Project managers must be consultants and must behave like consultants – it’s a bad day for “permies

Ed Taaffe has enjoyed a twenty year career in management with the past ten years spent in Project management and takes a special interest I human motivation as a management tool.  In this piece he explains why the consultant relationship with the client and the project team is critical to the success of projects.

This argument has nothing at all to do with the perennial  disagreements between Contractors and “Permies” in the IT industry, though it does go part of the way to proving the contractor viewpoint right.

What does success look like?
First let me be specific about the project failures we are addressing. There are all kinds out there and as any good problem solver or six sigma practitioner will tell you, there is more than one way to apportion blame and define cause.

What I am specifically addressing  is the high proportion of projects that get closed down,  or arrive late enough , or sufficiently over budget, or of sufficiently low quality to be deemed a failure.

These projects all started off wit everything in place and going fine, then at some point they began to drift and continued to drift unchecked until they ended up a failure.

My assumption is that since many projects defy totally accurate prediction of time and cost, there is a built in expectation that budget, scope and or duration may have to move at some point, if this is done and agreed then there is no project failure. Project failure occurs when the rot sets in and it is ignored, or when the project is set up with immovable boundaries and finishes outside of them.

Knowledge management holds the key

Within the technology world there is a particular inability to understand the nature of knowledge and it is mostly equated to data, or at best and not often, to information. The trouble is that neither of theses viewpoints is helpful.
 It is OK to believe that a  software process demands a precise piece of data to work correctly and to live in a virtual world of absolutes as do many technically minded people, but that doesn’t wash in the real world and there lies the corpse of many a CIO.

in the real world of doers, makers and shakers, decisions are made by people and the key ingredient is not the data, but the implicit and tacit elements of the way the people interpret information.

Bear with me, I’m almost done with the boring stuff.
Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger produced a study in 1957 at Stanford University whereby he clearly demonstrated that when somebody has reason to present an argument that is actually at odds with what he believes, he naturally alters is opinions as a result and finds himself agreeing much more with the argument that he previously disagreed with strongly.

It’s not hard to imagine how and why this might occur and there is plenty of further work exploring this aspect of the phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance, however the most interesting part of the experiment carried out by Festinger demonstrated that when a reward, or threat was used to force, or induce the person to argue against his own beliefs or judgement, then the effect of Cognitive dissonance was lessened, or missing altogether.

Clearly the mind has no trouble in understanding the idea of being paid to hold an entirely objective opinion, which it seems almost incapable of achieving under other circumstances.

Implicit and tacit knowledge

Interpretation of information and comparing it with learned responses and experiential knowledge and bias is the essence of implicit and tacit knowledge. It is therefore critical, naturally that the information is interpreted in a fairly objective way if the resulting knowledge is to be accurate and reliable and good decisions made.

Take the situation where the project manager has been indoctrinated and reaffirmed again and again that the project is on schedule and will not fail, or will not slide and he has sent out the RAG reports and made reports and presentations to stakeholders and boards convincing them that everything is going well, how do you expect he will react to data, or information telling him that several key tasks have slipped and there are issues looming?

It’s all in state of mind

The fact is that if our project manage is part of the culture and one of the pack and he feels the pressure to make this project a success, he will convince himself so strongly of this that he will behave exactly like Festinger’s students did in his experiment back in 1957, he will fail to see, or assimilate that which contradicts what he has been told to believe by the peer group, that which is contradictory to the crowd consciousness.

The answer is simple

The project manager must be an independent consultant and he must be a facilitator only.
He must have no personal stake in the success or failure of the project in terms of hitting dates, amounts, or quality targets, but he must be someone who talks straight, keeps the “permies” honest, ignores the crowd pull and tells the Empror when he is wearing no clothes.

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