Consistency in how a company delivers.  Governance, process, thoughtful strategic execution.

So long story short, I challenge all C-Level executives out there to make a resolution for 2017 that you will focus more on creating best practices around how you deliver value.  You may be surprised as to your value proposition at the end of the year. Think of your business mascot as Smokey the Bear and remember, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

Better a thousand times careful than once dead.   Proverb

 

 

The Brady bunch of Strategic Execution: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!

I often feel like Peritius is the Jan Brady of the business world:

  • Highly ignored,
  • always getting blamed when something goes wrong,
  • not glamorous and
  • getting the “left over” attention.

Peritius works on the execution side of strategy. We take the pretty, highly coifed strategy and we drive out the desired results.  I know that sounds like I’m whining but…. I’m JAN.

Marcia is strategy.  Sexy, smart and people are always throwing attention (in business…money) at her. If you are a successful strategy consulting company (you know who I’m talking about), money flows at your feet to help organizations define their strategic vision.  Money is no object.  Don’t forget…Marcia is sexy. Everyone wants to be Marcia.  She’s exciting.

MarciaMarcia_Large

In Jan’s world, she is often overlooked. Jan is dull.  Just a necessary evil in drafting up that wonderful Marcia strategy.  A cog in the wheel.  In other words, “Jans” are considered a dime a dozen.  Who cares about Jan? Jan’s role plays a far second to Marcia.  If Jan doesn’t get the attention she needs and  people don’t understand her role in the whole scheme of things, it usually translates to a poor implementation of the strategy.

Without an effective implementation of the strategic plan that your company spent so much money on, it becomes a futile exercise. Seen that too often.  Millions of dollars spent and results that never got companies where they expected.

Yet, here is the newest rub. Some of the Tier One strategic consultancies are now getting more involved in execution.  Marcia sees that to grow, she needs to branch out into Jan’s space. (See what I’m saying???)

But these are two different skill sets that aren’t easily translated. Strategy has the attention of executive management.  This  small group spends millions and freely gives the consultants the latitude to do their thing.

Implementation is more about working with the lower echelons of the organization.   The Jans.  People skills become much more critical in this world.  You don’t have carte blanche to make things happen because you have the masses that don’t always play along.  Implementation is more about making your way into everyone’s life when they don’t “see” you and finding a way to still get what you need to happen.  We have seen organizations try and play in each other’s space and seldom succeed.  Marcias make things happen by dating the football quarterback.  Jans get things done by pushing harder.

So I’m okay remaining Jan. Look how she came out.  In later years, Jan was a smart business woman and held her own.

They both have their own roles in life and business. Face it.  Where would Marcia be without Jan?  Without both of them in the picture, there would be far fewer good story lines.

Laura

Project Management is “Broke”

You might know the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, it’s definitely broke, but no one is fixing it. Just look around. Overall, most organizations have a terrible track record of delivering their strategic initiatives successfully (on time, on budget and within scope). But even when it is delivered successfully, that doesn’t guarantee success. Success includes getting the organization to adapt and adopt the new results. How can you legitimately deem a completed project a success without those two things? The fact of the matter is that the practice of project management as it currently stands fails to meet the objectives of an organization. SO … what are we going to do to fix it? Executives should be clamoring for a change.

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When I first started in this field, project management was not a common title in the business world (other than engineering and construction) so we made it up as we went along. We had a broader role. The role of delivery focused on the big picture. We asked questions to figure out objectives, map out a roadmap and execute it. But we didn’t stop there. We built the training, communication and change management right into the plan. It was not treated as separate entities but as part of the outcome. We broke down the strategy and saw it through.

Fast forward 25 years … project management has been commoditized. Project manager titles are everywhere and are in big demand. A career path has become “project management for a job well done.” Even when the job “well done” didn’t require any project management skills.

And even though there is a proliferation of discussion around project management, there is still a lousy track record of successful project conclusions. The Standish Group has been reporting on project management since 1992 in its Chaos report. Back then, project management only succeeded 28% of the time. We are now up to a measly 36%. Long timeframe … poor progress.

There is plenty of need for good project managers but the process of using this title as a catch-all has diminished the perceived value and commoditized the discipline. Project management is now perceived as procuring someone to check off boxes on a plan, create issue logs and take meeting minutes. Following direction has become the key focus of this title.

