Who Is the Real Project Manager on Thanksgiving Day?


You have been a project manager for more than three decades. You have received numerous awards and promotions for the many successful projects you have managed. You are certified in project management, program management, risk management, and almost every other certification known to man. Obviously, you can apply the principles and practices of project management to Thanksgiving Day activities, right? Well, think again because it may not be as easy as you think.

This year, you decide to make it easy for your spouse and family to get ready for Thanksgiving. You prepare a detailed statement of work, a breakdown structure going down through 12 levels of detail, a schedule broken into 15-minute time frames for the next several weeks, and a responsibility assignment matrix with assigned responsibilities for everyone who is part of your family and still breathing.

Now it is time to tell your significant other the great news and your good intentions. You are sitting with the dog (who happens to be your spouse’s pet) and tell them what you have done. The dog then looks at you with an expression of terror in his eyes, puts his tail under his legs, and hides under the bed. What brought fear into the dog?

Your better half then says, “Don’t you know my mother will be here with us?” Now you begin to understand that, as the PMBOK® Guide states, there may be enterprise environment factors that can influence the way the project will be managed and how decisions are made. Your spouse laughs, states their appreciation for what you have done, and tells you to throw away all of your great work. “Everything is being handled,” they assure you. Your spouse, who also happens to be a project manager, states that they, too, have created a responsibility assignment matrix for Thanksgiving Day and will give you your assignments and responsibilities as the critical path approaches.

On Thanksgiving morning, you awaken to the noise of something happening in the kitchen. Your extended Certified Associate Project Managers have all the pots and pans laid out and are in the early stages of prepping the feast. Looking for a place to sit for your morning cereal, it is suggested less than subtly you have breakfast somewhere out of the house. Obviously, the enterprise environment factors are kicking in. Before you can say anything, your mother-in-law hands you your responsibility assignment matrix which includes five activities:

  • Make sure all of the bathrooms are clean
  • Move some of the furniture
  • Bring home two bags of ice when you return from breakfast
  • Handle the garbage throughout the day
  • Take care of the coats as guests enter your home (correction: today, it appears that it should be called your spouse’s home!)

Within the list of activities been given to you, there may have be some room for negotiations. But since the list came from your mother-in-law, it is better to remain silent. Perhaps today is the day you should start taking tranquilizers and have an alcoholic beverage for breakfast.

Good project managers always have contingency plans in their back pocket… and so do you. Therefore, you decide to delegate some of the work to your kids. Unfortunately, all of them are gone; they are at the mall shopping (“Great sales today!”) until later and they all left their cell phones at home. Obviously, all of your kids knew something you didn’t know, and had their own contingency plans. You look around for your brother-in-law, but your sister-in-law tells you he doesn’t feel well and will arrive later. (Note: the correct meaning of ‘doesn’t feel well’ means my contingency plan is to watch the football game as long as possible on Thanksgiving Day).

It seems your better half had a project plan that was somewhat different from your plan. You return from breakfast… with your two bags of ice. As you approach the kitchen, you hear part of the conversation between your spouse, mother-in-law and sister-in-law. You see some really good looking hors d’oeuvres on a plate and decide to take one. Unfortunately, the game warden is watching you and holding a knife. You are informed that the hors d’oeuvres are for the guests. Therefore, you decide to keep all ten fingers attached to your hands. On this day, the kitchen is treated as “sacred ground” and you need permission to enter.

Did you really believe this was your house all this time?

Fear not… all is not lost. You go upstairs to the bedroom to watch some football. In less than two minutes, you hear footsteps coming down the hallway to the bedroom. Some more tasks have been found for you which it is inferred are more important than sports. Too bad the rest of your family didn’t play football or basketball in college. They would have a different outlook on life… perhaps.

Obviously your spouse knew exactly where you would be since they must have turned on all of the motion detectors. They instruct you to remain close by in case you’re needed, and say that you must wear an ankle tracking bracelet similar to what convicted felons must wear should you decide to leave the house.

