Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

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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.

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So, You Want to Work as a Project Management Trainer?

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You probably thought from the title that this would be a scathing article about the misfortunes of working for the International Institute for Learning (IIL). Well, you would be wrong! I am now in my third decade working with LaVerne Johnson, the President and CEO of IIL, and I would be hard-pressed to find anyone better to work with or for. With this being said, we can now discuss the life of a project management trainer and consultant. Afterwards, you can consider (or perhaps reconsider) if this is the life you want.

Pleasurable Moment #1: You will travel to exotic places.

Many years ago, IIL hired a young woman who had never done any selling of project management training programs before. I worked with her for some time explaining how I would go about selling such programs. Shortly after, I received a phone call from the CEO telling me the young woman made her first sale and asked if I would be willing to do the training program. Faster than a speeding bullet, I told LaVerne Johnson that I would be glad to do it. This is the Power of Acknowledgment in action!

Within ten nanoseconds, the phone rang and at the other end was an incredibly excited young salesperson who wanted to confirm that I would do a one-day training program for her in an exotic location. It was her first sale. I told her I would do it because being in an exotic location in February seemed better to me than being in Cleveland, Ohio, in February. So, I flew from Cleveland, Ohio, to Fairbanks, Alaska, to do one day of training … in February!!!

It was dark when I left Cleveland; it was dark when I arrived in Fairbanks; it was dark when I started the training class; it was dark when I finished; it was dark when I boarded my flight to come home; and it was dark when I landed. It was three days without daylight. This was my exotic trip.

Perhaps it should be noted that the inexperienced, “excited young salesperson” I spoke of now sits as the EVP of Marketing for IIL. And yes, she still sends me to “exotic” places.

Moral: The word “exotic” is a state of mind. It means different things to different people. For a salesperson trying to make a sale, the definition of the word “exotic” defies any description that you would find in a dictionary and is frequently used to motivate speakers to accept an assignment.

Pleasurable Moment #2: Your travel arrangements will work out exactly as planned.

I was about to embark on a long-awaited trip to conduct seminars in three European cities, beginning in Amsterdam. I flew from Cleveland to JFK Airport in New York, and then to Amsterdam for the first seminar. Sadly, as I arrived in Amsterdam my luggage arrived in Providence, Rhode Island. All I had was my laptop.

The airline promised me they would get my luggage to me within two days. That didn’t help much because the seminar would be over and I would be on my way to another city. But at least I had my laptop. I checked into the hotel, and when the receptionist asked where my luggage was I told him that I had inflatable clothing and it was packed away neatly in my laptop. I think you can figure out what happened for the rest of my journey.

Moral: Good trainers must be highly optimistic concerning their abilities to perform in the classroom. However, in the same breath, they must be equally pessimistic concerning their travel plans. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And it will go wrong at the most inopportune time. Read the PMBOK® Guide Chapter on Risk Management; then read it again. This should be done before making travel plans.

Pleasurable Moment #3: Nothing ever goes wrong once the seminar begins.

I was conducting a two-day training program for a university on the East Coast. The university’s training coordinator told us we should break for lunch at noontime and that they had a room set aside for us for a sit-down meal. I knew where we would have lunch, so there was no need for the class to be escorted. Two of the people in the class had conference calls set for noontime on the first day and asked if we could go to lunch at 11:30 a.m. instead. The training coordinator said that she would take care of getting us set up for an earlier lunch.

When 11:30 rolled around, we broke for lunch. We were seated in an elegant room and served the juiciest steaks known to mankind. It was the best meal I had ever had at a seminar. Shortly after noontime, several people showed up at our dining room entranceway staring at us. Someone sat us in the wrong room and served us the wrong meal. To this day, I have no clue who had the chef’s surprise, but it wasn’t us. On the second day of the program, we were escorted to the dining room and had name tags which we were told to wear signifying which program we were. We were served something resembling a salad. I believe there may have been things moving on top of it.

Moral: Not only do the early birds get the worm, but they often have a much better selection of worms. Sometimes the choices are even better if you remove your name tag and the name of your course. But if you like going back to that university again, well … employment is always nice.

Pleasurable Moment #4: Nothing ever goes wrong with hotel reservations.

Years ago, when airlines would almost never cancel flights, I would take the last flight to get to my seminar location. That used to work well, but the problems occurred when I would get to the hotel. The places where I would be staying seemed to always overbook. While it is true that they have the responsibility to find me another hotel, and perhaps pay for the cost as well, it is an inconvenience if I cannot stay at the same hotel where the seminar is being conducted. Over the years, I have come up with two guiding principles that seem to work well:

Principle #1: Begin taking off your clothes in the lobby in front of the receptionist. When they ask what you are doing, tell them that you are getting into your pajamas and will be sleeping on the couch in the lobby. This will usually get you a suite at the same price.

