The Secret Project Manager | Case 1: Process doesn’t make perfect

This is the first instalment of our new Worst Practice Casebook from a highly qualified and experienced project Manager…. let us know what you think

Case 1: Process doesn’t make perfect

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Process, some gin joints just love a good process – I’ve worked at a number of multinational gin joints with a dazzling array of fine processes that I am sure were well intentioned.  I can still see them now, the fat-faced managers, wringing their warm, damp palms, smiling and congratulating themselves. I listened in as they smoked their cigars, drank their gin and toasted their hard work: “our detailed processes are complete now all we do is relax and let everything follow our carefully crafted plan”.  Days turn to weeks. Weeks turn to years. And the managers go bald from years of head scratching wondering why their detailed processes don’t seem to work. Like all the best disreputable gin joints, they refined the process and refined the refinement, making the process ever more complicated in their quest for success. But, in then end they point their withered fingers of blame at people like me, Slim Slam Sam, Project Manager. It is all my fault, for I didn’t follow the process.
Looking at data from the Associated of Project Managers (APM), it seems many gin joints have the same problem, where, despite their refined processes, the majority of projects are still late, over-budget or both.  The same data also shows that even gin joints that design rigorous processes and put in bosses to ensure compliance still suffered from project failure. Sadly, like a long drive home on a rainy night in January in a Triumph Spitfire, failure is the norm.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe processes have an essential role to play in high-reliability gin joints and projects alike.  If used correctly they can be the difference between a project being a success or a failure.  Unfortunately, gin joints seem to forget that the processes they build are they are entirely reliant on the competence and behaviours of their employees.
I would go so far as to say the right people with the right behaviours will succeed without a process but the wrong behaviours will only lead to ruin even if you have the best processes in the world.  It seems counter intuitive in a world now dominated by initiatives like Six Sigma to say process, like an old dog with an incontinence problem, should take a back seat. But I found that the majority of my project management career has been spent succeeding in spite of processes as opposed to processes helping me to succeed.
Let me give you an example of what I’m going to call ‘Process leadership’ from a recent job at a gin joint in Aberdeen – more a whiskey joint than a gin joint, but you get the picture. I arrived on a cold summer morning, the North Sea wind eating the inside of my nose, to troubleshoot a gin joint with serious project issues.  I’m talking real horror stories of projects with 50-60% budget overruns, years behind schedule and a failure to achieving anything like the expected returns on the business investment. When you’ve seen enough gin joints, you know that these are the type of projects that get you reaching for the gin at 3 am.  Worse still, this gin joint was in the crapper with their customers, with a Net Promoter Score of -45 against an industry average of +4. Just the thought of it has me reaching for a double.
Before coming to me, the gin joint in question had spent hundreds of thousands on process consultants and certified training courses to remedy the situation – unfortunately, much like my wife said as she walked out the door two months ago, they hadn’t seen any change in performance.  The Project Management Office (PMO) showed me that each project was ‘compliant’ with their processes and all had risk registers and schedules.  From the businesses perspective, they had done everything right – they had a great process, and their project managers were all qualified by an industry body, but projects were still failing regularly – something was rotten, and it wasn’t just the fried pizza at the local chippy.
I got a much better flavour of the problems when I ditched the haggis for breakfast and spent time visiting the projects themselves. While the projects were “compliant” with the process, the people in charge of the projects were not Project Managers.  Just like the flatfoots down on the beat back home, they had their shiny new credentials, but they didn’t have the competence to deliver resilient projects.
Many of the Project Managers had previously been successful foreman good at getting men and machinery to build walls and dig holes.  They were then offered big wads of cash and promotions to take up PM roles, but, unfortunately for them, nobody had considered if their behaviours were suitable (or even told them what they expected).
There was no understanding of what makes a great project manager, well… great.  The gin joint just said, “Hey, you’re good at getting holes dug – here is £8million pounds and a scope of work” and wondered why it all went wrong.  I’m sure some may have had the potential to become great project managers, but without guidance, they were destined to fail.  I hear you thinking. You’re thinking, “wait a moment now they are all trained and certified they should be able to do the job.”  Sadly, just like the beaten dog you rescue from the pound, the fat cats hadn’t given a thought given to their behaviours – giving them a process to follow was never solve the problem on its own.
Let me give you an example? Project managers require a high level of creative problem-solving abilities, don’t believe me? Think about the question the other way round.  Do you want a project manager to take every problem at face value?  I assume you wouldn’t, but I’ll share a conversation I had with one of the gin joint project managers about a delay that illustrates what happens when you don’t think about employee’s behaviours.
Me:    “Why has your completion date shifted by four weeks?”
PM:    “The contractor doesn’t have any fittings.”
Me:    “Ok… Did you look at alternative suppliers?”
PM:    “The contractor said they couldn’t find any”
Me:    “What type of fitting is it?”
PM:    “I don’t know.”
Me:    “Could we use an alternative.”
PM:    “[long pause]… I don’t know that either”
Like a $20 bucket of popcorn in a movie theatre, you have to ask “what the FCUK am I paying you for?”  A high-reliability project manager would know all the answers to these questions. A high-reliability PM would have exhausted every option and come up with a solution, in fact, it’s most likely it would have been on their risk register, and the fittings would already have been on the site.
I felt sad for the project managers I came across. They were genuine, hard working people who just didn’t have the right behaviours to make their projects resilient.  What they did get for failing to meet expectations was the long finger of blame for not being successful.  The ones I spoke to looked beaten and bewildered, their self-confidence smashed by constant criticism.
For an outsider looking in, it is sometimes easier to see how poor project performance is the natural result of a lack of understanding of what competences and behaviours are needed to be successful.  It is essential that these are understood and sought out in individuals who will then help make your high-reliability projects a reality.
Which brings about the questions – Do you know what it takes to be a great project manager in your organisation?  Do you know who your great project managers are?  Can you mould that competence and behaviour in other employees?