Well, it seems that Thanksgiving Day was a success, but according to someone else’s project plan that may or may not have had any resemblance to the PMBOK® Guide. Good project managers believe in capturing lessons learned and best practices. Here are some of my best practices as they relate to Thanksgiving Day:

  • A man’s home is not necessarily his castle on certain days of the year
  • Sometimes you can learn contingency planning and best practices from your children
  • Traditional project management practices do not always work
  • Project sponsors on a $300 project can be more powerful and exert more influence than sponsors on a $300 million project, especially if they are part of your spouse’s blood line
  • Good project managers hope for the best but should plan for the worst (i.e. the amount of involvement by family members)
  • Project management happiness is a state of mind
  • There are times when a project manager must turn on his mute button to avoid creating a potentially bad conflict
  • If a conflict exists between you and your partner, you absolutely must forget about the conflict as quickly as possible because there’s no reason why two people should remember the conflict forever
  • Sometimes being humble and silent is better than being correct and homeless
  • Do not speak or taste anything unless asked to do so
  • Be sure you understand the organizational chart shown below  

The Organizational Chart

t day slide

Obviously, I am looking at this from a male perspective. Perhaps next year I can convince my wife to write a similar article from a female perspective. By then, however, I may end up writing a new book entitled “Project Management for Holidays.”

 Happy Thanksgiving!

Beware of the Dark Side. The Force Will Not Be With You.


I happen to be a fan of science fiction. Truthfully, I hate to say how many times I have watched the Star Wars movies. Yes, all of them. In one, Darth Vader visits a Death Star that is under construction. Unhappy with the timetable for the launch date of the Death Star, he states, if the project manager cannot complete the project on time, he will send a garrison of troops there to oversee construction and take personal charge of the situation himself. Needless to say, the movie implied that the launch date was met. Obviously, the threat of punishment from the Dark Side must have motivated the workers.

There are, however, some projects where the launch date may not be completed on time… even if the “force is with you.” As an example, let’s consider Obamacare and the issues going on with their website. It is not my intention to imply that I support or do not support Obamacare, nor should you infer that it was poorly managed—though the project is now plastered all across the television and newspapers. Still, it may take years before all of the facts are disclosed, regardless of what appears in the media.

IT projects generally suffer from the events described below. The larger the IT project, the greater the chance it will appear in print and committees will be formed to look for someone to blame. But in any event, here are some typical scenarios that may occur throughout IT projects.

  • The launch date for the project is determined by someone in the senior most levels of the organization or government with virtually no understanding of the technology or the risks. The date is picked based upon personal or political reasons, often with little regard for what is realistically possible.
  • If information is needed to support the decision for the launch date, it is not obtained from consultants or experts in the field. Rather, it is provided by companies that expect to be contractors on the project and receive large contracts. The cost and schedule are grossly underestimated to guarantee winning part of the contract, and knowing that problems will appear in the future.
  • When problems arise, the solution is almost always resolved through scope changes that result in mega profits for the contractors. The work is documented in such a way that it is cheaper for the client to agree to scope changes to the existing contractors than to go out for competitive bidding and find replacement contractors where the same problems will occur again… and again… and again.
  • The senior management who picked the original launch date immediately distance themselves from the project and make sure there are several layers of management between them. Therefore, they cannot be blamed for any of the issues or problems that may arise.
  • Senior management immediately state that they were never informed of the risks or the technical issues. These comments are often well-supported by the two or three layers of management beneath the executives because they prefer to remain employed.

Once the problems begin to surface, and we know that newspapers sell more copies reporting bad news rather than good news, the witch hunt begins for someone to blame. Even though we teach that the buck stops at the top of the organization, there are still several layers of management beginning at the bottom where blame can be assigned.