Principle #2: If principle #1 does not work, tell the receptionist to cancel the seminar for the next three days, cancel the catering as well, and also cancel the hotel rooms for all of the participants who would be attending the seminar. Then begin to walk out of the hotel. Trust me, you’ll never get to the front door. This time, you will get the presidential suite at the same price.

Moral: If the hotel room was booked by the company sponsoring the seminar, or if the seminar is at the hotel and you insist on arriving late, you probably have some leverage with the hotel. For all other situations, feel free to pack a sleeping bag in with your luggage.

Pleasurable Moment #5: You consider yourself pretty smart. You can make your own travel plans without using your company’s professional travel department.

For a short period of time (a very short period), I considered myself smart enough to make my own travel plans and lodgings rather than using the professionals. All it takes are a few exciting moments, as illustrated below, to remind you of how little you know:

  • I checked into a hotel where the receptionist was in a bullet-proof cage and asked if I wanted the room by the hour or by the night.
  • I arrived at the airport totally exhausted and couldn’t wait to recline in my business class seat for my flight from London to New York City. That’s when the agent informed me that my flight left yesterday.
  • The hotel pictures looked great on the internet. My room was on the 6th floor. The quaint hotel had no elevators.
  • I showed up at a hotel that could not find my reservation. That’s because the date of the seminar was changed and nobody bothered to tell the speaker.
  • I made a reservation at a hotel in a large European city. Unfortunately, this city had a chain of hotels, all with the same name. I went to the wrong hotel in the chain and their antiquated computer systems could not tell me which hotel I was staying at.
  • Instead of taking the car service that was offered to me, I found the only taxi cab driver that could not find La Guardia Airport. He informed me this was his first day and I was his first fare. Joy, joy, and more joy!!! This was almost as exciting as the cabbie in London who drove me around Heathrow Airport several times because he could not find the entranceway to terminal 3 due to construction.
  • I’ve been in three different hotels that had to be evacuated because of fire and/or smoke. Each time, I exited the hotel sometimes wearing very little clothing, but I had my laptop and my transparencies. I learned a hard lesson: always have your transparencies and laptop within reach at night. You can conduct a seminar with minimal clothing but without a laptop or transparencies … well, need I say more? However, when travelling to a seminar with a spouse or family member, and the hotel must be evacuated, you must decide on the priority of what you will grab first when exiting the hotel room. This is an important decision. Each of us must make our own decision.

Moral: I teach the value of teamwork in my project management classes, but sometimes seem to practice the opposite and try to do things myself knowing there are team members that can do it better than I can. I have learned my lesson through my own mistakes; many mistakes!!!

I seem to get a lot of phone calls from people wanting to work for IIL as a speaker. Perhaps they should all read this article before calling me. Working for IIL all of these years has been a pleasure. I get to work with truly dedicated people and companies that appreciate the intellectual property we bring to their organizations. Every speaker has their own stories to tell of their experiences, and some of their stories are more bizarre than what I have outlined here. But if you are willing to blot out these situations from your memory the best you can, life as a trainer is good.

The Over-Management Issue, Part 2: Too Much of a Good Thing

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The over-management or overstaffing issue on a project is easily solvable when you are spending the customer’s money rather than your company’s funds. For projects internal to your company, overstaffing can incur significant risks that are often overlooked during project initiation. Here’s an example:

A government agency had an internal project that was estimated to take two years to complete. When the project was first planned, it was estimated that 118 people would be needed, many of them just on a part-time basis. The organizational structure for the entire government agency was a matrix structure that promoted the fact that resources could be shared among several projects at the same time.

The sharing of resources was a problem for the project manager. Although he knew that the sharing of resources was the correct thing to do for the organization as a whole, he was worried more about his own project. History taught the project manager that there would undoubtedly be problems that would occur on other projects, and resources would be removed from his project to help put out the fires. On some of his previous projects, the resources never even returned, leaving him with a void that was hard to fill and impacting his time and cost baselines.

The project manager wanted all of the resources assigned full time to his project. While he believed he could argue this point well and get the functional managers to agree, there was still the risk that resources could be removed from his project because the resources still physically resided in their functional areas.  The project manager decided that a co-located team of 118 people would be best. He found a government building that had two vacant floors and had all 118 people removed from their functional areas and reassigned to these two floors. Now the chance that they would be removed from his project, temporarily or permanently, was diminished.

