Category Archives: Business Thoughts

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Put the Remote Down and Step Away from the TV !!

“I could have done that but I just didn’t have time…”

One of my earlier postings this year was focused on Time Management. Personally, I thought it was a fairly easy-to-understand read and included one very simple recommendation:

Turn Off The TV!!!

Apparently that message continues to elude people. They still complain about “others” who are making progress and getting ahead instead of them. They complain that they aren’t getting “the breaks” that other people are. They complain that “life just isn’t fair!”

While I will grant you that life commonly isn’t “fair”, get over it! You may have been laid off from your last job and can’t find work. You may be in what you call a “dead end job” and your boss is unreasonable. Accept that and move to the next topic: What are YOU going to do about it?

There is nothing that is holding you back but yourself. The critical step in changing your life is to DO something about it.

Whether you are looking for a job or performing one that you don’t like, you need to make some time for yourself. Too much to do to make time? Go back to the title of this posting…

Put the Remote Down and Step Away from the TV !!

How many hours do you spend in front of the TV?

“I only watch a little TV each day. Usually just from when I get home from work just until after the 11 o’clock News.”

Do the math:    6:30P to 11:30P = ~5 hours per day … 35 hours/week (that approaches the amount you spend at work as a full time employee!)

Doesn’t sound right? Actually the 5 hour/day amount is an average taken across ALL age groups.

In 2007, according to A.J. Nielsen Company the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day. By the end of 2011, TV watching time increased to more than 5 hours per day, without including any computer or smartphone time. (and those readers in the over 50 age categories shouldn’t be smug … most of those hours came from you!)

Dump the TV in the evenings. 

Do something with yourself instead of being “entertained”. After work, grab a light dinner and then force yourself to take a 5 minute walk. Longer is OK, but 5 minutes (once around a small city block) should be adequate. Your walk will help break the pattern of behavior that has probably lost you several years.

When you get home, don’t turn the TV on. If someone else is there and already watching “Wheel of Fortune“, go into another room, pick up a book or a magazine. Now read for 30 minutes. Don’t just flip pages, but actually read a chapter or several magazine articles from start to finish.

Congratulations. You’ve just taken the first step into your next adventure!

Now get up and do something active around the house. This is where cleaning out your “sock drawer” or “washing windows” can be a positive activity. Your target is to perform another 30 minute activity that keeps you away from the TV. 30 minutes is not a long time, but you’ll be surprised at how much you get done in 30 minute segments when they are spread across a week or two.

It’s probably still early, so go back to your reading. This time, pick up something lighter, but it’s still important keep your focus.

If you are transitioning from years of evening TV, you’ll probably find it difficult to focus even for 30 minutes. The producers and advertisers have training you to focus for 8-10 minutes at a time, followed by a series of 1 minute commercials. You need to retrain yourself to focus your mind.

Alternate back and forth between half hour “activities” and readings until bedtime. I’d suggest that you plan on earlier bedtime, because, at least for the first 2 weeks, you will become tired earlier than usual.

Of course, your spouse or partner will probably think that you’ve lost your mind. Usually, their response will land somewhere between disbelief and harassment. Remember that this change is YOUR change, not necessarily anyone else’s. Your partner/spouse may choose to join your change, but that’s their decision and shouldn’t be linked to your success or failure.

Just say “Good-Bye” to that energy-sucking box, called a “TV”, and say “Hello” to your new life.

Pick your Direction

It won’t be long before you exhaust the casual reading materials and small chores around your home. Now it’s time to step up and look for your “new directions”.

Return to school? Get a degree in a new field? Join a gym? Fantastic directions, but too ambitious for most of us newly-ex-couch potatoes. Pick something smaller … something well defined … something affordable.

Need ideas? It’s time to brainstorm. The Internet is filled with great sites where you can look for something that might pique your interest:

Got an idea? Use a search engine (e.g. Yahoo!, Google) to start exploring in greater detail. Add associated articles and books to your reading list.

Do you want to do something more? Look for volunteer opportunities in your area:

Looking for how-to independence?

Whatever you choose to do, just don’t sit there. Become ACTIVE.

The most difficult step is the first one. The next most difficult steps that you’ll take in making a change in your life are those that you’ll take during the following 3 weeks. It takes about 2-3 weeks before you really change your patterns and behaviors. Stick with it … you’ll be amazed at your results!

Bringing a Project Possessed into Conformity…

[Joining Critical Path and Risk Analysis]

On large projects, it’s often common to have 8 or more parallel, relatively independent work streams active at the same time. While this may seem like a lot to track, it’s really not … until several start to act as if they had minds of their own.

Living In The Moment…

The project plan had been carefully laid out with the assistance of the subject matter experts. The work efforts had been decomposed into appropriate work breakdown structures and the associated resources assigned / scheduled with their functional managers. Life isn’t good, it’s GREAT!

Then, one by one, risk probabilities increase toward realities. On one track, a key resource takes an emergency family leave. On two others, the IT teams, scheduled by external business units, declared that they would be “unable” to meet the timeline on previously-agreed-upon interface development. Three other interfaces show issues with their test environments.

Seemingly overnight, the complex, but achievable, project becomes a project possessed! Everything that could go wrong is! Risk analysis? Yes that had been done, complete with mitigation plans, but no one could have predicted such a concurrent set of events. Where to start?

Not Everything is Equal

Project managers often make the mistake of holding onto what THEY feel are the most important project constraints … Cost, Schedule or Scope … and don’t consider alternatives before it’s too late.

