Simplicity: What’s Left When You Hide Everything Else

Have you ever stopped at the supermarket to reflect on the constantly improving state of the art in maximizing grain yield per acre? Of course not. You simply grab a loaf of bread, glance at the “Sell by” date, and put it in your cart. You don’t feel a sense of gratitude that you and your family probably won’t die of starvation, as was so common for earlier generations. You don’t feel a sense of wonder that so little labor is now required to feed seven billion people. And you certainly don’t notice that, adjusted for inflation, you pay less for that loaf of bread than your grandparents did. You just move on to the next section, which was carefully organized to make it easier for you to find everything without assistance from the staff. You benefit from that simplicity because others handled the complexity. And that is a large part of a project manager’s job: to enable simplicity by allowing others to ignore the underlying complexity that makes it all possible.

Simplicity Is Expensive

If you want simplicity, you have to be prepared for a lot of capital expenditure. Whether it’s a manager’s dashboard or microwave popcorn, someone had to expend a lot of money on experimentation, development, productization, and rollout. Good project sponsors understand that; the rest need to have it pointed out to them. Simplicity costs more than complexity in almost every case, although the incremental cost may be spread across a larger market. If you have a fixed market, like “the managers in my company,” then cost per manager will increase. That said, a solution that isn’t used is a complete waste of resources, so good project managers are advocates for optimizing allocation of resources to get the expected (or at least desired) benefits.

Simplicity is the New Baseline

Twenty years ago, you could download files containing a movie. It took a long time, you’d need special software to view it, it would eat up a large share of your hard drive capacity, and technically speaking, it was illegal. But a funny thing happened when business people noticed that they couldn’t make a dent in piracy with public service announcements or occasional prosecutions: they changed their business model. So now, anyone who wants to can stream videos on demand, for anything from cheap to free. From the consumer’s perspective, it’s simple; the problem has become about what to watch, rather than how. But when playback pauses due to connectivity issues, the consumer gets upset. They expect reliability, not just simplicity. The cautionary lesson is simple: good project managers work to temper the pursuit of faster-better-cheaper with constraints of scalable-sustainable-supportable.

Simplicity Redistributes Risk

One of the common side-effects of simplicity is a change in the risk profile. GMOs have helped reduce crop yield uncertainty (although not necessarily increased yield) but there is concern among consumers that their health might be impacted. Self-driving cars are represented as safer, eventually reducing the number of accidents, but not all accidents are preventable by software. Good project managers ensure that sponsors and other decision makers understand the real and perceived implications of their actions when shifting risks.

As we continue to reduce the degree of engagement and commitment required of the end users of our products, it is necessary to continuously reassess the business model that delivers it. The project manager is increasingly expected to be an active participant in that reassessment, and the wise project manager will embrace that expectation. The days of the project manager as administrator and status reporter are in the past. Going forward, we will succeed only to the degree that we adopt the more expanded vision of an executive.

Aligning Projects with Organizational Strategy

PMI Talent TriangleEvery three to five years, Project Management International conducts a role delineation study. The 2015 project management RDS led to development of what PMI calls the “Talent Triangle.” This is a list of competencies in three groups: technical project management, leadership, and strategic and business management. While most professional project managers “get” the first two, many are dubious about that last item. But employers expect us to think beyond our immediate responsibilities. In talking with business and government leaders, PMI found a recurring theme: Project managers need to take an active role in aligning projects with organizational strategy. The most recent RDS reinforced that finding.

The Project Manager as Reporter

“[M]ost companies see ‘project trees’ rather than ‘strategic forests.’ Only a minority attempt to balance key attributes of strategy implementation across the portfolio, such as alignment to different strategic priorities (47 percent) and risk and reward (35 percent). Worse still, a large number of firms that do seek such balance fail: only 32 percent of respondents believe their organizations balance the relevant portfolios against strategic priorities; just 22 percent say the same of risk.”Implementing the Project Portfolio: A Vital C-Suite Focus

One of the recurring themes I’ve seen on my consulting projects is the difficulty of harmonizing processes and systems after a merger or acquisition. Executives negotiate these strategic deals without bothering to sweat the implementation details, because that’s the job of middle management. Of course, much of that sweat falls from the brows of project managers, who typically work across domains to implement that strategy. Few of those middle managers are positioned to see what’s going on outside their domain. They aren’t aware of conflicts, don’t realize what is being done to work around resource constraints, and may be oblivious to critical risks the organization is exposed to. This is especially true for middle managers who are stakeholders, but not sponsors of the projects under way. They are parties in interest, but not participants. It falls to the project managers to keep them informed, and sometimes to prompt them to action. And in the best case, get everyone pulling on the same end of the rope.

The Project Manager as Counselor

Project managers have little direct authority, but the good ones cultivate influence. Sales people and consultants aspire to be “trusted advisers,” who can point out strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. But in order to become a walking SWOT analysis, you have to be perceived as knowledgeable, trustworthy, and collaborative. And as a project manager, you additionally need to be perceived as an agent of change – which you are, courtesy of your projects. Influence comes from perception.