I don’t know … maybe too many people diluted the role by using it as a certification vehicle. But honestly certification does not let me know that a project manager knows how to deal with people, manage stakeholders with their own agendas, “herd cats.” We seem to have lost the purpose of project management … the reason we are managing something in the first place.

All this leads to the fact that project management (in its commonly held understanding) fails more often than it succeeds. So, until corporations pay attention and set higher expectations, nothing will change. Here are the biggest myths to overcome:

  • The correct gauge for Project Management success is delivering on time and on budget. Do you consider yourself successful when you finish the project or when you reach your objectives? When the only focus is finishing the plan without focusing on where you want to be, there is a problem. The medical field understands this well. For example, curing cancer doesn’t stop at surgery. You may need radiation or chemotherapy. Following all of that, you may need physical therapy or additional medication. Getting to a desired outcome in project management should include a similar thought process. Completing a project (meeting timeline, budget, scope) does not mean that everyone has adopted the new process or system or even that they understand what’s expected. We have not completed the project until we have gauged our effect on the organization impacted. The more meaningful measure considers the achievement of the desired outcome.
  • Quarterly results will drive the project budget. At Peritius we are expanding into the public sector. A vendor asked me why I would want to get into government work. He said that government agencies are not held to following a specific strategy as they are in corporate America. He pointed out that priorities change frequently and going over budget is not an issue. I told him that, unfortunately, the private sector acts in a similar fashion. Companies often make their decisions based on quarterly results. Often resource decisions are based on price alone. Procurement departments are measured on procuring the lowest priced resources. As a result, staff augmentation firms have been able to drive resource price down in the market to secure the business, often with less qualified contractors. Shouldn’t company procurement departments be reviewed for the overall success of an effort? If a more senior level resource costs more but delivers the effort in less time than a junior level resource, is anyone evaluating that dynamic? The more expensive senior resource may in fact cost less over the life of the effort, yet by focusing on short term quarterly results, organizations are leaving long term savings on the table.
  • Project Management is a commodity skill. If it were a commodity, two-thirds of projects wouldn’t fail. The difference between the project managers delivering the two-thirds of failing projects and the one-third successful is soft skills. Average to poor project managers manage plans. Good project managers and program managers manage teams to a plan. Strong project managers are leaders. They know how to interact with people … people with all different styles, culture and personalities. In my experience, projects rarely fail due to the tactics required in creating a plan. They fail because of people related issues.
  • The right project management methodology can resolve our corporate issues around delivery. Most PMOs in different organizations are designed around process and reporting. In the 25-plus years that I’ve been in this field, I’ve seen more versions of methodology than I can count. Yet, projects still fail. It’s not the methodology that makes a difference. It’s the discipline around it. Half of it is the squishy, soft skills that people feel funny talking about. PMOs need to stop making their mission to report on the projects in a tactical manner but proactively work with the project managers to help programs go from “red” to “green.”
  • It’s normal for projects to get delayed or go over budget. This one confuses me. I find that when I’m talking to executive management, many build into their thought process that things will go poorly the first time around. Why should that be acceptable? Executive management has become so accustomed to failures that they view it as part of the norm. It is amazing that executive management isn’t in an uproar about two-thirds of their initiatives failing of which most can be prevented. Would you get in an airplane that has two-thirds of a chance of failing?
  • Failure of delivery can often be a self-contained problem. Failure begets failure. If something is delayed, is anyone tracking the lost opportunities that can no longer be funded because the other project ran over budget or the project timeline ran over? Or is the project delayed long enough that the ROI of the project itself is in question? Companies continue to put good money after bad by adding additional budget or time to “fix” a troubled project. The hardest thing for most organizations to do is to stop a project. It can be a career-limiting move in some organizations. Yet it is a practice that should be used as needed. When you get past the issue of dealing with failure, you will often see that it frees up the organization to do what’s right and end the continued cycle of poor project spend.

My biggest angst with this topic is that even with all of the discussion around improving project management practices over the last 20-plus years, there have not been enough consistent improvements. In fact, I think that with the “commoditizing” of project management, it’s actually gotten worse. If you’ve read this far and have been able to get past the poor grammar in my title, I want to leave this final thought: Organizations must start thinking of project and program managers as subject matter experts in knowing how to manage teams toward a plan. There are specific skills in knowing how to successfully manage people towards a specific goal. Until we change expectations and perceptions, we will continue to throw good money after bad.

Laura