In a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, “The Experience Trap“, an international team of researchers highlighted how experienced project managers are often so tied to common delivery constraints (especially budget & time) that they ignore solution options before it is too late to employ them effectively.

though the managers had encountered similar situations on their jobs in the past, they still struggled with them in the simulations

The experienced managers still selected solution paths that maintained cost and timeline targets, in spite of the significant and probable risk to product quality or resulting in HR issues. The managers overlooked the option of working with stakeholders (and the project sponsor) to revise a project’s initial targets. A quality product delivery with a missed timeline target can still result in an effective delivery.

A project that delivers on-time and on-budget, but with poor quality can rarely be called “successful”. As project managers, do we often become too focused on our own achievements (on-time, on-scope and on-budget), missing solutions or options?

Analyze the Events

When “everything” seems to be going wrong at the same time, look at the situation and your options before acting. Re-examine risk impacts to determine if there are any unexpected impact increases triggered by concurrent events. Your initial risk analysis might have missed something or a mitigation option might no longer available to you.

Critical Path Analysis – Nobody Wants to be Late!

With the initial analysis in hand, start looking for where additional resources and/or modifications might have the greatest impact. A task or group of tasks with missed targeted dates don’t necessarily mean that there will be a day-for-day impact to the project’s completion date.

A project is rarely just a collection of tasks linked together to be executed in a single series order or “path”. A project is usually an aggregation of semi-independent work paths that come together at specific points to deliver a final product or result. The Critical Path is the longest duration path of tasks that leads through the project.

If a delay occurs to a task along the Critical Path (red line in the above example), it can have a significant, day-for-day on the project’s end date. A delay in a task (e.g. Task E or Task I) on a secondary or “feeder” path might be important, but not quite so concerning. That feeder path task, while scheduled to occur on a specific date, might have other dependencies/lags that allow its later delivery without an overall project timeline impact.

To understand where additional resources / modifications can be most effectively utilized, the project’s Critical Path must be identified.

The determination of a Critical Path for a project can be complex if done manually. If a project management tool, like Microsoft Project, is used and the project dependencies are properly configured, it will point to the path for you. While there can be exceptions to this approach, focusing attention on Critical Path tasks first is generally a “best” practice.

Review the Project Priorities

Your project may still be on track today, but the probability of it being there at conclusion might be remote. Where are your flexibilities?

Go back to the documents that initiated the project and look at the priorities. Everyone would like cost, scope and budget to be maintained, but which one or two constraints would the project sponsor and other stakeholders find less important than the others?

It’s not uncommon to find that the prioritization of primary constraints is missing from the project initiation docs. Risk events and mitigation plans are rarely popular topics when the project is “new and shiny”. If that’s the case, go back to the sponsor and stakeholders to capture their priorities. Expect some level of negotiation to occur, as now you’re talking about a likelihood, not just a remote probability of a missed completion target.

“New” marching orders in hand, you can now re-cast your project and bring it into compliance.

[Coming soon … Avoiding Delivery Issues: Critical Chain Project Management]

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Related Articles:

Should the Technical FTE Role be Dead?

At one point in our history, it was commonplace for a worker to join a company upon leaving school and stay with them until retirement. There was a perceived loyalty between employer and employee.

Life was good … or was it?

Did the employer really care about the educational or professional “growth” of the employee? Conversely, did the employee continue to bring new ideas and energy to the workplace after 20 years on the job?

As the Baby Boomers (post WW-II babies) entered the workforce in the 70s, jobs were plentiful. “Job hopping” became a common term as Silicon Valley companies competed for skilled laborers. The recession of the early ’80s caused many of those workers to search for the “secure” corporate work-life of their parents, only to look again for that “brass ring” as the economic carousel took another spin around with the tech/Dot-com boom of the 90s.

Now, as recovery begins again, should technology workers be looking for the “security” of a long-term, single employer job? Should employers look to beef up their internal workforce again or drive their business with contractors?

For the employer, the positive financial tipping point for the FTE option appears to lie somewhere during or after the third year of employment. An excellent financial analysis of several employment scenarios was produced in 2009 by a team at Greythorn, a subsidiary of the FiveTen Group, an international recruiting/contracting firm. A link to the associated slide presentation is provided here.

For the worker, the financial benefits of contracting depend largely on the skills of the individual and the business choices he or she makes along the way. The keys to contractor success are:

  1. have something to sell, i.e. a skill that is in demand,
  2. set the price appropriate to quality/skill level and market demand, and
  3. market the deliverable well.

Being a successful contractor is not rocket science. It “just” requires effort.

Beyond the financials, the real question is: Should the long term, full-time employee (FTE) model be replaced by shorter-term IT workers?

The answer may lie buried somewhere between the speed of technology change and the inability of managers to properly project their needs. Certainly, in a stable work industry, managers can assess attrition and train internal staff to fill those empty positions and hire new employees into “entry-level” positions. Traditional, predictable, effective.

As the speed of technology change increases, it becomes more difficult to project needs several years in advance. The window to build expert skill levels within the internal resource pool decreases. Especially when “bottom line” costs are scrutinized, training seems to be an easy choice for managers to move into “next year’s budget”. Failure to invest in training at the right time, leaves an employer few options. They have to depend on contractors.

The workers, on the other hand, bear a significant responsibility for their own fate. Train, study and be aware of technology/industry demands or become unemployed. While the cause-and-effect is obvious, it’s commonly ignored. It’s not a life-lesson taught in high schools or undergraduate degree programs, but it should be. It is the worker’s responsibility to stay current with skills that are in demand. Education is not something that ends in your early 20s. Education a life-long process.

The manager may be asleep-at-the-switch, but the worker, who will be impacted most with a layoff, must push for the technical training to stay current and to be prepared for “the next big thing”. That training might be on-the-job (e.g. a “stretch” work assignment), outside reading/study or a volunteer work effort.