At the bottom of the chain are the contractors. They will claim that they either told certain people about the risks and it fell upon deaf ears, or they failed to disclose the risks and potential issues. In exchange for taking the heat, the contractors will be given lucrative contracts for scope changes to correct the problems. Does this sound like a punishment or a reward? When the problems are finally resolved, and after the schedule has slipped and the damage was done, the contractors look like white knights appearing as if the force was with them all along. They overcame Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Once the issues are resolved, the problems may be forgotten. Look at the software issues with the opening day of Terminal 5 at London Heathrow Airport as an example. More than 40,000 pieces of luggage travelled without their owners and more than 500 flights were cancelled—all because of software. Similarly, look at the baggage handling system at Denver International Airport. This was also an IT project.

I will leave it up to each of you to determine if Obamacare deserves to be compared to Star Wars or the launch of Terminal 5 at London Heathrow or Denver International Airport. But if history has taught us anything we can expect those very close to the Obamacare Project to discuss the intimate details of the project when they retire and write books. Unfortunately, we may have to wait years until this happens.

Perhaps the managers of this project should take part in my free online keynote speech: “Lessons Learned Can Create New Opportunities,” on November 7 for the free virtual summit on the future of business—International Project Management Day

Satisfying Social Needs


Whenever I teach Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, everyone seems to understand the two lowest levels – the physiological need and the safety need. When I would ask the class how these two levels are satisfied, the students normally agree that the company you work for satisfies these levels for you through the salary they pay you and the benefits that are provided.

When I get to level three – the satisfaction of social needs – the discussion gets interesting. I ask the class: Who has the greater responsibility for satisfying a team member’s social needs: the company, the individual, or the project manager?

Companies try to satisfy the social need but often fail as their good intentions go astray. Consider the following examples:

  • A company well known for its photography products told their workers they were allowed to use the company’s facilities for processing their own film, as long as they brought their own paper; the company would provide the chemical and photography equipment. Several of the people formed photography clubs to take advantage of this opportunity and they began satisfying their own social needs. Unfortunately, those employees who were not photography enthusiasts were very unhappy that the company was providing social benefits not everyone could use.
  • Once a year, a company sponsored a golf outing that included an elegant dinner in which the golfers could bring their spouses. Those employees who were not golfers did not attend and saw this as an ordeal rather than a social function.
  • A manufacturing company resided in a community where the majority of the people did not consume alcoholic beverages due to either personal or religious convictions. The company held a Christmas party – alcohol was provided. Unfortunately, the attendance at the party was poor. The company realized that many of the workers did not view the Christmas party as a social event. For two years, the company cancelled the Christmas party and issued all 2000 employees a company check for $6.25 each, which was the company’s contribution to the Christmas party.

The point is that some companies are successful at satisfying social needs but not for all of the employees in the company. Most students believe that the individual is responsible for satisfying his/her social needs, which can come from a religious group and church functions or joining a social club.

In recent years, there seems to be a push toward projects attempting to satisfy the social needs of its team members, especially on long term projects where many members of the team may be assigned fulltime for the duration of the project. A few years ago, I read a paper (which I am sorry I never kept) that showed workers who socialize together away from work are more productive when working together in the workplace. For project managers, this could easily increase the productivity of the team. The obstacle, of course, is finding what method works best for you. Based upon the size of the project team, the answer varies.

My personal suggestion is something I’ve spoken about before: dinner team meetings. Gather your team once a month for dinner, at a time and place outside of the office, and allow each members’ spouse and family to come. See what happens! Even though you’re meeting outside of the office, don’t be too surprised if some brilliant ideas begin to arise.

How Can Stakeholder Management Fail?


Whenever new techniques or processes come along to support project management activities, people tend to embrace it enthusiastically without asking themselves, “What can possibly go wrong?” For a long time, stakeholder management has been a part of project management but only recently has it been introduced as a Knowledge Area in the PMBOK® Guide.

