The Loneliness of The Programme Manager

I have a great deal in common with David Moyes. There are some areas where we differ of course. I don’t have to manage Shrek, I don’t have access to free track suits or dodgy coats and I don’t get my name splashed across every newspaper every time it doesn’t go well for me at work.

Make The Inherited Team Work For You

(Image © VegasEddie)

Moyes, for those who live on Mars (or perhaps the US) is a football manager, the manager of possibly the biggest club in the world, Manchester United. Sounds great. Except he’s a football manager in his first season at the club. I am a programme manager. Specifically a programme manager who specialises in recovery. I land in troubled programmes and turn them around – or even sometimes terminate them.

The similarity lies in the loneliness, the isolation especially in the initial stages of the role. There are ways to alleviate this though as I will walk through later no in this post.

Moyes was presumably recruited by the chairman. A friendly, smiling face full of promises and smiles. Initial talk of ambition and plans, of positives and partnership. Bring in the programme sponsor. The guy wedded to the ambition and delivery of the programme but not necessarily wedded to the deliverer. He knows what he wants, will go to any length to get it but when it comes to it he isn’t that worried who delivers it. In both roles this guy treats you as expendable, merely a means to an end. Ultimately this person is not your friend…

Indirectly Moyes has another client that he must impress. The supporters. A recent survey puts the number of worldwide supporters that Moyes has to impress at 659 million. To be fair, I’ve never worked on a programme with 600 million users so I’m a bit behind there. But the similarities are there. The relationship with the supporters or the business into which you are delivering is always on a knife edge. They are reliant on you doing a good job and will back you vehemently when they see evidence of a good job being done. However, as soon as anything goes wrong they will be quick to criticise, to escalate and demand changes. A group of dissenters can gather momentum very quickly and whilst they do not generally have direct hire and fire power they certainly can influence.

Moyes inherited a team of players. In some ways he is better off than me in that Moyes inherited a team of world class players. Read into that what you will! The problem for Moyes is that they are not his choice of world class players, they do not necessarily play to his system and unfortunately the competition also has world class players. The last point means that in comparison they are average. I inherit teams. Generally pretty average team. One or two potential stars perhaps but in the main teams that don’t play to my system. Teams that don’t suit my style of management. Both Moyes and I are recruited primarily as people managers. Our abilities to produce results from a team are the primary reasons we get the job. Sure, we are experts in our trades, we know the fundamentals but then so do many other people. It’s the ability to get the people around you to deliver that marks us out from the crowd. 

More importantly then, what do both Moyes and I need to do to deliver in such an environment?

The first piece of the jigsaw is perhaps a surprising one as it’s initially at least a non ‘work’ one. In order to succeed in this environment you need a friend. I’ve outlined above how whilst at any given time each of the groups might be supporting you, none are your friends. On arrival, you can trust no one and must not get too close to anyone. Three months down the line, you don’t know which employees you might be having conversations with about poor performance, you don’t know when you might have to deliver a hard to live with ultimatum to the chairman or your client and you don’t know when you might have that tough meeting with the business to let them know you won’t be delivering that much desired functionality or with the supporters to let them know your targets are not in line with their wishes. So until you have your right hand man in place, you need a clear idea of who externally you have to bounce ideas off, to motivate and inspire you and generally to get support from. To start a role without this is tough indeed.

Next comes team motivation. Moyes has an added constraint here. The transfer window. That means that player recruitment wise he is not only constrained by budget and the availability of his preferred team but is also constrained by the time windows in which he can recruit. The problem is similar though on both sides. You have to work with what you have and you need time to understand whether the players you inherit are capable of working in the way that you want them to. First impressions may be wrong. The way a team performed for a previous manager may be very different from the way that they perform for you. Getting the team onside early on and fighting for your cause is about setting out clearly your core beliefs, being very clear about what you want to achieve and how you aim to set about doing it. It’s about being tough when necessary but listening too. The bully boy tactics might create short term wins but never create a long term delivery structure. Mostly though it’s about taking the time to find out about the individuals. What inspires them, what are their concerns, dislikes and ambitions. Having these conversations not only establishes relationships but also starts to set out your long term goals. No point creating a style of play around the midfielder that is desperate to play for Real Madrid next year or the project manager who is looking to take a back seat. The key here though is to focus on motivation in the short term. These people may or not be in your long term plan. They are definitely part of your short term plan though and you will need each to perform as well as they can.