Similarly, contractors and short-duration workers must include training and/or growth work placements to continually enhance their marketability.

Who benefits from this employment model shift?

The employer benefits with a more nimble, up-to-date technology work force. The worker benefits by taking personal responsibility for his or her continuing technology education.

So what happens to the Tech FTE?

Some technical long term employees include management skills in their training. They move up and out of the technical resource pool. Others, especially those who fail to stay current, move to the dead-end, but, at the time, necessary jobs that all companies seem to have.

The risk that many companies and public agencies face is related to the long-term employees, who fail to continue their education/training but continue to “occupy” their desks. Some are retained because they possess specific subject matter knowledge about the installed systems. Others maintain their grip on their chairs by doing just what is required to get by. While I am a strong supporter of unions and their role in protecting worker rights, I am not a supporter of a seniority system that protects poor performance.

Say Good-Bye 

In my opinion, it’s time to be realistic. The technical FTE position is not good for the employer or for the worker. It builds a false expectation of stability within the tech workforce and, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the Tech FTE role “is the opiate of the [tech] masses”.

Business needs to acknowledge their inability to maintain long-standing technical work forces and be honest with their employees,

Stay current or you will be gone!

Harsh words, but they are a reality.

Tech workers need to step up to the plate, turn off the TV and continue their education/training. They need to stop blaming immigrants and younger workers for their employment problems. With age can come perspective, but perspective without current knowledge is of little value.

Today’s tech workers need to build their own futures and not look to others to do it for them.

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Background Materials / Blog Postings

“Those Job-Hopping Baby Boomers”, by Monika Hamori, Sept 2010, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/09/job_hopping_do_boomers_and_mil.html

Cost Analysis … The Real Costs of Contractors versus Full Time Employees, A Greythorn White Paper (part of the Five Ten Group),  1Q 2009, http://www.slideshare.net/rprosio/REAL-Costs-of-Contractors-1075420

“We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people.”

Focused, but uncharacteristically tame words from old “Blood and Guts“, as he was often called, General George S. Patton. Many have reviled Patton for his often inappropriate remarks and tough leadership style, but few fault his battlefield successes. Patton believed in plain talk and direct action.

Project management is about leadership … sometimes tough and often direct.

Patton’s tough leadership style was tuned to the art and science of war. In spite of his “blood and guts” style, Patton knew how to gain the best from his men.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

He championed the strength of the individual, but he also understood the value of a team in achieving a goal.

An Army is a team … individual heroic stuff is pure horseshit … Every man is a vital link in the great chain.

In our world of political correctness and “feelings”, the hard-driving management style of Patton looks foreign and out-of-place. Out-of-place, but still effective. Patton’s style motivated his teams to achieve beyond what they or anyone else thought was possible. Patton played to his teams with a winner’s message,

Americans play to win at all times. I wouldn’t give a hoot and hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor ever lose a war.

But projects are not wars; projects are not battles. Projects do, however require good leaders. Is the blood-and-guts “Patton style” effective in project management?

I became a project manager and a team leader during the 1980s, when Patton-style management was commonplace, especially in IT and Consulting. High impact, high stress projects, commonly started with a 10-20% resource “buffer” to balance the expected attrition. Long hours and the get-it-done-or-be-pushed-aside style took high tolls on project resources. Only “the strong” survived.

With the Patton style, a manager could move forward with the same rhetoric and method regardless of the team. It was simple and direct. The method that worked with Team A on Project B, should also work with Team C on Project D. Success was not necessarily related to a particular team, it was about the method.

I can offer personal testimony that, yes, the Patton method of project management does work. You cannot, however, allow progress to slow for those team members who fall by the wayside. Again from General Patton,

It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.

The Patton style of project management, unfortunately, is often used to compensate for incomplete planning, improper estimating or insufficient risk management processes. Failures are turned into “successes”, as teams spend nights and weekends trying to make up for management mistakes. When it happens too often, burnout occurs and we end up “[thanking] God that such men lived”.

As my career in IT management progressed, I shifted my leadership style to that of another World War II general,  Dwight D. Eisenhower. As President, he wrote,

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

Good project leadership is not about forcing an outcome, but inspiring a direction. I certainly could herd the cats and drive my teams, but in doing so, I saw that became the project engine. Remove me and the momentum declined. Using Eisenhower approach to move teams, allows the teams to deliver with or without the “engine”, because they want to do it. The teams move toward a self-motivating, self-managing state.

Successful projects bring the entire team to the point of completion … with growth, not attrition.

Both the Patton and the Eisenhower methods can achieve the same end result, a project successfully delivered. But the Eisenhower approach can require more effort from the manager. So, why employ a style that adds overhead?

Simply stated, attrition costs money. Casting off the casualties, might not hurt a particular project’s budget, but it eventually has a measurable impact on the company’s bottom line. Recruiting and training new resources costs money.

Instead of the use-and-discard of overworked resources, employing effective project processes and improving team member skills can deliver motivated teams who return the company’s investment with loyalty and improved performance.

While delivered as a joking remark, President Eisenhower also pointed out that,

leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.

Delivered in jest or with sincerity, project managers know that truer words were never spoken. We ultimately take have to take responsibility for failures, as we are coordinating the attack. The real work is performed by our teams, who deserve the credit.

Today’s project managers should follow the Eisenhower methodology, inspiring their teams to “do something you want done because [they] want to do it.” Failure to do so can leave project managers acting out the infamous words of another World War II general, Douglas MacArthur,

We are not retreating – we are advancing in another direction.

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Related content:

“The General George S. Patton Story”, Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Narrated by Ronald Reagan, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvL0tj9ZaoY&noredirect=1

“Patton’s Speech to the 3rd Army prior to D-Day “, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2398239/posts

When a Project Manager should Question the Authority

You want to do what??   Really?

