Leadership

The Ugly Truth of Project Management

Truth

In our developed society, we can classify all projects into one of the following groups:

1st – Necessary, but nobody wants it

2nd – Everybody wants it, but it’s not necessary

3rd – Necessary and Everybody wants it

The first one, being necessary and nobody wanting it, is often the hardest to understand because if it is necessary, why does nobody want it? This ugly truth here is more common than we think and we will discuss some examples below. After all, what can be so hard getting everyone to want something that is necessary? It turns out, a lot actually.

The second one is much easier to understand and it is interesting because it is much more common than we like to admit. The things we want but don’t need can run our lives. We all want more than we need. It can begin with a nice steak on a special trip to Maldives, and then maybe ends with a super yacht to sail the Caribbean or Mediterranean seas. Neither of those things are actually necessary to carry out our lives. They are things we may want, but do not need. This may not be problematic if you have endless cash reserves, but often individuals and organizations have a budget to follow. Expending huge amounts of cash and/or effort into these extras can become problematic.

A project that is necessary and everybody wants it is what all projects should be looking to attain, but it is of course rare. Food is necessary to live, and most of us desire it. The business related projects that can become things that everybody wants are certainly rare and are not nearly as obvious on the scale of needs as food is. The hardest part can be determining if there is an actual need for the outcome of the project, of if the desire is strong and you just believe it to be a need.

Let us look at an example. If we were a financial firm in 1985, the year the Windows operating system first came out, we had some choices to make. We probably relied heavily on spreadsheets by that point, spreadsheets that were already available via computer software well before the Windows operating system existed. Did we need to go out and buy all brand new computers to take advantage of this new computer development and the new Excel software?

There could certainly be arguments for and against here, but most of the changes Windows brought were not needed to run our business in 1985. Before the Windows operating system became the dominant way to utilize computers, we had ways of using software on the computer, making the existence of a graphical user interface not really necessary. People were already becoming accustomed to interacting with computers in a non-graphical way. We even had the Internet available, although not as advanced.

Where the creation of a computer certainly sped things up and made them more efficient, a graphical user interface had the reverse effect. It reduced the storage and speed capabilities of a computer, and forced a new reliance on the graphical interface in favor of a reduced need to understand the computer file system.

One could make the argument today that the Windows interface is still an unnecessary component on a computer. The Internet sits on large servers that have no graphical user interface with any similarities to Windows. Those servers further help to decrease a need for a graphical user interface being on our personal computers (Ironically, Office 365 from Microsoft reduces the need as well). Software as a service or platforms as a service have given us new options that have almost eliminated any usefulness of a graphical interface on our personal machines.

This could lead us to believe that the change to a graphical interface at any point since 1985 would be unnecessary, but that isn’t what happened or continues to happen. People wanted these new computers with a pretty graphical user interface, despite the fact that they cost more and ate up vital system resources (oddly enough, still a problem today on many lower end computers, but even more of an issue in 1985).

Now we could argue that the graphical interface made it easier for people to use a computer and thus expanded the computer’s usefulness. But it seems likely this expansion would have happened anyway, with or without a graphical way to interact with our personal computers. So why the huge upgrade of adding in the processing burden of a graphical operating system? We are not going to answer this question here as there is probably no one single answer to the question. It is fairly clear that everyone wanted it, and most people don’t seem to realize that they don’t need it. You may even hear arguments on the necessity of it (and certainly there may be situations where it could be necessary, we just can’t think of any).

How many people today go to work, boot their computer up, then navigate to a virtual machine where they perform their actual work? How many people access all their software they need over a network connection? Those numbers continue to rise, and they are often born of a new necessity – Such as the necessity of a centralized control of access, updates, and the streamlining of the available applications.

Pedro: In cases where everyone wants it but it is not necessary, it seems that advantages and disadvantages in a project are perceived to be well understood and taken for granted. Conditions leading to people wanting the project may be numerous, but not actually related to a need. They may just like the sound of the project, or perhaps the way the product is marketed to influence people’s desire to have a personal result.