As the project proceeded, many of the resources who were needed only part time on the project became bored with the lack of constructive working. The project manager began assigning these people mundane work just to keep them busy. But overall, the project was on schedule and senior management was happy with the progress.

Unfortunately, the rosy picture soon turned sour. The wage and salary function was still in the hands of the functional managers rather than the project manager. During the performance review process, none of the 118 people working on the project were promoted even though many of them were considered outstanding workers.

Since the workers were physically removed from their functional managers, the functional managers had little contact with them and could not validate their performance. Also, the functional managers decided to promote those workers who sat beside them every day and whose performance embellished the functional managers in the eyes of their senior managers.

Simply stated, what the project manager actually did by creating a co-located project was make his project a non-promotable assignment for 118 workers.

Many of the workers tried to leave the project and get reassigned to their functional areas of expertise. For many of these workers, they soon discovered that their previous positions had been filled by others and that they would hopefully be reassigned to other government agencies at the completion of the project.

I don’t intend to downplay the importance of co-located teams. They do work and work well. But there are some issues that must be understood:

  • People can work on co-located teams on a part-time basis.
  • The need for effective, continuous communication between the workers and their functional managers is essential from a wage and salary perspective.
  • Workers must still have a home in the functional area well after the co-located team project is completed.
  • If functional managers know that there will be a co-located team and that they might lose these workers for a long period of time, the functional managers may be inclined to assign their poorest performing workers to the project just to get rid of them.
  • Giving the project manager wage and salary responsibility for long-term, co-located projects may seem like a reasonable approach, but then there is always the issue of what happens to the workers when the project is completed and the team is disbanded.

The Secret to Grabbing That Desired ROI: Dinner Team Meetings

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There are two things that strongly motivate workers on project teams: money and food. While project managers may not have any control over money, either through salary or bonuses, there is some degree of control over food. My experience is that the return on investment on the salary that people earn is often questionable but the return on investment on nourishment provided to the team can be priceless if done correctly.

In a previous post, I wrote about “What’s The Return on Investment of a Slice of Pizza to a Project Manager?” In this post I want to discuss the value of a dinner team meeting.

Nourishment can bring project team members closer together. My experience has been that, during these more informal team meetings when food is provided, adversaries become colleagues and disagreements are discussed in a free and open setting. It is also my experience that informal settings where some food is provided often make it easier for the team to come to an agreement with minimal conflicts.

But for the moment, let’s change the subject and ask a few questions.

  • Do you socialize with the members of your team outside of work?
  • Do you know the personal interests of any of the team members?
  • Have you ever met the spouses of your team members?
  • Have you or your children ever met the children of your team members?

Obviously, this looks a little like what the Japanese advocate in Theory Z. One of the principles of Theory Z is that you are more likely to get more productivity out of the team members if they believe that you have taken a personal interest in them, their likes and dislikes, and their families. Furthermore, studies have shown that workers who socialize outside of the company generally are more productive than workers who never socialize with one another other than at work. (Yes, I know you all want the reference article to this and I unfortunately do not have it.)

Dinner team meetings, with the entire immediate family of each team member in attendance, can be priceless. There are several reasons for this:

  • If you are like most people, you discuss your job at home with your family but your family has never met the people you tell them about.
  • Your spouse may not have any understanding about project management and having a discussion with other spouses can be helpful.
  • The spouses will have a better understanding about the pressure and stress that team members must endure.
  • Your family will be better able to help you manage your stress and may get tips from other spouses on how they help their spouse manage stress and pressure.

In my opinion, the cost for these dinner team meetings is negligible compared to the ROI in productivity that is possible. These dinner team meetings work well on long-term projects especially when workers are assigned full time on the project. If the company balks at the cost, then perhaps a cocktail hour after work will suffice. But in any event, there is an ROI on nourishment if done correctly.

The Grass is NOT Always Greener in Someone Else’s Yard

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Over the years, I have seen several people aggressively campaign to become project managers in their companies, and most of the time it was for the wrong reasons. The problem is that an individual’s first impressions about project management are often misleading. People seem to be enamored by what they see initially and fail to fully understand what the position entails before accepting an assignment.

Here are several situations that illustrate this misconception.

Situation #1: Paul

Paul was an excellent engineer with superior writing skills. Paul saw that most project managers were working with the marketing and sales force preparing bids for potentially lucrative contracts. After weeks of campaigning, Paul was assigned as an assistant project manager on a large project. Paul learned quickly that writing skills were only a small part of the project manager’s job. After a short assignment in project management, Paul requested to return to his former position in engineering.