Without a proper understanding of what can go wrong, project managers can unintentionally make mistakes that can be detrimental to the health of the project. Here are a few examples:

1. Choose your words carefully: I would have preferred if the new Knowledge Area was called “Stakeholder Relations Management” or “Stakeholder Interfacing” rather than Stakeholder Management. Most project managers end up managing the relationship with the stakeholders rather than the stakeholders themselves. Many of the stakeholders are in senior positions in their organizations and may be a considerably higher rank than the project manager. If your governance committee for the project is made up of senior managers from your company and the client’s firm, I am at a loss to see how you would manage them in the traditional sense of the word.

2. Make sure everyone understands who is doing the interfacing: Stakeholder interfacing is the responsibility of the project manager and not necessarily the team members. Project managers generally choose their words wisely when interfacing with stakeholders whereas team members may say and do things while interfacing that can create problems for the project manager.  As an example, I was involved in several situations where team members would interface directly with stakeholders (or even counterparts in the stakeholder’s company) and provide them with proprietary information or a promise to do additional work for them – at no cost. By doing this, the workers believed they were impressing the stakeholders; however, by the time the project manager discovered what had happened, the damage was done. Customer interfacing should not be done with the misconception that the customer is always right or to grant all of the stakeholder requests, especially if it results in non-funded work.

3. Giving the stakeholders raw data: Stakeholders often request raw data from testing immediately after the testing has been performed. On the surface, this may seem like the right thing to do, but bad things can happen if the stakeholders formulate their opinion concerning the test results before your personnel analyze the data. The stakeholders may then make decisions, or even cancel the project, without fully understanding the true meaning of the test results. Allowing this to happen is not bad as long as the stakeholders do not formulate their opinion or make any rash decisions until your personnel identify the company position on the data.

4. Using a responsibility assignment matrix (RAM): The intent of the RAM is to make sure that all of the employees fully understand their responsibility on a given project. On the Y-axis of the RAM we identify each of the work packages in the breakdown structure. On the X-axis, we identify the names or the titles of the people assigned to the project. Showing the RAM to the stakeholders using the titles of the team members rather than the names is preferred. When stakeholders see the actual names of the workers, they will find a way to identify the phone numbers for each of the workers. The stakeholders can then contact the workers directly without going through the project manager. The result could be detrimental if the workers and the project manager have a different interpretation about the health of the project or the meaning of certain test results.

5. Do not assume that all stakeholders want the project to succeed: Some stakeholders may have hidden agendas and actually hope that the project fails. This is particularly true if the stakeholder views the result of a successful project reducing their power base, authority, responsibility, image, chances for promotion or the size of their empire.

There are certainly other issues that can lead to detrimental results, but these five are the most common situations that I have experienced.

Updating the Standards


How does a company update their standards and estimates? Common sense says that we assign work order charge numbers to each of the work packages in the breakdown structure. As each work package is completed, we compare the final results against the original plan and see if the standards should be updated. But what if the standard was initially created based upon the work ethic for lazy workers? What if the workers were reluctant to work harder or better? What if the workers belong to a union that discouraged increases in worker performance?

Alpha Company (a disguised name) had a reputation for low cost technical products. The engineering division had several engineers with four-year college degrees, but the greater part of the engineering division was made up of two-year community college graduates with majors in some technical discipline. Alpha Company would provide these workers with the necessary training to do their job effectively.

The company was essentially a non-project-based one that was more manufacturing-driven than project management driven. As long as there was a need for most of their standard products they saw no need for project management. All of that was about to change.

As the marketplace altered and customers began demanding specialized products, the need for project management appeared. The first challenge was the need to drastically upgrade the performance of the engineering division. The decision was made to hire more engineers from four-year colleges and universities. The vice president for engineering wanted engineers that had a minimum grade point average of 3.6 out of a 4.0 scale.

The real challenge came from manufacturing. These estimates had not been updated for the past five years. The manufacturing personnel insisted that their estimates and standards were correct and updates were not needed. Whenever new employees were hired into manufacturing, the union pressured the newly-hired, eager workers to slow down their performance for fear of making their colleagues look bad. All of the managers and executives knew this was happening but nobody wanted to pressure changes to occur.

