Overcome the Double-Whammy of Executive Grief Over IT and PM

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
An intriguing article in the 1st Quarter, 2010 CIO Insight magazine summarized the results of some (in our opinion) major research by Valuedance and Harvard Business Review. The article, Not So IT Smart, was filled with (appropriate for the magazine) insights, including a significant perception gap about performance on a range of key factors, as perceived by Business and IT Leaders. We urge you to read that well-researched and well-written article—after, of course, reading this posting.

The Executive’s Grief over IT
I recall the challenges of 30-35 years ago, when it appeared that Executive Managers just didn’t get it, about the proper use of what we then called DP (Data Processing). Then we changed the name of the practice to Management Information Systems (MIS), perhaps thinking that relabeling the same behaviors would change things. Of course, there were, even then, stellar examples of savvy Executives who knew how to make DP the centerpiece of competitive advantage; but those appeared to be in the minority.

Most of us either assumed or hoped that those Execs who refused to even use a keyboard would soon retire, and their successor would eventually become the visionary strategic leader, who would bring us out of our wilderness. But for most, it never happened. In fact, the criteria listed as differing perceptions in the above-referenced article are much the same as they were over 30 years ago.

Which could lead one to a conclusion that it is not those Executives at all, but a young and immature practice, that still focuses too much on the latest technologies and the detailed part of the life cycle. That is, of course, not what most Executives would prefer, because they are interested in the high-level front and end of the life cycle, defining the business need and strategic alignment, then demonstrating that the promised benefits are measurably achieved.

For our PM-oriented readers, some of that preceding paragraph may be a bit deja vu. No, I am still speaking of IS (for Information Systems; we gave up on the “Management” part of MIS, and it is now often called IT, for Information Technology). But, the parallel is striking, isn’t it? Those same comments voiced in that paragraph could apply to today’s PM, or project management. Let’s explore that insight.

Executive Grief Over PM
In several major PM Conferences in 2009 I spoke to the need to improve PM performance, and the need to improve Executive perception of that performance. At the UTD/PMI Dallas PM Symposium, I presented Essential Insights In Meeting the Rising Demand For PM Performance. In that talk I explored the dilemma that despite huge training investments and hundreds of thousands of entry-level certificants, PM Performance is actually getting worse. I identified Five Essential Actions organizations could take to turn things around, to improve PM success. Most of those rely on IPMA-USA’s initiatives, now copied by others, that are the very reason for our existence.

In 2006 I wrote and presented Let’s Cure “The Dumbing-Down Of Project Management”. This presented an Executive’s view of the challenges facing a project management profession or practice (depending on who you talk to, Paul G) that really “just doesn’t get it”, and identified an eight-step plan for improving organizational PM results. Central to that plan is PM training that serves as a foundation to PM competence and performance, rather than simple test-cramming that dissipates within 2-4 weeks, a scourge upon competent PM practice; especially because it drains funds for more-tangible and beneficial initiatives. As most readers will recognize, most of the rest of those steps have to do with actions needed from Managers in the Middle, rather than adding more PM training, tools or technology to project managers and their teams.

And yet, although identification of the problem is allegedly halfway to its solution, we have far to go in solving this dilemma. Most of the complaints Executives have about IT/IS remain true for PM. And, it does not appear to be getting better anytime soon, for 80-90% (my estimate) of organizations. PM remains the “dark hole in space” for too many Executives, rather than their strongest tool in search of organizational excellence, beneficial change, and strategic advantage.

Evil Twins, Separated At Birth
So this is where that “Double Whammy” in the title comes in. Both PM and IT are the bane of the savvy Executive (and all-too-many Middle Managers). And the problem for most organizations is that it is not just PM or IT that causes the problem. Put them both together and they are not additive, they may be multiplicative; they could even be exponential in their impact. Thus, the Evil Twins, Separated At Birth. Both new, unproven practices, untrusted by Executive Management, and failing (largely, so far) to gain that trust. It is no wonder that the membership of Project Management Institute now consists of mostly IT-PMs. They are all desperately trying to climb out of Dante’s rings of hell. And with little success, despite the best efforts of the organization.

What Can Be Done To Neuter the Double Whammy
This situation is clearly not one where two wrongs make a right. As asserted above, the IT and PM problems compound in the enterprise. And, it is not a matter of stupid people. Some of the brightest people in today’s workplace work in these two disciplines. Of course, there is a bit of a problem with both sets of participants tending towards heroics, rather than careful analysis and appropriate action, but that only threatens their life-span; they still excel, given the chance.

Therein lies some of the secret to overcoming the double whammy. No, not by extending their life span, but giving the chance for the excellence, the transparency, the talent to shine. It has always been part of the solution, and has been mastered by many enterprise executives. Those persons’ enterprises are leaders in their industries. I could lay out all the key points here, but I have published most of them in a series of articles on the IPMA-USA website, so I will not duplicate those insights. Besides, that would make this already-long posting overly long.

There are a few more things that can be done to Neuter the double whammy. They are part of the most-recent IPMA-USA initiatives:

1. Improve organizational performance by identifying all the strengths, and the gaps, of your organization. The PRO Organizational Performance Assessment Standard is the just-released effort that took us over 3 years to develop. We could have done it faster if we had just copied a maturity model, but we chose to deliver something that could actually help improve performance. PRO looks at PM performance from an Executive’s point of view. Our rationale: Very little additional improvement can be gained by further “skilling up” project managers and teams. My own experience as a consultant, is that an order of magnitude of measurable performance improvement is possible by assessing and aligning the rest of the organization.

2. It has been an absolute truth in dozens and dozens of engagements over my over-28 year experience with government agencies, consultancies, manufacturing and service organizations, that there is one secret to improved PM performance: After doing all the other steps referred to above, each having significant and measurable returns on investment, you have to “fix” the Managers in the Middle. These too, are bright, capable people, who serve their organizations well–in their ongoing process-oriented work. But no one has ever demonstrated to them that managing project managers is a completely different style of management, than managing the white-collar factory. Those who should be the filters and disseminators of downward direction and shock absorbers and aggregators of rapid-action upward intelligence, are the bottleneck.

For years, we did a combination of Management Overviews, plus coaching, for the 5-10 layers of Managers in the Middle. It was always difficult to get these important people into a room for more than several hours. Then, around 20 years ago, we had an Executive with insight, who saw that his (in this case, a male) Middle Managers were the greatest opportunity for improvement. This was already an industry leading organization, in Big Oil; it had great Managers, and a great reputation. But they saw the need to keep improving, and the Exec saw the way.

We put together a 3-day class, called Managing Project Managers. Its unofficial name was Up, Down, or Out. Our initial research showed that many of the Managers had been promoted because of their excellence in their prior roles; some were not happy with their new responsibilities; a few were just holding on for retirement. In a series of intensive workshops, these Managers were exposed, not to more PM theory, but what Managers do to improve PM performance. They had the opportunity to show, to prove, how they added value to everything they touched. If they did not add value, they had the opportunity to move back down, at the current pay rate, to their former level of excellence. Some actually took a buy-out. Some, who not only demonstrated clear value, but who did so despite Managers above them, had the opportunity to move on up.

That was a pretty drastic approach to improving PM Performance. Most organizations don’t have the stamina to go through something that extensive. Yet for that organization, it was incredibly powerful, both for the individual Managers involved, and for the whole organization. The key lesson is this: At a certain point, when you appear to be hitting the point of diminishing returns in PM Performance, look higher. There is probably another 10x performance improvement awaiting you.