Situation #2: Richard

Richard was almost at the top of his pay grade with regard to salary. Although Richard knew he would receive an above average salary increase each year because of his performance, he wanted more. He believed that project management offered greater salary opportunities, so he became a project manager without fully realizing what skills are needed to be successful. Richard eventually returned to his previous position and was branded as a failure as a project manager.

Situation #3: Brenda

Brenda, like Richard, appeared to be motivated by the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Brenda was given the opportunity to serve as a project manager. It was a rude awakening when she realized how much work was involved and how little she knew about project management, but Brenda had a strong desire to excel at project management despite the circumstances. Unfortunately, it soon became obvious that Brenda would not succeed as a project manager. Even more, Brenda’s previous position had been filled as soon as she had moved to her new position. The protection she felt she had in her previous position was no longer there and Brenda was forced to leave the company.

Situation #4: Fred

Fred had worked as a team member on several projects. He believed that project managers were the “presidents” of the projects and made all of the important decisions, so he campaigned to become a project manager and eventually was provided with the opportunity. Fred viewed this as his chance for glory and wanted show everyone how good he was at project decision making. After accepting his new position, Fred quickly became disenchanted when he realized that most project managers have very little real or legal authority to make decisions. Although on the surface it appeared that project managers were making the decisions, Fred learned that the real authority rested with the project sponsor and the governance committee.

Situation #5: Carol

Carol was reasonably well experienced working on project teams. Unfortunately, Carol’s work assignments required that she spend more time working with various team members than with the project managers. While Carol thought that she understood project management, she actually had a poor understanding of what a project manager’s job was like on a daily basis. Despite this, Carol’s desire to become a project manager was granted. She learned very quickly about the pressure and stress that project managers are under and that an eight-hour work day as a project manager was nonexistent. When the pressure and stress began to affect Carol’s home life, she resigned as project manager.

Not everyone is qualified to function as a project manager regardless of their education, experience or desire. It is imperative that people understand the role of the project manager before accepting an assignment. Failing to understanding the role could have a serious impact on one’s health and one’s quality of life.

My Most Important Project Management Best Practice

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During the almost five decades I have spent in the project management arena, I have collected many best practices that eventually end up in my textbooks. Most of these best practices revolve around continuous improvements to the project management methodology and result in updates to the policies, procedures, forms, guidelines and templates used for managing projects.

Actually, the wording “best practice” may be incorrect. It may be better to use the words “proven practice” because a best practice implies that it cannot be improved further. Proven practices, on the other hand, are subject to continuous updates.

There is one best practice that I have used over the years and have never been able to improve upon. I regard it as the “best” of the best practices, and it relates to how I run my life (related to project management, of course!). This best practice has not appeared in any of my books.

I spend a great amount of my time traveling and conducting seminars and workshops for the International Institute for Learning (IIL). We work with PMI chapters around the world and will send out brochures and e-mails about upcoming programs.

Once the announcements are made regarding the programs, I begin to receive e-mails from people I have never met, wanting to take me to dinner. I enjoy having dinner with the PMI chapter officers the night before the event because they tell me about the companies that will be attending and what their expectations are. This input is invaluable because it allows for some customization of the presentation.

Unfortunately it is other people, many who have no intention of attending the conference, who offer to take me to dinner for their own personal reasons. Regardless of how many times I ask them the reason for the meeting, they prefer to say it’s personal and we can discuss it over dinner. This is what usually happens:

5:30 p.m.: The individual picks me up at my hotel and drives me to a restaurant at least 30 minutes from my hotel. This means that I am now at their mercy for a ride back to my hotel and they have my undivided attention.

6:00 p.m.: We arrive at the restaurant, end up sitting in some remote location where nobody can hear us or perhaps even see us, and order dinner. My host tells the waiter that we are in no hurry and want a slow, leisurely dinner. This usually gets me nervous because I will be a captive longer than I expected.

6:10 – 7:30 p.m.: My host tells me about their life history from the age of 10 to their current age of usually 30-40 years old. This includes information about their family, their education, the number of courses they took, their grades in the courses, and what they learned. And as expected, a lot of it is totally unrelated to project management. This also includes facts about their employment history. If they have an unhappy home life, this portion of the meeting can run for another hour. When this happens, I am under the impression that my host has me confused with Dr. Phil. I pretend to listen attentively; while thinking about starting an IIL blog titled Dr. Phil on Project Management. Recognizing that this new blog could drive me to serious drinking and drugs, reality soon returns and once again I am clueless as to why they are telling me this. The suspense is now killing me!!!  Why am I here?