As the capabilities of the engineering division began to increase, it became obvious that product pricing would require updates to the manufacturing standards and estimates. The manufacturing personnel fought against the idea of updating the standards stating that they could not be improved.

Management insisted that the standards be reassessed. The union held to their conviction and threatened to go on strike if management tried to change the standards. Management was not swayed by the threat and began reassessing the standards and estimates. In June, the union went on strike.

The union believed that project management was evil and continuous improvement activities were not in the union’s best interest. Furthermore, the union believed that management would “buckle at the knees” and concede to all of the union’s demands before the strike would end.

Management, however, had developed contingency plans. By the end of the 3rd month, Alpha Company was turning out 70% of the work using 30% of the labor force, mostly white collar workers. The training manager was running a drill press while the Vice President for Human Resources was running a lathe. Management now realized that the standards and estimates previously used in manufacturing were grossly outdated and incorrect, and was in no hurry to end the strike.

As Thanksgiving came and went, the union realized that Christmas was right around the corner and that the workers were cash-starved. They returned to the bargaining table. Management had done their homework and stated that the workers could return to work but 168 people would not be hired back. The remaining workers would have to do the same amount of work as before but with 168 fewer workers. The workers also had to do so under training in project management and be willing to accept continuous improvement activities. Reluctantly, the union agreed.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst


Andy was delighted for the opportunity to manage the Quality Initiative Project (QIP). He had overseen a few projects previously, mostly small ones, but the QIP would give him visibility at the highest levels of management and would surely lead to a promotion.

The QIP was a two-year effort designed to improve the quality in all areas of project management including enhancements to every form, guideline, template and checklist in the PM methodology. Andy would be working closely with all of the functional managers looking for ways to make their project management work easier to accomplish and with a higher degree of quality.

It was time for Andy to negotiate for resources. In his mind, QIP was the highest priority project in the company, although, there were several other projects that management believed to be of higher priority. Nevertheless, Andy negotiated for the best functional resources rather than any other resources that were competent enough to get the job done. Usually, the project manager states what work should be done and the functional managers determine who from their group should be assigned. Andy, however, wanted specific people that were at the top of their pay grade. Rather than continue with “harassing” negotiations, most of the functional managers agreed to Andy’s requests for specific individuals.

Right from the onset of the project, Andy could see the morale of the team was quite low. Despite his attempts to build it up, everything he tried was failing. By the end of the third month of the project, several of what Andy believed to be his most important resources were reassigned other projects that their respective functional managers considered to be of greater importance to the company. In many instances, Andy was unhappy with the replacement personnel but had no choice in accepting them. This was not how he expected the project to proceed.

Andy began talking to the team members one-on-one and discovered the following facts:

(1) Most of the team members did not consider the assignment on the QIP challenging and believed that the work could be done by lower grade personnel;

(2) Most of the team members believed that the QIP assignment would not improve their chances for promotion and some even believed it might be seen as a demotion;

(3) Some of the resources were such good workers that they were promoted right off of Andy’s project and on to more critical assignments.

By the end of the 6th month Andy had lost almost all of the critical resources that were initially assigned to the QIP. He met with the project sponsor to see if he could get support for getting some of the critical resources reassigned back onto his project, complaining that every time a new face appears on the project, the plan seemed to change. Andy had hoped to keep the same faces on the project for the entire two years. While the sponsor understood his dilemma, they stated that he was unwilling to usurp the authority of the functional managers with regard to project staffing. Furthermore, the sponsor stated that it is unrealistic to expect the same people assigned to just one project for the entire two-year duration.

As Andy was about to leave the sponsor’s office, the sponsor asked, “What are your contingency plans for the QIP given the current staffing issues?” Andy was at a loss for words. While he had hoped for the best while negotiating for resources, he had neglected to plan for the worst.

As a side note, the last time I had met with Andy, he was in the third year of his two-year project.