Project managers are skilled in coordinating resources to deliver a specific product or process. Usually we’re provided the basics of a business case and often, a subject matter expert (SME) to fill in the technical details.

But what happens when the goals or the project approach don’t make sense to you?

Especially early in a project’s life cycle, project managers are often bulldozed by their SMEs and Sponsors into just focusing on getting the project on-the-road.

When will all that planning and organizing be done?                           When can we start coding?

Sound familiar? Unfortunately questions of this type are far too common. Project SMEs and stakeholders may understand the need for requirements gathering, but few have patience with a project manager who questions the framework of an initiating business case or a solution approach. After all, the project manager is not necessarily a subject matter expert and may not know much about the business operations.

That lack of business/technical knowledge, however, should be a reason to question authority! A project manager, uncomfortable with an approach or business justification, should challenge the team members to explain their positions.

While PMI processes don’t specifically call for a validation checkpoint when a project manager is assigned to a project, it is good practice to add one. Don’t wait until the cows have left the barn … ask the stupid questions of your team at the start!

It’s much easier to claim ignorance during the Initiation or Planning phases than it is during Execution. Those “clarifying questions” really don’t fall into the “stupid” category, unless they aren’t asked.

I was recently asked about managing an infrastructure conversion project. While I was familiar with the technology basics, I thought that a “refresh” was warranted. I wanted to see what solution approaches a project team might be considering. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but the “industry experts” posting on the subject, were offering the same basic structures that we had applied 15 years ago!

Document the environments, research the existing-state performance / stability issues, understand the business and application constraints. Perform these tasks as the foundation to planning. That wasn’t anything new!

Then it hit me. The SMEs reading that advice probably had less than 10 years of experience. They wouldn’t have been working 15 years ago, at least not in senior/planning roles. They probably knew the functions and the features of the technology products that they were about to implement, but they might not have the process perspective of an experienced project manager.

Challenge Authority

Less concerned about the technology specifics, I shifted my prep focus to the broader topics of the project approach. Let the subject matter experts do what they do best … provide specific information and expertise … but don’t assume that everything is OK. Ask questions about the business environments, the background work and the assumptions. When something sounds obscure or ill-defined, it often is. Ask questions and look for answers.

The answers that the project resources provide might highlight an area that was overlooked or a linkage that wasn’t considered. Conversely, the answers may provide no additional insight to them, but they will certainly add to your understanding of the project.

Properly done, such review sessions may allow your new team to show the depth of their knowledge and what they have thought about. Challenging authority doesn’t have to be confrontational (and shouldn’t be). It should be an opportunity to walk through the project’s key components and allow your team to express their knowledge. Where additional information is required, the assigned resource can later return to the team, after completing their research, and be the “answer man” (or “answer woman”).

Not Everyone is an Expert

You might find that you weren’t the only team member who didn’t understand a particular term or topic. On past projects, I’ve added regular technology and business reviews for the team members to give them opportunities to learn about their own environments.

These reviews were hugely successful in bringing the various team members up-to-speed on the project’s business and technology components. While watching 20-minute presentations doesn’t turn anyone into an “expert”, the briefings do give the team members (and stakeholders) a common understanding of project terminology and a better perspective on the issues that each face.

Questioning “the authorities” and challenging them to explain what they are recommending and why, can be an important part of project initiation. But remember, how those questions are stated, can be equally important. Be respectful. Be honest. Be focused on the project.

the project manager who fails to seek out and include the right subject matter experts is likely to deliver an end solution that isn’t 100% dead-on.  The result will be a customer who is less than satisfied and a solution that may not deliver the expected or desired results. 

PM_Value = (Reduction_of_Project_Risk *100) + Increased_Project_Effectiveness + Increased_Project_Efficiencies

Sorbanes Oxley … Needless Overhead?

Enron and WorldCom … two members of the Evil Empire who triggered the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act of 2002. Ancient history, right?

In the past few sessions of Congress, exemptions from SOX regulations have been considered for greater and greater numbers of publicly traded companies. The 2012 JOBS Act removes the external audit requirement for “small and emerging” businesses (less than $1B revenue per year) for their first 5 years. After that time, the external audits are required. According to William A. Niskanen, the 2005 chairman of the Cato Institute, the current regulations and the accompanying external audits represent significant drain on corporate resources and should be significantly reduced or eliminated.

Others disagree. Former US Congressman Michael Oxley and former US Senator Paul Sarbanes, authors of the 2002 Act, feel that we’re still in trouble. In a 2008 interview,  Oxley and Sarbanes pointed to the subprime loan crisis as an example of how the “lack of transparency” in the secondary market made it impossible for investors to properly assess risk. They feel that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is still needed.

The current president of the American Institute of Certified Public Accounts, Barry C. Melancon, agrees. In a March 2012 open letter to the members of the US Senate, Mr. Melancon, notes that,

consistency in applying accounting standards for all public companies is vital to investors, along with clear, objective and transparent financial information.

But the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act is not just about financial audits and disclosures. It includes guidelines and audits of information technology (IT) applications and environments. Primarily, SOX is protecting “sensitive user information”, including:

  • Account number and identifiers
  • Customer numbers
  • User names
  • Credit card or bank information of any kind
  • Passwords
  • Private messages and blog posts
  • Wage information
  • Social security and driver’s license numbers
  • Birthdates

In spite of SOX regulations, we routinely hear of such information passing into “inappropriate” hands. Does that mean that SOX regulations and audits are ineffective and should be abandoned?

