PMI Are some more equal than others?

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’

That was a proclamation in the novel Animal Farm, by George Orwell and I offer up, not a proclamation but a declaration, followed by a disclaimer, but beginning with a statement – and that statement is ‘I am a worried man, no let me correct that, I am a worried project manager’.

Worried that I am speaking too much, that others (like myself) are speaking too much, that we as a group might have become boring, irrelevant and potentially be doing detriment to the profession that we all love; which is the main reason we speak at events and conferences and congresses in the first place after all, at least I hope that is why…

And the declaration is I am challenging all of the project management organisations and publications around the world (you may have seen a series of articles from 2015 at the same time as the PMI EMEA Congress in London and this year I am back again just before the PMI EMEA Congress in Barcelona but that is because it is at this time of the year I reflect on what I am doing, and look at the project community around me – and so, to be very clear I am not just attacking PMI ).

And finally the disclaimer; whilst it is true that I have presented at four PMI Congresses in the past (Amsterdam 2009, Milan 2010, Washington 2010, Dallas 2011) it is now 5 years since I have spoken at any of the regional congresses, apart from PMI Australia and PMI New Zealand and, as such, I hope to be looking at this in an objective way, as an attendee rather than part of the presentational team.

So what is my concern and why am I mentioning PMI? Well I’m not just focusing on PMI but the behaviour I am concerned about seems to be rather more prevalent within PMI and PMI Congresses than others. More prevalent please note, but the rest are not free of all guilt in this matter.

Let me explain.

I go to project management conferences, a lot. I go to speak sometimes and I always go to listen and when I go to listen then I want to be entertained, educated, challenged and enthused. Often I am and occasionally I’m not. And it was through thinking about how to select the best speaker and topic that I suddenly realised that perhaps I, and therefore PMI, was playing it way too safely. Perhaps, even worse than that, they were playing a dangerous game that could all end in tears.

PMI’s global membership currently exceeds 500,000, impressive of course. But then how many of these members are represented or have an opportunity to ‘take to the stage’ at the local events, national events or regional events? Very, very, very few I would say – perhaps 200, perhaps less?

I was struck recently by a project management peer who stated ‘there is a danger of devaluing these events through lack of change and diversity of speaker, message and approach’, this is from someone who proudly describes themselves as a ‘regular attendee of PMI events around the world’.

Now I considered this a very interesting thought, and one that offered up some challenges to myself personally as clearly I am ‘out there’ and I am a ‘regular speaker’ at project management events around the world. As a representative from PMI UK stated not so long ago, I am ‘on the circuit’.

But clearly people do speak at these events, apart from myself, and you and I could probably quickly bring to mind some names of people we have seen in the past, perhaps more than once, perhaps more than a few times. And it was at this point I got worried. Yes I could easily name some people and yes I could remember seeing them more than once at congresses and yes they were interesting and ticked all of the boxes I listed earlier for defining a good speaker but … what about all of the other project management professionals out there, why don’t they have a voice? Why do the same people seem to get the chance to speak their thoughts and not the majority?

PMI (and IPMA/APM for that matter), should not be perceived as a ‘club’ who indirectly ‘help to promote’ certain individuals/organisations as ‘experts’ time and again. They instead should be seen as a safe haven for those who wish to raise their voice and be heard on their experiences and their challenges.

To bring about some further objectivity (I am trying here but it isn’t easy since I realise might be part of the problem) I conducted a simple survey[1] through LinkedIn and Twitter and this is what I found.

I started with simple positioning questions of ‘How many project management conferences had people attended in the last three years and then validated if the responses were from attendees or speakers.

As you can see a reasonable mix of respondents, both speakers and attendees ranging from none through to more than 6 conferences in the last 3 years.

Peter Taylor PMI Survey Project Management Conferences             Peter Taylor PMI Survey Project Management Conferences

I then asked one of the key questions ‘Do you feel there is a good mix of speakers at project management conferences?’, and here it began to get interesting.

Peter Taylor PMI Survey Project Management Conferences

As you can see only 9% said ‘always’ so you could take from this that 91% think the opposite but really we should look at the 21% who declared ‘not often’ and ‘never’ – why do people feel this to be the case?

I offered survey respondents the opportunity to make some comment here and what was said included:

  • Yes for most conferences, the mix is quite good
  • Depends on how well conference organisers have analysed audience needs and identified tracks with specialised PM information
  • I see a trend of having more and more people who have more polish than substance giving talks at conferences
  • It also seems that there is a preference to have talks with broad appeal, this, I feel, has led to a reduced number of more technical talks on advanced topics
  • An OK mix but you do see the same old same old as well

I then extended the questioning to assess if people felt that the same people got to present too often?

