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Dare to be brave

September 26, 2016

Courage is crucial for the project manager. It is important for him/her to tell the bad news on time, to stand for one’s position and to change – oneself and one’s company. It is also one of the four values which underlie the agile methodologies.

But would you be brave under a high pressure and lack of trust?

Recently I have met with one manufacturing company which wanted an update of their Project Management standards. The request went from the head of investment department. He said, that he wants to organize the portfolio management of capital investments, and was also keen to develop KPIs for his department to show the value of his department to the company. He rather impressed me, as not many companies in this industry in Ukraine understand the value and importance of project management.

The need of this was expressed as follows:

  • I want to make more order in the portfolio planning and update process throughout the year, so as to have a real time picture of current situation, and decrease amount of chaos.
  • I want to develop KPIs to show the value which or department brings to the company, so as to stop cutting the personnel in my department.

Sounds well, isn’t it?

On the other side of this story of the progressive boss, are his workers. When talking to project managers which work in the Investment department, it appeared, that they don’t know even how many projects they are in charge of. PMs are responsible for their projects, for their project’s delays and problems, but do not have neither sufficient authority, nor support from their head of department. They receive the information about changes in the portfolio with a lag of one month and say, that they do not have a clue as to why all this changes happen. The atmosphere in the group of PM’s was depressive, some of them said that it is impossible to them to admit that the key results of their projects were not achieved, so they put in the final reports, that they did.

When I asked how does head of investment department supports PMs, the answer was: “Joking? Our PMs are not able to manage a decent project, are constantly running into trouble, over the schedule and budget. So we are now to support them, aren’t we? If a PM comes asking questions – why do I need him?”

To get the clear picture of the situation, let me show you one example:

Imagine that you are the manager of the project of air purification construction on a chimney-stalk of some factory. At first, you are awarded this project on a random basis. Well – not so bad till now. When you initiate and plan your project, you know, that your main KPI of this project is to reduce CO2 and pollution level in the smoke out of the factory, down to 50%. The purpose of this is to satisfy the requirements of people and city authority, and not to pay charges for high levels of pollution in 5 years time.

So, you head for it. You plan as you can (no help here), receiving only scolding from the head of your department, if he doesn’t like something. Then you wait for budget, which may take up to 3 months, then you organize a tender with no right to choose a decent subcontractor, then the contract is signed, and the execution starts. All you do now – is control of the subcontractor according to the contract you can’t neither change, nor influence, and face your boss in towering temper each time you miss your budget or schedule by more than 5%. And then you just put it into the operation and try to forget like a nightmare.

What happens next? The department which takes on this air purification construction has to check whether the required KPI for the pollution level was achieved. The KPI was not achieved, but in the final documents they put “achieved”, not to have to face responsibility for not achieving them.

Sounds nice, eh? So the company just had wasted its money on having to pay the charges all the same.

And why did that situation occur in the first place?

Well, one may think that in this company work particularly unethical PMs, throwing company’s money at their leisure. But when you look inside the working day of a PM there you won’t find any fun or leisure, just fruitless work and bitterness. So maybe the company doesn’t really want to achieve the results? Does not seem so either, as the company is public and reports its results openly and officially.

So what’s then? I think the answer is that being brave in such conditions seems stupid to all parties involved. Head of Investment department is not keen to hear bad news, though there will be no less of them.

The PMs are not keen to tell him bad news, knowing that they will be to blame every time they do.

In the companies with high danger levels there is a notion of “safety culture”. The first level is blind following the rules. It is the lowest and the most dangerous level. To pass on the next level of proactive problem detection and resolving you need a “no blame culture”. Without it, a manager and a company won’t have any feedback, truth or proactivity.

When manager does not trust people, they do not trust him. Nothing personal, just an eye for an eye.

I think that in many companies a project manager, department manager or CEO should trust more his or her people. You don’t need much for the trust to rise: knowledge to do your work good, support, timely and adequate feedback, enough data to make a right decision, a possibility to enhance without constant scolding of management. Edward Deming has said, that people usually do not intend to do the poor job. So each and every manager has in his power to give people a possibility to do their work good.

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