Rage Against the Machine

‘Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. Where have you been? It’s alright we know where you’ve been’ Pink Floyd, Welcome to the Machine – Wish you were Here

The Machine

Some months ago I was considering a full time role once again, my concern was ‘how long could I act as an independent consultant and trainer without actually practising project management?’, which is still an interesting dilemma for me today – any thoughts or great opportunities feel free to let me know.

Anyway I was pretty selective in what I considered but one opportunity did seem to be interesting, it was for a Global Head of PMO (this is the sort of role that I would consider in case you wondered). Eventually, after meetings with the agency and a phone interview I went for a face to face interview with the organisation in question.

It didn’t go well.

In fact it went quite badly from my point of view.

After the interview I phoned the agency and said I wasn’t interested and the main reasons were that this organisation appeared to have absolutely no passion for the projects that they were undertaking (perhaps something I could have helped with) but more importantly they were entirely process focused, and not in a good way, this rang alarm bells for me immediately. Being part of that set-up would have killed my creativity and I couldn’t see a happy ending.

Was I right about them? Well I think the answer came some many weeks later after the organisation had finally selected a new Head of PMO (and good luck to them of course, maybe they can check out my website www.leadingsuccessfulpmos.com for some PMO success style inspiration).

Their HR representative phoned me to give me the reasons that they didn’t select me for the job!

I said that I withdrew weeks ago and they said yes that was noted and thank you for the valuable feedback but that they had to follow the process of giving feedback to all candidates….

Was I right about them or what!

‘So welcome to the machine. Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. What did you dream? It’s alright we told you what to dream’

And this story is true – honestly it is.

I was recently shopping in a large chain sports store with my family. Now the main purpose of the trip was to buy some new trainers for one of my sons, and after some considerable time he finally selected an acceptable (design and brand) from his point of view pair and an acceptable (cost and cost) pair from my point of view.

He spent so long deciding that I took the chance to look for a pair of trainers for myself and chose my pair on the criteria of design and brand (and of course cost).

When I went up to pay for the goods I experienced a service engagement that was pretty unique and most certainly unforgettable. Of course the sales girl had been trained in the basics of the job and presumably had been encouraged to make the transaction an enjoyable and personal one – there was, no doubt, a pre-designed workflow in place, a process that needed to be undertaken.

So handing over the two boxes of trainers she dutifully checked the shoes – perhaps that they were a correct pair but certainly that I had the correct size.

‘Size 7’ she declared and I nodded (these were my sons trainers).

Moving on to the next box she went through the same process and declared ‘Size 9’ to which I nodded a ‘yes’, these were my trainers.

Then came the stunning moment when she looked up at me and said ‘Well you really are treating yourself aren’t you …’

Of course yes, I bought a size 7 for the daytime and a size 9 for when my feet got larger towards the end of the day!

Well I understood what she was trying to do and I appreciated the attempt at some form of real human interaction during this pre-determined process but there has to be logic in what is said and in this case there wasn’t any and so the whole thing fell apart.

‘So welcome to the machine’

A process is a systematic series of actions directed to some end, and there is nothing wrong with that at all, don’t think that I am anti-process, I’m certainly not.

But (yes there is a ‘but’) any process has to be relevant, appropriate and reasonable.

I was asked to consult for one organisation about a year ago and their issue was that ‘nobody is following our project delivery methodology’ according to the head of the PMO that I was to work with.

This organisation had invested a fair amount of time and effort in creating a single unifying and consistent methodology based on practical experience and lessons learned, they gathered suggestions for content and structure from all of their project managers across the world, and constructed what they felt was the ‘best of the best’.

It certainly looked good, was easy to navigate and had many tools and templates available to project managers.

They had developed a training program to ensure that everyone knew all about the new methodology and could access it for all future projects.

They used their marketing department to develop a complimentary series of promotional materials (hats, mouse mats, posters etc) for internal use as well as a set of flyers and other marketing collateral for customer use.

They commenced a help/support desk to gather feedback and recommendations for improvements.

They got their senior management to promote the new business tool through videos and presentations.

They even had a competition where one person could win an iPad by suggesting a great name for the methodology.

They seemed to have thought of everything…

And yet here I was a year after the launch of this all singing all dancing process trying to help them work out why ‘nobody is following our project delivery methodology’.