When it comes to a project being necessary but not really wanted, the resistance to change is usually high. Between two competing projects, people may desire the one that means to change their processes the least. This is funny because managing projects by principle is to drive change, so the least wanted project is already at a disadvantage. This means that unfortunately, they may actually need the one that forces them to change the most. They just don’t want it.

Joshua: When it comes to projects that are unnecessary and everybody wants, the people at the top are often making decisions for everyone involved. They are the ones that should be marketing the necessary projects to people and getting them onboard, but they are often the victims of their own bias. They may divert their energy to projects they believe they need, because they are told they need it; but fail to actually investigate with the people to determine if they need it.

When it comes to the Windows operating system example above and technology in general, these people making the decisions may not even fully understand all of the implications of their decisions or the project’s outcome if completed. Arguably, this might make the graphical user interface a necessity as it helped people understand the computer in a visual way. This is where you can get into issues with deciding on the necessity of a project, because in reality no one needs a computer to meet the baseline necessity of anything resembling what one needs to live.

The question becomes, how necessary is it? We kind of need a balance between a free-for-all system, where everyone gets every bell and whistle they want, and a very closed off sort of world where we exist on just the bare bones. We need food to live, that food doesn’t have to taste good – but it would be nice if it did. We don’t need expensive caviar, lobster, or T-bone steaks served to us on a yacht in the Mediterranean (although that would be nice too), but we do need some sort of balance between blandness and extravagance. We don’t need a graphical interface, but I recall staring at a black screen with green letters for hours in school and the graphical interface is better than that.

Pedro: Everybody is doing projects all the time, and every company does project management. They may not know if they do it right or wrong. These projects can be done good or bad, chaotic or completely by the book. When we think about it, too many projects are actually the desire of organizational managers. These projects may not necessarily be a wanted thing by the people, because most of the time they are not considered as needed by them. It is just one more change they have to endure at the whims of the managers.

I believe this is one of the largest pain points in project management. A leader decides he wants something, even failing to consider the need, and everyone else has to go along with it. If a company practices Agile, this is certainly not how it is supposed to operate, but many that claim they practice Agile are just performing in their usual ways with a new meaningless name. For project management to perform well, this top-down approach should be avoided as much as possible.

A small company may not have as many issues here, especially with managers that listen to their employees needs and desires. When a company reaches more than 100 employees, they start developing practices, protocols, and standards in relation to project management that may not have been proactively thought out or structured. Most companies that scale up too quickly, and with very little resources, have to fight on how to handle themselves as a larger company. This often leads to development of these standards pretty much too late. This increases the likelihood of projects that face problems in the future. You will get more of these projects that no one needs or no one wants. No fault on project management for that one and Agile won’t save their butts. In the end, these projects are the result of bad leadership or bad strategy.

When we look to a broader view, we can take Katalin Kariko as an example. Most of the people in the world don’t know about Katalin. Katalin discovered a method to make effective vaccines using mRNA, when nobody had any idea how to do it, and she actually discovered the method in 2005. Nothing happened after that, no pharmaceutical company was interested in it. There was no consideration for her method to be used because all vaccines were already working. The need for something better did not exist. Katalin Kariko’s method became a typical ‘nobody cared and nobody thought it was important’ sort of thing. Interesting yes, but it was not needed…

…until it was. We can thank her process for the rapid creation of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Joshua: I think the Katalin story Pedro highlights shows that balance I was talking about. Katalin undertook a project that wasn’t an absolute barebones necessity. She wasn’t trying to move mountains, but maybe she had an eye to the future (I don’t know all the details). Eventually, we did have a necessity, and her method helped bring about that necessity faster. That is the danger I think in only looking at the absolute minimum you have to do to get by. Had someone killed Katalin’s research because it didn’t fit the criteria of necessary at the time, COVID-19 might have become a much worse issue.

Telling someone we must only stick to the absolute necessity of a project in and of itself may be what creates projects where there is a need but nobody wants it. Who wants to do just what we need to do to get by? We want our food to taste good. We want to innovate. We want to explore and push boundaries. Yes, there should be a balance and limits, but those limits should not be so constraining as to prevent any extras above an absolute need from creeping in.