In many cities and towns, inspectors routinely check for fire code violations at businesses and high-rises, yet commercial fires still occur. Would you want those inspectors to abandon their efforts? I certainly wouldn’t.

Similarly, I wouldn’t want to see the removal of IT environment audits. While I have generally found external audits to be an annoyance, I have to admit that I appreciated it when an auditor did find something that my teams had missed.

It is much better to be proactively correcting a mistake than to be picking up the pieces after a security breach. Both businesses and their customers benefit from the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations.

Those of us, who must stop our other work to ensure compliance, may find SOX regulations irritating, but they do keep us vigilant. While you have added work to my task list, “Thank you, Senator Sarbanes and Congressman Oxley”.

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References and Related Content

Public Law 107–204—JULY 30, 2002 [Sarbanes-Oxley Act], http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ204/pdf/PLAW-107publ204.pdf

Don’t let reduction of compliance regulations short-change governance“, by Scot Petersen, April 2012, http://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/cio/dont-let-reduction-of-compliance-regulations-short-change-governance/?track=NL-1014&ad=869632&asrc=EM_USC_17112066&uid=5813414

While this may reduce some paperwork and reduce costs, it wouldn’t be prudent to abandon compliance exercises merely because they are no longer law. … Reduction of regulation overhead is always a good thing, but don’t let JOBS become an excuse for avoiding or reducing corporate governance policies that add value to the business.

What the JOBS Act Means for SOX Compliance“, by  Bill Bockwoldt. April 2012, http://www.vibato.com/blog/bid/81110/What-the-JOBS-Act-Means-for-SOX-Compliance?

Obama Signs JOBS Act to Boost Startups” by Chloe Albanesius, April 2012, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2402657,00.asp

Companies already have two years to comply with certain Sarbanes-Oxley auditing requirements. The JOBS Act extends that to five years – or less if the company reaches $1 billion in gross revenue, $700 million in public float, or issues more than $1 billion in non-convertible debt in the previous three years.

Congress Should Repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley Act”, by William A. Niskanen, CATO Institute, appeared in the Baltimore Examiner on August 2, 2006. http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/congress-should-repeal-sarbanesoxley-act

Subprime’s parallels with Enron and WorldCom: Michael Oxley and Paul Sarbanes”, March 2008, http://www.soxfirst.com/50226711/subprimes_parallels_with_enron_and_worldcom_michael_oxley_and_paul_sarbanes.php

Open Letter to Members of the United States Senate, from Barry C. Melancon, President and CEO of AICPA, 19 March 2012, http://www.aicpa.org/Advocacy/Issues/DownloadableDocuments/404b/3-19-12_Senate_Letter_re_accounting_and_auditing.pdf

Sarbanes-Oxley IT Security Compliance Checklist” by Jason Kolb, April 2006, http://www.jasonkolb.com/weblog/2006/04/web_20_security_1.html

What makes a Project Manager, Professional?

The Professional Certification vs Experience Bias

Like many Project Managers, who had “earned their stripes” in the delivery of projects prior to the popularity of certifying organizations, I have often looked at the PMI certification “tags” after a signature with a certain level of skepticism. Was this really a Project Management “Professional” or just someone claiming expertise after paying a fee and taking a test? While it is true that there are many highly skilled and greatly experienced PMP‘s out there, there are also many PMP’s who present themselves as more than they really are.

The value and meaning of a PMP certification, or really any certification, has been well discussed in blog postings across the Internet and over many years. (See below for links to several of those discussions). The posting that hit the mark for me is one from 2006 by Timothy L Johnson, “Those Star Bellied Sneetches“. He sums up the issues,

[The Dr Seuss book] is about class warfare backfiring, but I see many of the same parallels showing up in the project management certification debate … especially in hiring and staffing decisions.

The presence of a PMP “star”, especially in today’s recruiting practices, is often misinterpreted as a guarantee of success and its absence, a sign of risk.

While such assignment may be misapplied, the concept of an organization that certifies the professional skills and experiences of a project manager does have merit. Companies and public agencies today have significant project needs and complex initiatives that would benefit from a skilled project manager … a project management professional.

So What Makes a Project Manger, a “Professional”?

Skills

“Skills” are the organizational structures that a PM brings to a project along with the ability to apply them expertly. Whether these structures are expressed in terms of PMI/PMBOK Processes or an ITIL Framework or some other form, these are the tools that a PM uses to build a project’s definition, plan, execution and control. Expertise in using these tools effectively is a basic requirement for a PM, who falls into the “Professional” category.

Perspective [aka experience]

Classroom studies and readings can provide an understanding of particular PMI or ITIL deliverables, but they don’t explain people or problems. Project management is not about managing “things”. Project Management is about leading and managing people / teams. When performed at a “Professional” level, Project Management utilizes experience (and the perspective can come with it) to help the project teams to be successful in their delivery.

Ethics

While all adults may be expected to conduct themselves ethically, recent years have shown that it not always the case. To avoid any confusion over what is “ethical conduct”, PMI created a formal Code of Ethics and Professional Development  that is enforced under penalty of certification loss:

  • Responsibility — Taking ownership of decisions including their consequences. This includes knowing and meeting all legal requirements, reporting unethical or illegal conduct to appropriate management, fulfilling commitments and protecting proprietary and confidential information.
  • Respect — Being respectful of yourself, listen to others and protect resources entrusted to us.
  • Fairness — Being fair and transparent in decisions including disclosing conflicts of interest to appropriate stakeholders.
  • Honesty — Being honest in communications and conduct.

ITIL similarly places importance on ethical conduct, but handles the topic of “ethics” through its Best Management Practice Partnership with APM Group‘s Ethics and Standards Board.

