The Riddle of Steel

Thulsa DoomAbout 45 minutes into the 1982 film, “Conan the Barbarian,” we see the newly released warrior-slave being chased across the steppes by wolves.  He scrambles onto a pile of rocks, covering the tomb of some unknown king.  Falling inside, Conan recovers an ancient (but still formidable) sword.  He climbs back to the entrance, greeted by the howling of the wolves.  In the next scene, we see Conan wearing a cloak of wolf fur.

“Steel is not strong, Boy.  Flesh is stronger!  For what is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?”  — Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones)

I’ve read a lot of commentary, advertisements, and pontification over the years on the value of various project management frameworks, methodologies, specialized software of every type, and training regimens.  And while there is a greater or lesser degree of merit in each of them, it is important to realize that they are merely tools.  Without someone dedicated to the craft – a project manager – to wield them, they are merely artifacts.  And that is the staffing problem most organizations have: there aren’t enough of these folks to go around.

If you look at the implementation projects in progress in your organization, you will probably find that many of them are being staffed and managed by stakeholders.  Now, this is not a bad thing, as long as their stake is in the success of the project.  After all, they are typically domain experts, who bring an understanding of both the current state and the desired future state.  Making them a part of the team, as the voice of the customer, is a large reason why frameworks like Scrum work so well.  Many project failures can be attributed to a lack of engagement by these folks.

The problem is that many of these “accidental” project managers and team members have other, what they perceive to be “real,” jobs.  And when pulled between the two, most of these folks will rationally choose to concentrate their time and attention on that “real” job.  Although they might have been recruited with promises of what a successful project would mean for their career, they realize that the project is temporary.  No matter how much they might want the project to succeed, they don’t want to fail in their business-as-usual responsibilities.  Risk aversion makes them reluctant to conduct testing in the new application, rather than prepare for year-end activities in their current system.

While many “accidental” project managers go on to become career project managers, few are immediately excellent at it.  Training will help, and at some level, the tools will help.  But a word processing program does not make one an author; a spreadsheet program does not make one a financial analyst; and project management software does not make one a project manager.  These things take time, and the experience, confidence, and position to be objective about the work at hand.  Organizations that can internalize and act on that riddle will have higher project success rates.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.