I was in a conversation a few days ago, and I was reminded about an old phrase my grandfather used to say: look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. (I’m sure there is an equivalent phrase for other currencies).
I thought about this phrase sometime after listening to a speaker talking about the way they ran projects. They were strongly espousing a view that we should worry more about delivery and less about deliverables.
I want to talk about some words – specific words, but in order to do this I’m going to start with a big generalisation.
The important thing about words is that they have meanings. Because words have meanings we are able to communicate about all sorts of objects, ideas, concepts and whatever other entities, things or stuff we want to talk about.
What makes successful project managers?
I have been interested in the way the best project managers think and behave for a long time. Back in 2005 I wrote the first edition of my first book The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery. The genesis of this book was an observation made from roles I had running large teams of project managers. The observation? There is limited correlation between how well qualified someone is as a project manager, and how good they are at project management.
As its coming into the summer break for many of my regular readers, I thought I would write on something different.
What seems like a very long time ago, I studied for degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Economics. I have never worked as an engineer or an economist. Much of what I learnt has been discarded to the dim recesses of my mind. But this does not mean studying was in vain. The approaches from each discipline still influence my way of thinking. I think this is more useful than any specific facts or ideas from studying a subject.
I seem to have come full circle with my writing. For those of you unfamiliar with my works, which is the vast majority of the world, I am a fairly minor author. So far, my published books are mostly business and management books. I am well known in my niche, but not much beyond. To give an idea of scale - good sales for me are over 20,000 copies of a book. Bad sales are a few thousand copies.
I have been involved in projects and programmes for a long time. Long enough that I sometimes think I can smell the state of a programme when I am first engaged on it. By smell of course, I really mean pick up certain small aspects of behaviour that give me a feeling of confidence or concern.
I have just sent back the corrected proofs for the second edition of my book Project Management Step-by-Step. This is one of my best sellers, and even though it is 10 years old – quite an age for a professional book – it still sells a few thousand copies a year. Perhaps not the huge sales of a best-selling novel, but for a niche writer like myself, pretty respectable for a book of that age.
Imagine you are working on a project and it is going to finish late. It is a scenario that many of us will be familiar with. Is the project a failure? That depends. There are many situations in which a project is late. There are many situations in which a project – or at least a properly defined and well run project looks late, but isn’t. This happens when we confuse aspirations with plans.
We’ve all heard the joke: a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. What makes the joke funny, in the way Dilbert is funny, is that we know there is some truth in it. I don’t want to tar all consultants with the same brush, but some consultants really do just borrow your watch to tell you the time. To be fair, many don’t and even when they do, sometimes it’s what the client asked for.
In the UK TV comedy Dad’s Army, Corporal Jones was a character who at regular intervals would run around shouting “Don’t panic! Don’t Panic!” The joke was he was always panicking.
It feels like this on many of the projects I am involved in. There is some pretence about being calm, but there are many signs of panicking. And what is everyone panicking about? Usually, time and money.
There are many reasons projects and programs get in trouble. Problems we are all familiar with include: poorly defined goals, lack of sponsorship, ineffective prioritisation and access to resources, and when there is no drive to make progress. I have been involved in lots of projects in my career, and I’d love to say every one of them was a success, but it would be a lie. Quite a big lie. I have been in projects with every one of these problems, sometimes all of them.
Not long ago I published a post titled "what's the point of change management?" (you can find it on this site). In this article I want to do the same sort of thing for project management. I aim to write a third article contrasting project and change management.
Like many people who post on LinkedIn, I am deeply interested in the development of leadership and management disciplines - how we can continue to make them better. One way we can improve the way we work is to identify best practices and then apply them more widely. And this seems to be a commonly accepted approach. I want to express a bit of scepticism about this approach.
I’m about three quarters of the way through Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. This novel has somewhat over 1.2 million words. It’s long - very long - and rather little happens in it. It is made up of a series of relatively trivial events bound together by the author’s observation and comments on those events. It’s not Game of Thrones.
I can try to give you a simple explanation of the book: “self-obsessed, sickly, rich guy’s musing on life and love in early twentieth century Paris”, but such a simple explanation hardly gives you a flavour of the book. I can’t really give you a good simple explanation of the book. You need to read some of it if you want to get a sense – and quite a lot of it to get a real understanding.
The stakeholder universe is becoming ever more complex for organizations. It has always been a challenge to determine which groups of stakeholders to focus on. Current trends are exacerbating this.
Traditionally there were three main types of stakeholders organizations had to consider. Firstly, there were the owners and funders of the business, such as shareholders and banks, ensuring their needs were being met by the organization’s performance and strategy. Secondly, there was the internal audience of staff and work colleagues, making sure they were motivated and understood the organization’s direction. Thirdly, was the external audiences of customers and suppliers, making sure they were happy to keep buying and supplying.
I often act as a facilitator, working with teams to create a picture of the desired future state for their organization. This picture acts as the guiding light or vision for the change initiatives they undertake.
I have a client whose chief executive has been talking up a strategic change. He has adopted a set of words to encapsulate, explain and encourage the change. He uses them a lot. If you listen to the words of the CEO everything will soon be profoundly different from the way they are now.
The words imply change. Radical change. As someone who spends his life helping organizations with change, I am interested in these words.
There is one type of change that results in more eye rolling, cynical comments and coffee machine jokes than any other. I am talking about changes that go under names like “cultural change”, “new values” or “behavioural change”. Announce an initiative of this type and many of your team will be sceptical. They will be sceptical because they have seen it all before. They have observed many cultural change programs previously and noted that nothing really changed as a result of any of them.
Are you involved in change management? Do you take part in conversations about change management? Do you ever find yourself questioning what exactly change management is? It can at times seem like a rather vague discipline to get your head around.
Every so often, pretty much every organization embarks on transformational change. This title may be applied to a major program of systems, process or organizational change, or the transformation may be driven by something less tangible – such as altering organizational culture. Whatever it is, the organization wants to be different in a significant way.
There has been a whole lot written about the levels of success of organizational transformation programs. It makes sorry reading, but that’s not my subject today. I want to explore in this post is the inherent tension between business-as-usual operational performance and transformation. At heart, this is a conflict between doing a great job today and being able to do an even better job tomorrow.
I have just published my latest book, called "Managing Your Team Through Change". I am certain there is space for another book on change management. Two reasons drive this certainty: most books ignore team leaders as a specific audience with particular needs, and most change books do not talk to the messy reality of organizations. If you are a team leader, line manager, or someone who works with, supports or advises team leaders on change – this is the book for you.
Middle management is a really unfashionable topic. But to run an efficient organization it is critical to help middle managers fulfil their roles. My book sets out to do this, in the specific context of change.