Ownership / Quality Delivery

Finally, with a “Professional” Project Manager, there is an inherent sense of ownership of a project. Just as a gardener carefully plants a seed and nurtures it as it grows to maturity, the “Professional” Project Manager guides a project through its life cycle.

The end product (the “fruit”) may belong to the business, but the project itself is “ours”. We take pride how well our “seedling” is supported by the project tools and framework that we utilize. We may add more structure along the way (or remove some) to ensure our projects grow fast and straight. The quality delivery of the project is our responsibility as Professional Project Managers.

The Role of Certifications & Organizations

As much as I dislike the inherent inference of expertise that certification monikers indicate today, the certifying organizations do provide effective tools, structures and frameworks upon which project management practitioners can effectively build.

Certifying organizations also have the potential to further their stature by addressing the experience gap. Instead of accepting form-based experience validations, these organizations should consider the creation of modern (project management) “trade” guilds, where apprentices can learn under the supervision of experienced PM “craftsmen” and masters. Instead of discarding certifications, stronger mentoring links with seasoned professionals or structured apprenticeships should be established as part of certification requirements.

[Yes … I am a PMI-certified PMP.]

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The De-valued Professional Project Manager” by Bruce McGraw, 2012, http://fearnoproject.com/2012/03/17/the-de-valued-professional-project-manager/

If you have devoted your career to being a professional PM, like I have, you are frustrated watching companies put individuals into project manager positions who do not have the experience nor the skills to do the job.

Those Star Bellied Sneetches” by Timothy L Johnson,  2006,  http://carpefactum.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/05/those_starbelly.html

[Dr Seuss book] is about class warfare backfiring, but I see many of the same parallels showing up in the project management certification debate .. especially in hiring and staffing decisions.

Project Management – A Modern Profession” by Michelle Symons, 2012, http://www.pmhut.com/project-management-a-modern-profession

But recognition of professionalism is not just about training and qualifications – it is also about continuous professional development and the ability to demonstrate the skills necessary to competently manage complex projects.

License to manage? (On PMP and certification)” by Scott Berkun, 2006, http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/2006/license-to-manage-on-pmp-and-certification/

I just don’t believe that on their own these things signify much about the ability to perform, especially as a manager. To be fair, I doubt any exam or degree can do that, which explains my general opinion about certification programs.

Why I’m Not a PMP“, by Glenn Alleman, 2006,  http://herdingcats.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/05/raven_young_pos.html

I guess in the end the PMP moniker doesn’t appeal to me that much. It seems to be a “gate keeping” type badge.

How to handle Project Risks that become Realities

Do you see yourself as a realist?

It’s impossible to foresee the future, so why waste time trying…

Or do you see yourself as a compulsive planner, constantly considering a range of possible events that could impact your project?

Apollo 13 or Titanic?

Some project “events” will causally walk up and bite you. No warning growl. No alerting bark. Just a nasty event with its teeth sunk deep into your project’s leg. These are what I call “Apollo 13 events”. Regardless of the planning and preparation, there they are … with an evil grin, standing in the way of your project team … just waiting to explode.

Luckily, most project “events” evolve slowly and, for the observant project manager, provide some time to react before they actually become a reality. Some might retroactively classify the Titanic disaster as an “Apollo 13 event”, but I challenge that. The Titanic’s “unsinkable” myth, created in marketing of the ship, initiated a false sense of security among the crew and passengers. The resulting risks grew in impact as they became linked together.

The Titanic-iceberg event may look similar to the Apollo 13 explosion at its trigger point, both were sudden, dramatic and unexpected events, but the Apollo 13 event had a much more positive outcome.

Why?

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

In “Apollo 13”, the movie, the project managers are seen sweeping their work tables clear of charts and tables, to “start over” when the significance of the on-board explosion was understood. Such a dramatic clearing-of-the-decks may have been a realistic reenactment of the scene, it glossed over the “foundation work” upon which the support teams built their success. I agree that risk analysis and planning are not much for The Big Screen and that “foundation work” is often downright boring. But it was the years of planning, training and preparation that went into the management structure supporting that Apollo mission that brought those astronauts home. While the management team did not expect the explosion, they were prepared to act and respond in an organized manner.

To be successful when project risks do become realities, a project team should proactively build a foundation for risk management including risk definition, analysis (of probabilities, impacts) and mitigation/response plans. Working without risk management could be viewed as working without a safety net. You might survive a small misstep, but a fall could prove fatal.

In my project management experience, maintaining the risk register (risk management documentation) is not a popular project task. We all know that it’s important, but few of us particularly like to perform it. It’s not flashy and few people (outside of QA) seem to care much about it, until something goes wrong.

Managing Risks instead of Reacting to Them

Instead of using the risk register as a “QA check off” item, I strongly recommend that teams take its maintenance and update seriously. As noted above, proactive risk management often reduces risk impact and negates the need to react radically.

A single action taken early enough in a risk triggering sequence can completely avoid an event occurrence. The challenge is to see the initiation of the triggering sequence, not the end of the sequence (aka the event trigger). The observation of that initial change can most easily occur if the risks are routinely monitored and updated. (Risk management may be boring, but it can be extremely effective.)

When Your Ship Does Hit an Iceberg …

This is where the preparation pays off! Depending on the event, pre-positioning contingency resources can turn an “impending disaster” into just a “significant event”. Obtaining additional staff resources or additional funding to handle an event takes time. Reacting slowly to an event generally intensifies its negative impact. Preparation and planning are not glamorous tasks, but completed properly, they can plug a hole before “the ship” begins to list.