Your stakeholders need current, actionable information, but they also need someone who will listen to their concerns and respond to their requests (even with “No”). You need to be able to frame conversations with your stakeholders in the context of the organization’s goals and the strategy to reach them, rather than your project’s goals. That requires hard conversations about priorities and risk tolerance with your project sponsor and senior folks who can put that strategy in context. You need to be able to facilitate conversations and guide decisions that are focused on the stated direction of the organization, rather than the personal goals of one manager. I’ve seen too many projects get bogged down delivering a scope change that never should have been approved, because it was considered and rejected by the portfolio manager before funding was approved.

A Strategy Provides a Structure for Decisions

A strategy isn’t magical, nor is it a guarantee of success. But it provides a structure for making decisions and taking action. Strategy depends on execution, and modern organizations are holding their project managers accountable for execution in alignment with strategy. Project managers who deliver on these expectations will be recognized for it, and those who don’t will be recognized for failing to deliver. Plan and act accordingly.

Some Thoughts on Career Development

Sometime in the next few months, I’m going to transition from Practicing IT Project Manager to Retired IT Project Manager. After nearly 50 years in the work force, I’m getting too ornery to be left around energetic, ambitious young ‘uns. Better to sit on the sidelines and write, full-time, than be a cantankerous influence. But before I step away from the profession, I want to capture some thoughts on deliberately (as opposed to accidentally) managing projects for a living. I’ve had enough time over the years to see how careers develop and flounder, and this might be the first of several posts on the subject of career development.

On Credentials

When I got my PMP in early 2004, there were just over 80,000 of us and it was seen as a mid-career achievement. Now there are about ten times that many and it’s seen as something just past entry-level. If you want to pursue general IT project management work, from infrastructure and BPI to outsourcing and business systems, then PMP would be an excellent fit. If you’re in the UK or another country where it is dominant, then the PRINCE2 family of credentials is probably even better.

If you want to manage software development projects, as opposed to implementing ERP solutions, then PMI-ACP would likely be a good choice. If you are working in an organization interested in or using Scrum, then CSM is an easy win; it’s harder to get a driver’s license in many jurisdictions. Make of that what you will.

I’m an advocate of becoming a subject matter expert in some field and focusing on work in that area. My choice was HR, employee benefits, and payroll, and I maintain professional credentials in those areas as well as my PMP. Technologies come in and out of fashion, but gross-to-net ain’t goin’ anywhere.

On Knowledge Acquisition

Reading My KindleGood project managers devote a certain amount of time to knowledge acquisition. Once upon a time, that meant reading books. Then it meant taking courses. Then it meant reading blogs and articles on line. Then it meant podcasts and TED talks. I think a mix of all four is useful, but be selective and don’t feel you need to be an expert on anything. A mile wide and an inch deep is actually not a bad thing in the Age of Google.

Still, there are some books you should read, simply because the background knowledge you’ll get from them will help you acquire additional knowledge more effectively and efficiently. Here’s a short list: Leading Geeks, by Paul Glen. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister. Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott. You already have The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, right? Project managers write a lot, and the good ones write well. If you haven’t taken a course in business writing, The HBR Guide by Bryan Garner is excellent. Although EI doesn’t pass the sniff test among actual psychologists, it’s worth reading Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry. Finance for Nonfinancial Managers, by Gene Siciliano is also worth your time.

Remember: project management is a business function, not a technical function. You don’t need to know the difference between a procedure and a function, but you damned well better know the difference between OpEx and CapEx. If you want to do well, you have to be proficient in the language and practice of business.

On Justified Self-Confidence

Elizabeth Harrin and many others have written about dealing with imposter syndrome and other forms of self-doubt, and I won’t try to paraphrase their work. You don’t have to go to the extremes described by Jia Jing in Rejection Proof any more than you should just tell yourself that you’re a special snowflake. If you are among those within two standard deviations of psychological normalcy, your self-confidence will be a function of your relevant experience to date and your preparations for the future (Dunning-Kruger Effect notwithstanding). Self-mastery comes from being able to clinically look at both, make honest assessments, and take decisive actions to achieve your goals.

When George Lucas made Star Wars, he really only had two stars: Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. And he killed them off. Now, I’m not advocating violence here; just pointing out that the rest of the cast seems to have done a fine job without them. You need to be almost good enough, on an upward psychological trajectory, with the intent to learn. That is more than enough to separate you from the folks who really aren’t engaged, at whatever competence level.

Coming Soon, Maybe

I’ll compile and post a larger list of recommended books, although as Egon Spengler famously observed, “Print is dead.” Kindle is alive and well, however. In addition, I’m working on a new book, Notes from a Practicing IT Project Manager.  It will consist of selected articles I’ve written over the years, updated and refined and grouped for ease of browsing. I’ll also write some new stuff to fill in the empty spaces. I’m just getting started, and I’ve learned not to predict publishing dates this early in the process. But expect a section on career development and another on IT management.