2 thoughts on “The Secret Project Manager | Case 1: Process doesn’t make perfect

  1. A nice, hard hitting article. It suggests that the ‘right’ project manager is more important than the ‘right’ process, and I disagree with that. And the basis of my opinion in my interpretation of “process”. Process is not the model of the process, the formalized design, but is the way things need to be done. And universal compliance with the prescribed process is anathema to change & innovation. The article even glorifies the benefits of deviation in that, in finding a solution to ad hoc issues, the high-reliability project manager goes rogue… has to! And does what it takes.

    But, if process is such a bug-bear, why do organizations flock to codify their processes in computer applications?

    In truth, organizations need assurance that their strategies and plans can turn into expected results. Process fulfills that role, but not in isolation. No organization thrives on a 100% diet of common sense or crafty intuition. A chef defines a recipe but rarely follows it to the letter… a ‘chef’ is more than a ‘cook’ and has the expertise to adjust the dish in real-time. If that wasn’t the case, every chef’s work would taste the same. Process + experience + talent + innovation ++. Don’t just blame process.

  2. Mike,

    Thank you for the comments, I really like the image that “common sense and crafty intuition” creates in my mind and I agree that you can’t place all the blame on process, like so many problems the ingredients for success are a blend of things.

    I’m not advocating the extremes here i.e. get the ‘right’ people and they can ignore the process more that by having a high-reliability project manager would mean that they would be asking you what the process was and seeking to improve it – they would expect you to have a system.

    Having great project management processes should be considered a hygiene factor in so much as having them compared to nothing will definitely bring about improvements. The real problem, which can be seen in reports such as the “APM State of the industry” is that companies that have ‘quality’ project management systems are still failing to deliver.

    This was also reflected in a 2017 KPMG study which found that significant investment in project controls has not halted the run of under-performing projects. Over half of all the respondents in their study (10,640 companies) stated that they had suffered one or more under-performing projects in the previous financial year. For larger organisations, this rose to 61%, while executives from the energy and natural resources and public sectors experienced even higher levels of project failure, at 71% and 90% respectively.

    The trend seems to be increased spending on project process and systems with diminishing returns as opposed to tackling the thorny problem of understanding capability, competence and behaviors. In many ways this is reminiscent of the journey businesses have made with health and safety. Having the systems is step 1, looking at the way people behave to ensure that they understand why and follow the processes is step 2.

    High Reliability in organisations and projects revolves around behaviors, structures and processes you can make the case for each one being most important but as you suggest in your comment, you need to get the right blend of everything to make the recipe work.

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