Clear understanding of the relative importance of project targets and goals can also turn a “major event” into just a “missed target”. When confronted with a the prospect of a missed timeline target, experienced project managers will often drive their teams harder to deliver. In a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, “The Experience Trap“, an international team of researchers highlighted how experienced project managers are often so tied to common delivery constraints (especially budget & time) that they ignore solution options before it is too late to employ them effectively.

though the managers had encountered similar situations on their jobs in the past, they still struggled with them in the simulations

The experienced managers still selected solution paths that maintained cost and timeline targets, in spite of the significant and probable risk to product quality or HR issues. The managers overlooked the option of working with stakeholders (and the project sponsor) to revise a project’s initial targets. A quality product delivery with a missed timeline target can still result in an effective delivery. It just means that the project manager cannot claim achievement of the Holy Trinity (on-time, on-scope, on-budget). A project that delivers on-time and on-budget, but with poor quality can rarely be called “successful”.

While we may not be able to predict the particular iceberg or explosion that might impact our projects, we can identify general risks and prepare accordingly. We can routinely monitor risks (scanning the horizon) to see if probabilities or potential impacts increase. We can prepare (pre-positioning resources / funds) for potentially high impact events and reduce the “surprise” of active triggers with monitoring (setting a bow watch while sailing across the North Atlantic).

As project managers, we don’t have control over everything, but with risk management processes, we do have significant control of our project’s destiny.

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Related Articles:

  • The Experience Trap“,  Kishore Sengupta, Tarek K. Abdel-Hamid, and Luk N. Van Wassenhove, Harvard Business Review – February 2008

Methodologies and Project Madness

There are times when technology projects seem to be something more of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth than they are manifestations of today’s business world. The relative obscurity of Shakespeare’s prose is certainly challenged by the confusing technical jargon often used by today’s project stakeholders.

Whether it be the seemingly positive prophecies of Macbeth’s witches (Initial Estimates ?) or the warnings of King Hamlet’s ghost (Historical Accounts ?), the initiation of a project can be filled with confusing, often conflicting, data. It is the skill and experience of the project management team that sorts through that initial information and develops a plan.

The project team can select an aggressive methodology, employing a Macbeth-style Agile (?) approach, or it can study a problem intensely before acting (e.g. Hamlet’s “madness” / waterfall planning methodology [Act 2, Scene 2]). The selected project methodology provides only a framework. It is the action of the actors (the project management team) that really shapes the outcome.

With both power and urgency, Lady Macbeth certainly plays her role as a key stakeholder well. It was unfortunate for Macbeth and those who surrounded him that he listens just to her. [Literary Reminder (L-R): Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to kill the King. Macbeth then orders his friend, Banquo, & Banquo’s son killed.]

While some stakeholders may be vocal and play lead business roles, it can be risky for a PM to let them independently influence project decisions. Some might argue that Lady Macbeth was not just a stakeholder, but actually an Agile Customer or Business Sponsor or perhaps an Agile Product Manager. One thing was for certain, Macbeth’s weak employment of an Agile approach left much to be desired.

Unfortunately, Macbeth’s failure to build a strong Agile methodology includes an absent, independent Quality Assurance review process. As he piles bad decisions on top of a poorly advised strategy, his detractors are not in a position to properly challenge his processes.

Eventually, Macbeth returns to the resources (The Witches) who had been advising him since Project Initiation. At this point in the play, the audience might question the Witches role. Perhaps they are stakeholders, with a direct interest in the outcome, instead of just being influencers. Macbeth, however, does receive additional information which he adds to his Risk Register. [L-R: The Witches to Macbeth … Beware of McDuff, you cannot be harmed by any man “born of woman”, and you will be safe “until Birnam Wood comes to the Dunsinane Castle”.]

Macbeth properly assigns the risk impacts (i.e. his death), but he fails to properly assess their probabilities. Consequently, Macbeth’s risk mitigation plans (preparations for battle) end up being less than adequate. (I hope I’m not ruining this  the ending for you…)

Risk analysis is an extremely important part of Project Management. It begins early and continues throughout the life of the project. Proper assessment and routine reviews of risk probability can have significant impacts on project outcomes.

In the final act, poor Macbeth realizes the errors in his assumptions and how they echoed into risk probability assessments and mitigation plans. [L-R: McDuff was born by C-section, i.e. not of woman born; the armies marching on his castle cut boughs from the Birnam Wood for protection.] The general loss of stakeholder support (from the Scottish noblemen) proves to be his undoing.

Most of us hope to learn from our project failures and to manage another day. Macbeth literally lost his head over it (and may have set back the use of Agile in Scotland for several centuries).

Let’s check in on our other Shakespeare character-turned-Project Manager. Like Macbeth, Hamlet receives significant input during Project Initiation. [L-R: Hamlet talks with his father’s ghost while Macbeth talked with The Witches.] Hamlet, however, does not have a strong stakeholder pushing for immediate results, and instead, he selects a waterfall methodology with extensive planning.

As with many of us who have chosen more traditional project methodologies, Hamlet’s reflection and planning processes were viewed by his stakeholders as madness. Hamlet’s lack of external activity was generally viewed as “melancholy”. One of his stakeholders, Polonius, did see that there might be something else. [L-R: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”]

When external events do change, Hamlet (still the planner) sees his opportunity to validate a key assumption (Claudius did kill his father) and begins execution of his plan. After a brief test, assumption validation is in-hand and Hamlet moves forward with what should have been the final stage (killing Claudius). At the critical moment in the play, however, huge scope change appears. [L-R: Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius while he is praying because Claudius might enter heaven … under a rare, being-killed-while-praying clause.)

In my opinion, had Hamlet received either PMI or ITIL training, he never would have allowed that last minute scope change and Shakespeare’s play would have been much shorter. As it was, Hamlet did allow the scope change (the requirement that Claudius be damned, in addition to being killed) and Hamlet went through several more trials (scenes) before he could bring his project to a “successful” conclusion.