Peter Taylor PMI Survey Project Management Conferences

Only 10% felt that there were always new speakers, rather low don’t you agree? 21% were happy with the mix, also I would venture rather low, and a rather concerning 68% suggested that they felt the same speakers sometimes presented too often or they were clear that the same people spoke (too often).

Comments again included:

  • Well, some speakers engage with conference leaders and hence are known well
  • It’s a bit of a club of speakers, like the board of directors – non exec and exec directors, one invites the other and vice versa
  • It depends on the conference, sometimes it is the same speakers and other times, it is mixed up well
  • I would say yes, there is mix, but the main speaker(s) tend to come from a small select group

Considering the impact that those who felt negative about this issue I asked if people were ‘voting with their feet’ by not attending future project management conferences and received the following insights:

Peter Taylor PMI Survey Project Management Conferences

22% stated that ‘yes they had stopped going because of this very ‘issue’ along with a further 18% who were thinking of not attending in the future.

Some of the associated comments included:

  • Speakers seem to be chosen based on their content or their reputation, but not their ability to inform and entertain, however, I usually find at least one speaker per conference who inspires me
  • The ones I attend are the ones with good speakers… IPMA in particular has a very poor choice of speaker
  • I believe that PM speakers must be more visionary and share concepts that expand beyond the conventional methodology, for me that means being strategic
  • The challenge is to find speakers with different perspectives and views who are good presenters
  • The key things are: [1] they have to be good, [2] deliver value, and [c] represent a rich diversity of views
  • My biggest complaint of conferences is that the description of a session does not match what is actually presented. A lot of times for the wow factor, the description is written very well and draws you in but the content is only a portion of what was described so I feel disappointed whereas if I would have known better what to expect, the content may have been fine
  • I like a mix of project professionals and non-project professionals to give insight to areas outside my profession
  • Mix of Speakers is like real life, some days are bright and wonderful, some are dark and boring, most are in between
  • It’s best when the Speakers align to the conference theme

Surely all this should make (all) conference planners sit up and pay attention?

The one comment that most caught my attention was this one:

  • I do wonder sometimes when some of these so called experts last did any practical project work?

For clarity I then removed those that had stopped attending, for whatever reason, and this gives us a somewhat terrifying future potential with 29% (almost a third) thinking about stopping attending conferences in the future because they are tired of hearing the same people (the ‘same old same old’ as previously noted).

Peter Taylor PMI Survey Project Management Conferences

Now I have to be honest, at this point the natural personal instinct is to stop and say nothing, after all it is in my own interest to bury this and not highlight something that I am a party to.

But those of you who know me will realise that once I start I have to finish and so we must continue our journey my fellow conference attendees. There is no escape from reality now.

Based on my ideas and this feedback I checked out the PMI congresses in EMEA and NA and APAC since 2010 and guess what? Yes, lots the same faces turning up year after year. If you just check the 2016 EMEA agenda you can easily find more than one person who has spoken at the same event in the last three years for example. But no names, it is not about anyone in particular but more about a concerning trend.

Using my own situation, and after talking to PMI in 2015, I learned that there was a 1 in 5 chance of speaking based on a ratio of sumissions to available slots for the 2015 congresses (no, it isn’t that simple as you will see later on). I assumed that this has increased over time due to a growth in membership and interest in speaking at these events, therefore for simplicity let us say that there has been a 1 in 3 chance of being selected anytime from 2010 to 2016. I presumed that perhaps it was lower in the early days and it is higher now but for simplicity, as I said, we will go for a 1 in 3 ratio.

So for Peter ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ Taylor to be selected as previously covered (Amsterdam 2009, Milan 2010, Washington 2010, Dallas 2011) means 1 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 which gives us an 81 to 1 probability, I am quite liking those odds, put me down for ten pounds, it is a reasonable gamble.

Now hold on to your hats and check out these odds… (using this 1 in 3 chance ratio)

  • 1 person to speak at 5 out of 6 of the last 6 EMEA Congresses – 243/1
  • 1 person to speak at 5 out 6 of the last 6 EMEA and NA congresses – 59,049/1
  • 1 company to speak (using multiple speakers) at the last 7 EMEA and NA Congresses – 4,782,969/1
  • 1 company to speak (using multiple speakers) 26 times at 13 Congresses in last 7 years – 2,541,865,828,329/1

I’ll take that wager, one pound down to win and I can retire tomorrow!

