Rowland Savage

@rowland_68922

Are your tools the problem?

January 7th 2019
What was the innovation — the bow and arrow, or hunting as a group?

Ugh — I know. I know. The last thing this world needs is another blog from silicon valley where a startup identifies “culture” as a gating factor, but bear with me. I promise this isn’t about finding exactly the right beanbags for problem solving or determining which flavor of kombucha best unlocks productivity.

Setting the stage, these insights are coming from ~50 recent interviews with product owners and leaders. I was trying to get to the bottom of some of the common headaches in project management, specifically project status reporting. You can pick you stat but with 75% IT mangers indicating that their projects will fail, there are clearly some knots that need unravelling.

I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that status reporting isn’t the only issue. Managing multiple people to complete a (potentially poorly articulated) task by some arbitrary future date is an inherently difficult process. However, status reports are problematic. They are complicated. They are time consuming to produce and regularly don’t get the right information into the hands of the right people. But why is this?

Well, there are some well understood reasons. Project managers have a documented optimism bias. This is understandable. They are entrusted with responsibility and naturally want to show that they are competent and in control. We also know they suffer from what is known as the “planning fallacy”. Also understandable. Estimation is difficult, and even when some early tasks take longer than expected, there is a natural hope that later tasks might be completed more quickly and the schedule will correct itself.

So as we recognize these (and other) biases in the system, it is also important to also acknowledge how difficult it is to change inherent behavior. Like swimming upstream, it’s hard to do and better to just acknowledge, and work with. So let’s turn our attention to an area where I do believe there is scope for improvement. That is the “tax” associated with relaying bad news.

The truth is that most of the time there is a negative reaction from managers to “bad” news. Many of the firms I have spoken to have cute nicknames for the unpleasant experience of being yelled at by their executives — it is a badge of honor in fact. As a result and not surprisingly, project managers are reluctant to share bad news.

This fosters a perverse system where information is not freely shared. Where not knowing is preferable to knowing the truth (albeit a truth with a few warts on it). To put this in perspective, it is akin to the oil light flashing on the dashboard of your car — and the reaction is to ignore it, or remove the bulb. Somewhat less productive than simply acknowledging the warning and adding oil to resolve the issue.

This I believe is a real problem. Despite the aspirations of “transparency” and “openness” many companies are simply not living up to their own stated values. There is a reluctance to acknowledge that a project being off-track is a very natural and common occurrence. It is in absolutely everyones interest to share the knowledge that a project is “at risk” and the logical response should be to reduce scope, push the delivery date, or mitigate the issue at hand. For any manager the true test of being competent and in control is not suppressing bad news, but sharing it quickly and openly.

Ergo the real issue in project management today is not tooling, it is culture. It’s your culture. We can’t pay lip service to ideals, we have to live them, especially when that seems hard. Project managers need to be celebrated for saying that things are off track, not berated. And the good thing about this — it is a change that you can make today that will improve your project outcomes.

Well that, and we really should talk about those beanbags . . . .

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