Pedro: I think Katalin’s story is the best way to show how a whole project can move along the three stages. Funny to be something that she presents as important, and people just find it interesting but see no need at all. Maybe to their grandchildren one day it could prove important. I wonder if this phenomenon has some relation to global warming? Everyone might like talk about this as an interesting problem and concern, but nothing any will do about it.

Even if we say today that it was the pharmaceutical’s plot to keep their costs down, we have a reality check here. It was actually the market; therefore it was everybody. We all were happy, therefore nothing needed to be changed. COVID-19 came, and we run after her seeking the solution. This is so typical of mankind and the way we behave. And this makes again the point on project management, everybody does it good or bad, with knowledge or no knowledge, with horrible leadership or strong experience, it is always just done. The outcome of it does not depend on the method, but the method could certainly help. Projects are needed, but the culture can be against them. They may not be needed right away, but they could still be needed eventually. This sometimes can be something that is hard to do and only leaders with very good skills are able to move it forward. In my opinion, those are the leaders that normally take the company to the next levels.

We can’t do anything about the products that are not necessary, like the latest model of iPhone, or a burger and a coke. Since there is no survival at stake, we become truly happy in acquiring those items. Everybody seems to like it and want it. It’s surprisingly interesting how so many people actually just want the latest iPhone to show to friends that they have one. And of course there are the products that everybody wants and they are necessary. Right now, the COVID-19 vaccine has become one of those, even if its history was not.

In the case of project management, I believe that there comes a perception around this, maybe some education to be more sensitive for applying PM methods. This includes of course the famous word Agile. It wouldn’t be that bad even if people used what ever they feel more comfortable with, hybrid or simple, as long as they used it with consistency. But medium and big size companies will require a lot of effort to apply change, and then implement the conditions to create a proper project management system. Leaders can benefit, colleagues can benefit, and the world can benefit a lot more too if they would focus more on these issues of what is necessary and what is not. And then they should work to help people see that need.

Joshua: I don’t know if I am fond of your burger and coke example as being not necessary. As you said, ‘ we become truly happy in acquiring those items’ and that I think can make some things necessary. I don’t have a billion dollars. I am not likely to ever acquire a billion dollars. But I do have $6 and growing annoyance with my own cooking. For my sanity, that burger might just fill a need more important than a cheaper home cooked meal.

You are correct though when you say that everyone can benefit by focusing on what they need and want when it comes to their projects. When those needs are identified, the leaders need to lead and drive the excitement of filling that need home. This ideally should involve the whole organization, not just a small group at the top.

Pedro: Ah ah, a burger to a non-cooking fellow! Well, maybe that’s a typical intercontinental culture gap, because here in Europe we do also eat burgers but we don’t consider them better than other meals. They just deliver faster and have a strong persuading marketing machine. But the need here is meant to be more like healthy Vs. unhealthy in marketing. Personally I am not a sandwich fellow, but hey, Mediterranean cuisine has a big reputation and a lunch meal in Portugal in most common restaurants are always better than a burger. And that is the only not ugly truth in this story, Josh can confirm it one day, soon!

Conclusion:

One thing is for sure, if it’s an ugly truth that means that it is going to be hard to make a change. It is in our human DNA, save for some very limited exceptions, that we tend to be resistant to that which is new and difficult. We can help our organization change by doing things like invest more in the education and company culture.

This should be a whole organization investment and not in small groups or just directed from top level managers. The individual people within the organization need to feel like they are helping to guide the change, and their involvement is critical to the overall success. The project being forced upon people by top-level managers will turn out a lot like a Soviet oligarchy, where the people just report back what they want to hear while only doing the bare minimum to keep the top people happy.

But above all else, let’s try to be more aware of our people please! A lot of dedicated people inside these organizations would be less stressed out, and contribute more, if we pay more attention to them and have them help guide the organization down the right path. Maybe a burger once a while, or throwing in some small extras as nice to haves can be helpful, but as with the unhealthy burger all things should be done in moderation.

Be well and under scope!

Sources:

Cover Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

Gold Photo by Michael Steinberg from Pexels

Frustrated Man Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

Odd face coverings Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Kolata, Gina (2021). Kati Koriko Helped Shield the World from Corona Virus. The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/health/coronavirus-mrna-kariko.html

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