Why We Need To Learn To Love Project Managers

‘There isn’t a child alive who dreams of being a project manager’ –  so said Scott Berkun.

He pointed out that project managers can unintentionally reinforce their work as (let’s be honest) dull – by trying to get everyone to pay attention to spreadsheets, specifications, PowerPoint presentations and status reports, failing to realise these are the least interesting and most bureaucratic things produced in the entire world of work.

Last year I suggested that you should never take an idea to a project management team -unless you want it to be accompanied by a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

It was said tongue in cheek, but it upset a couple of people who thought I was criticising project management.  The intention was the opposite: I was trying to show the value of controlled management – at the right time, in the right places. 

The issue is one of differing perspectives.

Exploration and implementation are completely different mindsets, never mind skillsets.

  • The purpose of project management is to predict as many dangers and problems as possible; and to plan, organise and control activities so that the project is completed as successfully as possible in spite of all the risks.
  • The purpose of innovation is to help us see beyond current convention, to counter the natural risk aversion that lies within organisations and to mobilise employees to experiment and discover new value for customers.

The behaviours this requires are fundamentally contradictory as one is about controlling risk and the other is about creating risk, usually in risk-averse environments.

Innovation tends to start with loosely defined, sometimes ill-defined objectives that gradually become clearer over months or even years. The processes used are more experimental and exploratory and don’t follow linear guidelines.

Because failure is a built-in possibility innovation teams have to fail fast and fail smart in order to move on to better options.

This is feasible in a ‘Lab type’ environment as you can control the cost and impact of failure. Whereas innovating in large projects is problematic as there are interdependencies between the components that make changes risky.

Can we combine the two approaches to get better outcomes?

At Bromford we’ve been exploring a better way to deliver change for a few years – and have now combined a broad range of colleagues with very different skill-sets all focused on one thing: solving the right problems.

You can see from our publicly accessible Trello board that the areas we are exploring are completely aligned to projects – indeed Project Managers and analysts are involved at the outset as part of innovation ‘discovery’ sessions.

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Increasingly, as work gets automated, simple problems should be eliminated. We’ll be left with the complex, messier ones – and these need a different approach to what once served us.

Traditional management models have focused almost exclusively on delivery of products and services. Newer management models, in contrast, focus primarily on the achievement of a result or the answer to a complex question.

As John Mortimer has said – maybe we need to unlearn our thinking that says, before we start doing anything, we need to define what the outcome will be, how long it will take, and what the solution will be.

Whether you are a Project Manager, Business Analyst, Designer, Researcher, Self Styled Innovator or Corporate Rebel – we have a common purpose:

Understanding problems, putting zombies down and reallocating resources to the most promising opportunities.

Everything is a project: and we are all project managers.

How To Find And Kill Zombie Projects

According to Clayton Christensen , of the 30,000 new consumer products that are launched each year – 95% fail.

Compare this with the public, voluntary and non-profit sectors – where hardly anything fails.

The social sector must either be fantastic at launching new initiatives, or there’s a lot of things going on that shouldn’t still be living.

Scott D. Anthony has defined the organisational zombie as those initiatives that fail to fulfill their promise and yet keep shuffling along, sucking up resources without any real hope of having a meaningful impact.

They may be started through the best of intentions, but for all sorts of reasons they are failing. Just no-one wants to admit it.

Why is that?

Let’s look at zombies.

night
Night Of The Living Dead – 1968
George A. Romero , who sadly passed away this week,  created a defining trilogy of horror films between 1968 and 1985.

They were audacious for the time – he cast a black lead for his first film, released the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Far from being splatter movies – they were stories about racism, consumerism and militaristic aggression.

Ultimately the message from Romero was this:

  • We should avoid group think
  • We should never stop asking questions or just mindlessly follow orders
  • We should never lose our sense of individuality

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As Paul Hackett said this week  , the social sector can get pretty much get away with poor decisions without it impacting turnover. In other sectors the share price takes a hit and executives get sacked.

The lack of a conventional market, and no customer walk away point, means projects can be propped up artificially using someone else’s money.

We need to refine our skills at spotting and killing wasteful activities.

In the movies and TV the conventional way to stop a zombie is to drive a sharp implement into the brain of anyone who shuffles along aimlessly.

As tempting as that is for those of us who’ve endured endless meetings – we don’t need to take such drastic action.

Zombies hate just five questions:

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In an era of scant resource and unmet need, spotting zombies is a vital part of leadership. Innovation is happening faster than we can adapt to it – and freeing up resources is vital. Investment must equal impact or we are simply sabotaging our future.

As part of the work we’ve been doing on Bromford 2.0 we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value.

However it’s all about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.  We’ve designed this principle to ensure we stick to it:

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People are losing faith in institutions as they are not seeing the kind of social outcomes they expect.

Today it’s the execution and impact of innovation and change that really matters rather than the cheerleading.

There needs to be as much enthusiasm for stopping the old as there is for starting the new. 

RIP George Romero. Stay dead.

How To Fast Track Innovation

fast-tracking-innovation

If you speak at conferences about innovation you’ll almost always encounter some frustrated people.

They approach you at the end, or contact you a few days later. They often have one thing in common.

They, and others like them , have ideas that are being shut down because they don’t fit the system.

They tend not to be the loud ones, the self styled boat rockers and rebels at work, but just people who are quietly trying to make a difference.

They see a refusal to identify, create, embrace, explore, develop or adopt new ideas. They see missed opportunities for new products, better processes or different ways of doing business.

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This week we spoke at an event at Alder Hey Innovation Hub on the subject of fast tracked innovation.

  • The NHS is 68 years old.
  • Bromford is 53.

That means we have at least two things in common.

  1. We’re successful. Our vision and purpose has remained relevant across decades.
  2. We’re in danger. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today.  We shouldn’t really still be here.

If you’ve been around that long you’re going to have a huge amount of organisational wisdom. You’ve become very good at what you do.

However – older companies are really bad at innovation because they’re designed to be bad at innovation.

Older companies are designed to execute on delivery — not engage in discovery.

And this is where all those frustrated people come from. They are explorers locked in a system focused on repetition.

Smart organisations know that innovation has to happen by design. They know that you have to build non-linear processes that encourage purposeful deviation.

It’s project unmanagement.

Project management as in methodologies like PRINCE2 can be anti-innovation. It’s about defined steps to make something logical and organised. PRINCE actually stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments.

Control.

Let’s be clear – I’m not dismissing the importance of controlled projects. However my experience of talking to a lot of frustrated people is that organisations are confusing control and exploration.

As I heard this week – “I just keep getting told to take my idea to the project team, but they don’t seem to get it”.

No. They wouldn’t get it.

NEVER take an idea to a project management team unless you want it come back with a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

fast-tracking-innovation-2

As this diagram from Tom Hartland shows – there’s a whole fuzzy front end to deal with first.

The conundrum we face is that the very processes that drive toward a profitable, efficient operation tend to get in the way of developing innovations that can actually transform the business.

Until organisations invest in a test and learn framework to accompany their efficiency models they are doomed to disappoint a lot of employees and see ideas go nowhere.

Creating a safe place for intrapreneurs to test ideas and gain supporting evidence so they can justify requesting funds is now necessary whatever the size of your company.

What’s the ROI?

A better question to ask is how you measure the return for an idea that does not yet exist.


The latest Lab slide deck is below. Thanks to Tom for the awesome illustrations.

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