And for some balance:

  • Chances of winning the UK lottery 13,983,816/1

And yes, those stats are real.

I put my concerns to Cindy W. Anderson, Vice President, Brand Management at PMI [2]and she advised me that the PMI process went along two streams, in fact one was that speakers could be ‘invited’ to speak and not have to go through the call for proposals process. Now this was news to me.

  • Stream 1 is the CFP (Call for Papers) process which is formal and automated. PMI provides the following text on the website for those who wish to submit a proposal to use as a guide when drafting their documents. This is also the basis for ‘blind’ SME (subject matter expert) review of the submissions.

 

    • Proposals should provide attendees with: New skills, capabilities and behaviors to allow them to deliver successful projects; real-life examples of how technical project management skills, strategic and business-management insight and leadership capabilities that can enable organizations to execute projects, programs, and strategic initiatives effectively; or access to cutting edge tools and insights into best practices that attendees can apply to their daily work

 

  • Stream 2 is where PMI staff select speakers for some sessions, based usually on information that we need to deliver to a specific audience. In many cases, these audiences are very niche, such as R.E.P.s or those interested in business analysis, and the information is oriented toward a certification, practice guide, or other content that PMI promulgates. In some cases, people known to PMI (generally someone who is a Fellow of the Institute, or has some specific background as an Institute-level volunteer) are tapped for these types of sessions.

So are some more equal than others?

So there you have it, we are where we are but I am more worried about where we end up. I started this article by saying ‘I am a worried man, no let me correct that, I am a project manager and I am worried’.

The question comes back down to not what is good for any one speaker or company or organisation with regards to project management, and not what is good for myself or that Lazy Project Manager guy either come to think of it, but rather what is good for the project management profession as a whole and that I strongly feel is ‘diversity’.

You might say, well Peter that wasn’t a very large survey was it? Or how scientific were the questions? (and therefore the responses) and you would be correct, but the results seem to confirm my suspicions and at the very least PMI, or other, might consider conducting a more substantive piece of research – using objective external resources of course.

Either way I don’t believe you can argue against the facts I laid out about speaker selection (or pre-selection in some cases) and the mind-boggling chances of speaking that often by chance (or blind selection). I was particularly taken aback by the comment ‘people known to PMI (generally someone who is a Fellow of the Institute, or has some specific background as an Institute-level volunteer)’ as this seems to suggest that once you are in the club then you are in for good and potentially there is no room for anyone else to join.

Of course there are new speakers at these conferences, I have seen some of them so I know they exist, but I question is that enough?

I’m probably doing myself out of some work here but why not go the ‘presidential’ route and say you get to speak at (for the sake of argument) three regional or global conferences and that is it, beyond that you make way for others, and no ‘special passes’ for the select few.

Or maybe, in order to nurture new speakers, those who have presented and reached their limit might be allowed to co-present with one or two new speakers to help them on their journey, perhaps do this no more than a couple of times in order to avoid this being a new route to seeing the ‘same old same old’ again.

After all if ‘we’ are the acknowledged ‘good’ speakers of today (I am just putting myself out there, it is really your decision if I am any good or not) then where do the speakers of tomorrow come from if we stop them getting a chance to share their ‘voice’?

I feel that we might just need something radical here to stop us all ending up talking to and listening to each other in a small room somewhere in the world, with a large banner that reads ‘Global Project Management Conference’ whilst the rest of the project management profession, in their millions, gets on with the ‘day job’.

We started this with a George Orwell quote from ‘Animal Farm’ and here is another Orwell quote but from his ‘1984’ book instead:

‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’

 

The future isn’t ours now is it?

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Taylor is a PMO expert currently leading a Global PMO, with 200 project managers acting as custodians for nearly 5,000 projects around the world, for Kronos Inc. – a billion dollar software organisation delivering Workforce Management Solutions.

Peter Taylor is also the author of the number 1 bestselling project management book ‘The Lazy Project Manager’, along with many other books on project leadership, PMO development, project marketing, project challenges and executive sponsorship.

In the last 4 years he has delivered over 200 lectures around the world in over 25 countries and has been described as ‘perhaps the most entertaining and inspiring speaker in the project management world today’.

His mission is to teach as many people as possible that it is achievable to ‘work smarter and not harder’ and to still gain success in the battle of the work/life balance.

More information can be found at www.thelazyprojectmanager.com – and through his free podcasts in iTunes.

 

 

 

[1] LinkedIn/Twitter promoted ‘SurveyMonkey’ survey – April 2016 – 109 respondents

[2] May 2015

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