Who Really Manages Your Projects?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff

In many organizations today, competent and experienced Project Managers, Senior Project Managers and Program Managers (all referred to as PM or PMs in this article) have the responsibility and authority to deliver the organizational changes and benefits expected by Senior Managers, Executives, and internal and external customers. Those PMs are a credit to their organizations, those Managers and Executives are incredibly effective, and those organizations (Government and Enterprises) thrive as a result. We shall call this phenomenon Exhibit A.

The IPMA-USA Advanced PM certification program, based on IPMA’s* World-recognized offering, is perfect for those competent and performing practitioners. And our PRO program, IPMA-USA Performance Rated Organization, is a perfect match for the Exhibit A organizations.

And then we have the other organizations, that we shall call Exhibit B. In the Exhibit B organizations, it is usually several layers of Managers, rather than the nominal Project Managers, who are directing Time, Cost, Scope and Talent, leaving the PM to be a mere controller; despite his or her best efforts. The result: Poor PM Performance, and Executive Managers who blame the practice of PM, rather than the misplaced authority.

Who Sets Time, Budget, Scope and Talent?
Some of those Exhibit B organizations depend more on team heroics than deft management; project managers are identified after timelines and budgets are set; scope is never quite “nailed down”, and promised talent never appears, while cherished talent disappears. Much to the chagrin of PMs, requests for some flexibility somewhere are met with the classic excuse “we just have to do more with less” which almost always results in delivering far less with less.

We cannot solve this problem by sending PMs or team leads to yet another class. Especially if all that class does is to parrot the same tired concepts that have already failed to establish PM performance competence in the organization.

What we really need to do, is

  1. Delegate to competent and performing PMs the authority to manage the project together with the responsibility to do, and/or
  2. Develop and significantly improve the PM performance competences of those who are really making the project management decisions.

That target audience for the second action listed above may be one, two or three levels “up” from the PMs, and unless we close that gap, improving the PM competence and effectiveness of those levels, everything else you do might just be a total waste of funding and time.

The Time and Budget Constraints
It is common in today”s environment for projects and programs to have Time and Budget constraints. Actually, that has always been the case, but the pressures are even greater now. Project Due Dates (readers familiar with our work know that we believe that only incompetent project managers have tight and inflexible deadlines) are real; they are often based on when the organization needs the result, and have no relationship to the scale of the effort needed to deliver that result.

We have written about using Budgets as a resource, rather than a constraint; still, funding Executives need the same level of transparency, insight and control over their project portfolios as they have in their operations and capital portfolios. But, when a team completes its discovery and identifies design options, competent Managers must make the decisions needed to either move forward, or to table the initiative until refinements cause the benefits to outweigh the costs.

Less effective Managers in Exhibit B organizations mandate what in my years of growing up in the West was called a blivit: Ten pounds of bulls**t in a five pound sack. You don”t really want to put much pressure on a blivit. Yet too often, when PMs raise concerns, their Managers respond with something like: “Get it done anyway!” This worst of all possible actions results in predictable sub-optimization. Executives tend not to like the outcomes of blivit projects.

Managing Scope
One problem with managing scope is that in most internal projects (and some contractual engagements), you can”t really measure scope until 15%-25% of the way through them (indeed, in some projects some cannot even measure it then). By that time, it is really, really difficult in less-effective organizations to change project time and budget, even when the changes are based on new project information. Even after Requirements are clear, some projects have significant additional scope discovery later–sometimes much later, despite the team”s best efforts.

Meanwhile, nearly everyone knows that a smart way to manage to time and cost is to cut scope. The challenge is, some projects are so organic, with everything tightly-connected, that you must deliver all or nothing. So the team reacts to the pressure with surprising, but exhausting and non-repeatable heroics. The Managers of those teams thus use their teams down, rather than talenting them up.

Downstream in projects, some teams are pressured to add scope, while avoiding any resulting impact in time and cost. In too many cases, we have exposed unethical and illegal actions, such as charging efforts to other projects, or avoiding recording the needed overtime, because of prior punishment for doing so. Of course, this only happens in incompetent organizations, and not yours, right?

A Challenge For Advanced Certifications
The situation described above is a challenge for PM practitioners who seek advanced certifications, because all such certifications expect the applicant to demonstrate how he or she was responsible for their project successes. When little of the needed authority was offered to the PM, but instead was held somewhere 1-3 levels up, that applicant was merely a project controller, and never a project or program manager. Bzzzzt! Not yet able to provide evidence of PM performance.

Of course, that practitioner can still receive an entry-level, exam-based cert. But that neither helps the organization recognize and improve performance, nor helps the individual to advance, does it? Indeed, this is one challenge IPMA-USA faces in offering Advanced PM performance-competence certifications, because many of our candidates come from those Exhibit A organizations we mentioned above. But doesn”t that narrow our audience?

And, here we depart from our Exhibit A, Exhibit B generalizations. We have found that in every Exhibit B organization we coach to improved PM Performance, there are Exhibit A groups. Usually these groups are under the spell of a visionary, incredibly effective Middle Manager, who creates an oasis of PM performance competence in the midst of the desert of just OK. Sometimes those Managers are recognized and rewarded; sometimes not. So even Exhibit B organizations can benefit from IPMA-USA”s differentiating PM certifications and assessments. Or, better put: Especially Exhibit B organizations can benefit, so the least can catch up with the best–internally.

Closing the Gaps
It was in the early 1980s that we (as ProjectExperts) first discovered this phenomenon, that if you truly intend to improve PM Performance, you must move beyond project managers, to improve the effectiveness of the Managers in the Middle. Using tools like 360 degree evaluations and competence assessments (the origin of our PM Competence Model) across the entire stakeholder group, we found a handful of consistent patterns across almost all industries. We increased the entire organizations” ability to perform projects and programs by focusing on the PM competence of Managers in the range two levels up from the PM, and two levels down from the CEO. In some organizations that range involved 10 levels; in others, 2-3.

As a side note, once the problems and symptoms were identified to these Managers, they always cited them as coming from someone two levels up from them, no matter who we spoke to. In almost every case, the outcome of our PM competence development and performance improvement initiatives was this: Managers managed effectively across multiple levels, and Project and Program Managers managed their initiatives successfully. Performance increased; team and customer satisfaction soared. For those who were able to establish clear and relevant measures of success (often because they needed them for contractual purposes), the measured performance was well beyond their 2x-4x-and-greater targets.

The Greatest Heroes
Organizations need heroes, but they should not always be the project teams, who yet again achieve impossible success in the face of extreme odds. In every competent organization, those heroes include your stellar Middle Managers, who help focus the organization”s resources on the top-priority projects, while deftly conveying the most-important progress, status, and open issues up and across the organization. Clearly, competent and performing Project and Program Managers help, when they learn how to manage their Managers (a survival skill); but the greatest gift that we find in achieving high-performing project-oriented organizations is the incredibly competent Middle Manager.

Of course, those are the same heroic Managers who are most-likely to help their PM talent seek Advanced, Performance-Competence-based PM Certifications. They are also the most-likely to see the benefits of engaging Recognized Assessors in PRO, our Performance Rated Organization standard for PM performance assessment and (if qualified) organizational certification. They are the ones who know that, no matter how good their organization is, there is always the potential to continue to improve PM Performance.

So which organization is yours—Exhibit A, or Exhibit B, and what will you do about it?

* IPMA is the International Project Management Association, the World”s first Project Management association, and the first with a Competence-based certification series for Project and Program Managers. IPMA-USA is the USA member of IPMA.

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