7:30 – 9:00 p.m.: For the next 90 minutes, they tell me all of the facts about their current employer, especially everything that’s wrong with the company related to project management and everything they did (or at least tried to do) to correct the situation. Of course, they are very adamant that 99.99% of the problems are because of senior management. They try to make it appear that they are God’s gift to project management and yet their company does not appreciate their efforts.

During the discussion they continuously ask me, “Didn’t I make the right decisions?” or “Don’t you agree with me?” or “What would you have done if you were me?” At this point I am getting a little nervous for fear that I may not have a ride back to my hotel. I am also fearful of giving this individual my ideas for how I would handle the situation because I have no idea what they would do with the information, or whether or not it would be taken out of context. And, once again, I am still in suspense as to the purpose of this meeting.

9:00 – 9:30 p.m.: Now we get to the real issue. Since their company obviously does not appreciate their efforts, they want to leave their company and is there anything I can do to help them find employment elsewhere? I just spent 4 hours listening to someone who wants a project management position somewhere. Now I finally figure out that my host really does not believe that I am Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer, but instead thinks that I am an employment agency. And as you might expect, they now pull out a resume from their briefcase. 

You cannot imagine how many times this has happened to me. So, what’s the best practice for how to handle this situation?

  • When people ask to take me out to dinner, I ask them one question: Why do you want to take me out to dinner? This catches them by surprise and most people refuse to answer the question and try to change the direction of the conversation.
  • If they have a valid reason, I will be glad to have dinner with them.
  • If they tell me it is a personal reason, then there’s no question in my mind that they are seeking employment and want my help. I then tell them that they can join me for breakfast in my hotel between 6:30 a.m. – 7:00 a.m. to discuss whatever they want. I make sure they understand that at 7:00 a.m. I am heading to my lecture and our breakfast meeting is over.

In 30 minutes over breakfast, all of the important information is discussed. Most of the time they decline to have breakfast with me and just send me a resume. This best practice has worked well for me for several decades. And for those of you who know me, you can give up the idea that I will have an afternoon talk show on personal issues related or unrelated to project management any time soon.

Staffing the Project Office

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Large, complex projects are managed by a team of people called the project office rather than just the project manager. The people who reside in the project office are referred to as assistant project managers (APMs).

Because the complexity of today’s projects seems to be increasing, executives are becoming concerned about who should be assigned as an assistant project manager. There may be a need for an APM for engineering, manufacturing, cost control, scheduling, quality, and several other functional disciplines.

To understand the problem, we must begin first with understanding the job description of the APM. Historically on large projects, the project manager would find it almost impossible to singlehandedly manage the coordination of all personnel assigned to the project. The simplest solution seemed to be the designation of an APM.

As an example, let’s assume that there are 20 engineers assigned to a project. Rather than asking the project manager to perform the integration of activities among the 20 engineers, one of the engineers is designated as the APM for engineering (sometimes referred to as the lead engineer) and handles the coordination. Now the project manager needs to interface with just one person when discussing the engineering activities.  

While this approach appeared to work

well initially, many problems soon appeared, such as:

  • The people assigned as APMs considered themselves experts in their disciplines, and believed that knowledge of project management was unnecessary for them to perform their jobs.
  • The APMs viewed their chances of promotion as based on their technical knowledge rather than project management capability or project success.
  • Project management work was an add-on to their normal jobs, and the functional managers who evaluated them for promotion had limited project management knowledge. Therefore, APM performance was not considered during the promotion cycles.
  • Highly technical APMs changed the direction of the project for their own personal satisfaction.
  • APMs made decisions that were in the best interest of their own functional areas, rather than the best interest of the project or the company.
  • The project manager had to manage the interfacing between APMs since many of the APMs did not communicate with one another.

It was apparent that the project manager’s job was becoming more difficult rather than easier since the APMs had just a cursory understanding of project management. The next step was to assign people as APMs who had previous experience as project managers. It was then entirely possible that someone could be a project manager part time on one project and an APM part time on another project. While this technique had merit, there were still issues. The APMs understood project management but had difficulty coordinating functional activities because of lack of knowledge in the functional area.

Today, we are training functional employees in project management so that they can perform properly as APMs. Functional managers are also being trained in project management. The result is that functional employees who are asked to perform as APMs are being evaluated on their technical ability by their functional managers, and their project management performance by both the project manager (on an informal basis) and their functional managers. This gives us the best of both worlds and provides functional employees with long-term career path opportunities in either the functional or project management arena.