Changes in scope, especially as they occur near to project closure can have significant negative impacts on project outcome. In Hamlet’s case, he did end up killing Claudius, but surrendered his life in the process. Hamlet’s funeral, provided by the stakeholders that were still alive in the end (and there weren’t many), was a testament to his drive and get-it-done management style, but Hamlet was still dead.

Project methodologies, whether early-Agile (Macbeth) or traditional waterfall (Hamlet), are helpful in providing structure and approach, but they are not guarantees of project success. It is the people, the project managers, who employ those methodologies who make the difference between success and failure.

Failing the Fairness Test

We were raised in a generation of sexual prejudice, where it was common to hear that “a woman’s place is in the home”. Business was for men; the home and PTA were for women.

But in the United States today, we have become enlightened. Women now run major corporations and have joined the ranks of self-made millionaires. True to a certain extent, but that’s not the whole truth.

Just beneath the surface of our “modern” society, lie reminders that sexual inequality is still alive.

The Masters, Augusta National & IBM’s CEO

The Masters’ Golf tournament returns to the Augusta National Golf Club this week and with it, a blatant reminder that Augusta National does not admit women as members.

Opened in 1932, Augusta’s most famous golf club has among its members, some of the powerful men from industry and finance, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Women are allowed to play the course if invited by a member but cannot themselves, become members . The club only admitted its first black member in 1990. (Tiger Woods first won The Masters at Augusta just 7 years later.)

Augusta National is a private, obviously conservative club that we hear about just once a year, when The Masters rolls into town. Ms. Virginia “Ginni” Rometty is the new chief executive officer of IBM, one of the tournament’s longtime sponsors. The past four IBM CEOs had been granted membership to Augusta National, but Ms. Rometty has not been. Is that really such a big deal?

In my honest opinion, the Augusta National Golf Club is making a statement to the rest of the country (my translation of their actions into words):

Men are the leaders of business and finance with certain rights and privileges, but we are good and generous men. We invite some women to play at our golf club … on occasion.

I could be misinterpreting their actions, but I think Augusta’s actions are a sign that discrimination against women in the workplace not only continues today, but it is openly accepted as a reality. It is saying that men and women are not equal.

Women’s vs. Men’s Merit Compensation

The April 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review includes an article entitled, “Why His Merit Raise Is Bigger Than Hers“. In it, Stephen Benard, a co-director of the original 2010 research study, describes how merit raise assignments reflect inequalities between male and female worker compensation.

Merit rate pay systems (Meritocracies) are based on the framework that larger annual raises and bonuses should go to superior performers instead of average performing workers. Merit pay system advocates stress that everyone has an equal chance to advance and obtain rewards based on their individual merits and efforts, regardless of their gender, race, or class. According to other researchers, most Americans believe that meritocracy is not only the way the system should work, but it is also the way the system does work.

The research performed by Stephen Benard and his collaborator, Emilio J. Castilla of MIT’s Sloan School instead showed that

… managers in explicit meritocracies may be less likely than others to award pay fairly and more apt to act on their biases instead. One result: They consistently give women smaller amounts. The phenomenon may help account for the persistence of gender-associated pay disparities—and race-associated disparities, for that matter.

This, in itself, might not be much of a surprise as we all are subject to some level of bias or preconception. What was striking was that the 445 test “managers” weren’t rating the performance of the workers in the research tests. They were just assigning the merit amounts based on the reviews that they read. They were doing “supposedly” subjective assignments of compensation.

The research results:

when an organization is explicitly presented as meritocratic, individuals in managerial positions favor a male employee over an equally qualified female employee by awarding him a larger monetary reward.

The larger monetary reward (about 12% more on average) was consistently assigned by both male and female managers. The test managers thought that they were treating men and women the same, but in reality, they were exhibiting a consistent bias toward men.

An Unconscious Bias Against Women

The researchers suggested that because the managers’ corporate organizational structures reinforced the pay-for-performance system as being fundamentally  unbiased, the managers

relax[ed] their vigilance and allow[ed] their biases greater sway. Those biases need not be consciously held: A large body of research shows that widespread stereotypes—for example, the notion that women are less productive than men—often shape behavior unconsciously, even in people who disagree with them.

Similar results have been reported by other researchers in 2006 & 2008. (See the 2010 Benard – Castilla research paper for more information.) To offset this unconscious gender bias, the researchers recommend that managers increase the transparency and accountability of their compensation/merit review processes.

“Just Say No” to Augusta National

In my opinion, the researchers clearly stated that we (male and female managers) are not as unbiased and are not as fair as we thought we were. Is the decision to allow/not allow Ms. Rometty to join the Augusta National Golf Club bigger than the incident itself?

I contend that it is. When one is harmed by discrimination or bias, we are all harmed. Discrimination or bias existing in one area reinforces its existence and expression in another.

It may be a small statement, but I won’t be watching The Masters this year. I just cannot support the (in)actions of the Augusta National Golf Club and their treatment of women. I’m sure that neither the PGA nor its TV sponsors will miss me, but I will feel a little better. I will also feel stronger the next time I am asked to rate a female coworker or direct report.

It’s long past the time when we should have been standing up for what’s right and what’s fair for women in the workplace, but we still need to do it!

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Why His Merit Raise Is Bigger Than Hers, by Stephen Benard, Harvard Business Review – April 2012, http://hbr.org/2012/04/why-his-merit-raise-is-bigger-than-hers/ar/1

The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations, by Emilio J. Castilla and Stephen Benard, Published in the Administrative Science Quarterly 2010 55: 543, http://asq.sagepub.com/content/55/4/543