In fact the answer was relatively easy to uncover and exposed perhaps the single flaw in their approach to this initiative.

Customers didn’t like it as it seemed just too complicated. Now this didn’t mean that it didn’t need to be so but the delivery challenge that this method seemed to portray was in stark contrast to the apparent simplicity of the products that the customers were being offered by this organisation.

Experienced project managers didn’t like it because it mandated each and every step that they had to take and a) they didn’t believe projects were like that and b) it undermined them and devalued their professional experience.

Inexperienced project managers didn’t like it because it was over-whelming to them and as they progressed its use step by step, phase by phase, it seemed as if the project itself was on a completely different path and timescale and events overtook the theory.

In my book ‘Leading Successful PMOs’ (Gower) and the follow up companion book ‘Delivering Successful PMOs’ (Gower Jan 2015) I explored this issue and concluded that, from a PMO perspective:

  • The best PMOs are the managers of a flexible framework method to assist project managers in the delivery of projects
  • The best PMOs ensured that this framework, and the associated tools and templates, were suitable for each project as not all projects are the same

And there is the key. Not all projects are the same and not all project managers are the same.

What is really needed is a scalable and flexible and appropriate means to deliver projects that can be aligned to the experience of the project manager and is relevant to the project complexity.

For the company I was advising they initiated two things with regards to their methodology:

  • Creating a small scale, low complexity ‘project light’ version of the method with simplified templates and reduced scope
  • Promoting the full scale method (in fact it now referred to as a ‘framework’) as a reference tool for project managers to use as they see fit, with only 3 key ‘point in time’ and mandated quality milestones

They also developed a new process, which is a good thing I feel.

This profiles the projects at the initiation stage in order to understand the perceived complexity (and therefore risk to the organisation) and therefore the most appropriate project manager to use, from an experience point of view.

Time will tell on the success of this revised approach but the initial feedback is very positive.

So you can see that process can be bad, and process can be good. Just remember that any process has to be relevant, appropriate and reasonable.

And so the next time you are working on a process ‘improvement’ why not tune in to Pink Floyd[1] and consider the ‘machine’ and its impact on people.

‘Welcome’

 

[1] And ‘yes’ I was listening to them whilst writing this piece. Shine on you Crazy Diamonds!

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5 Responses to “Rage Against the Machine”

  1. Brian Cohn Says:

    Peter: Thank you for these words of wisdom that are particularly timely for me as I transition from leading a small PMO to being part of the process oversight and consulting team for my larger organization.

  2. CathyB Says:

    a) do you need to be a practising PM to consult ? I think it depends on the kind of consulting you do. In the sports world, there are many coaches who used to compete but no longer do so. Or indeed in the equestrian world there are many world-class trainers who have never really competed as their forte is training, not competing.

    For me the advantage of still having the practical experience is that it gives you up to date examples and case studies.

    b) in terms of process. A certain fmcg multinational used to have a concept of “liberating discipline” (or liberating rigour in some countries). The idea being that sticking to the rules for the core stuff freed you up to innovate where it counted. (my paraphrase not theirs). In my current employment I’ll confess I mutter about process *a lot*. But that’s because we don’t seem to even use the bits that are useful – and I am not personally convinced that it is because it is not “fit for purpose”. But I fully agree with using a “framework” as just that – something that gives you the bare bones to build on.

  3. Ania Says:

    Thank you Peter! I find this piece very valuable! We need to be flexible and very thoughtfull when setting up processes and implementing methodologies. If a PM does not feel comfortable to implement the process, how difficult and illogical it needs to be later on while working on that in a project team?

  4. Dale Myers Says:

    Interesting post, Peter. I always recommend an approach where a common framework is implemented, trained and enforced. But, within the framework is some room for individuals to be creative – to put their own stamp on. PMO’s need to make clear what is required – vs what can be left open to the PM ( team). And, what’s required needs to make sense, add value, be simple to follow, and be visible.

    As for being an active PM, as long as you retain the soft skills, the leadership and people side of being a PM, then you can always step back into a PM role…it’s in your blood. PM tools will always be changing – but, the basic tenants of leadership (and common sense) will never change.

    Have a great week. DM

  5. Dan Strayer Says:

    So long as this post isn’t a prelude to a comparison to “Goodbye, Cruel World”, it’s a great use of Pink Floyd, Peter.

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