As soon as possible, it is vital to address the loneliness problem. To deliver in the long term, you need a trusted core team around you. People who absolutely buy into your vision and who have the ability to motivate and bring others along. Football managers and programme managers from consultancies often have the ability to create an instant Team structure. Increasingly when a manager joins a new club he will take his back room staff with him. He will walk into the new role an instant team around him. Consultancies will sell in the leadership layer as a way to kicking off a project quickly and early. I’m not a great fan of this approach though. If football or programmes were a repeatable process then this would be fine. However there are so many variables involved -the players, the budget, the ambition of the chairman – that each scenario Is different. To arrive with a management team means that you have one approach. To put your own repeatable model into play. To force the variables around you to act in the way that fits your model. It’s tough to get results this way but also it means you never get better. It’s a plateau model. You build your way of doing it and at best you repeat it. At worst you can’t force the resources into your shape and you end up failing. What you don’t do is create a better model each time. 

The approach of arriving with an external sounding board, the inspirational friend, whilst tougher in the short term means that you have time to assess the situation before selecting the right team from your trusted contacts. It takes longer but you build a team that is accurately selected to address the challenges facing you and therefore a stronger long term team. One shouldn’t underestimate how quickly this needs to be done though.   There is only a short period until the ‘trusted friend’ is too far removed and until the real storming within the team commences. By that point you need at least one person in that you trust and that shares your vision. Finally, your team around you should be people who are loyal to you. They should not be people who always agree with you. I have seen programmes fail due to leadership teams of yes men. If everyone is always going to agree, you may as well have one person.

The holy grail of all of this is time. Time to judge what you have in terms of resources available, time to build that loyal management team and time to start delivering and create an atmosphere of success. You can buy time though through an early deliverable. The absolute first thing to look for on any new project is how to deliver something high profile fast. Divert resource to that deliverable and stay with it until it’s complete. Once you have an early win in the bag, time to build will be made available. 

Anyone for half time oranges?

“You Are Not Like A Project Manager, You Have Common Sense.”

I recently overheard a senior manager saying to one of the new project managers “I like you. You are not like a project manager, you have common sense.” I have long thought that the key differentiator between a standard project manager and a great project manager is just that. Being confident about when to call something, when to use one of the tools and techniques and when, dare I say it, to take a short cut.

Project Management is really 
just about common sense
(Image © Scott Marshall

When I started contracting, I was determined not to just fall straight back into one of the clients that I had had in my consultancy days. I was confident that those relationships would always be there to fall back on but that I needed to prove myself as being able to source new clients first. A tough few weeks followed where I learnt a great deal about the way that agents seek to find and place clients and the dramatic difference between that process and delivering what the client needed.

One of the most telling things though was the obsession with qualifications. To a certain extent, that in itself didn’t worry me. It was the focus on qualifications that ensured that you understood a process rather than understood project or indeed programme management. At that point, I had a thorough grounding in various in house corporate methodologies, was PMP trained (in the era when passing the PMP qualification was backed by an audit of experience rather than the more diluted version that exists now) but didn’t have the Prince 2 qualification.

I had worked on P2 projects, indeed had two elapsed years experience of this gathered over eight years. However I didn’t have the qualification itself. £1000 pounds lighter after a four day course, I was the proud owner of a Prince 2 practitioner certificate and just four days later  landed my first freelance role with full responsibility for managing a multiple million pound public sector project.

I was aware even then that that qualification had got me the role. Or at the very least had got me the interview. My problem with this is that I had obtained the certificate in four days, could probably have gained it in one and it didn’t make me a better project manager. Indeed as the trainer repeatedly said, the easiest way to pass the exam was to park all your knowledge and experience at the door, learn the process and the products and recite it parrot fashion in the exam.  Nothing then that made me, or demonstrated that I was a better project manager than the next cv. In fact entirely the opposite.

My difficulty with this approach is that it creates robots. It creates project managers that merely follow process. Of more concern is that it creates project managers who cannot cope with any situation which falls outside if this process. Any decision that may need to be made quickly to avoid massive potential cost impact for instance gets shoe horned into the best available model. If the robot follows the model, they won’t get into trouble. Chances are they won’t get the project delivered either of course. Organisations are desperately keen to jump on the bandwagon of the process based approach. It enables them to create low cost project managers who can follow an easily assured, easily monitored process. It also kills dynamism, kills and tenacity or desire to drive projects through aggressively and above all it kills common sense.

I am not advocating that we aim to deliver projects without process. The project management products that Prince, PMP and the internal corporate methodologies are built around are the backbone of good project management. The stages of projects by which organisations manage their programmes and projects are powerful from a decision making point of view, an assurance ability and for communication. Every project needs a project plan, every project should be driven by risks and issue registers. Every project needs clear success criteria and scope.

However these are merely the toolkit to project management. Every project manager should have this toolkit to deliver their projects. There are too many project managers, too many organisations that believe that that toolset provides the ability to make decisions, to prioritise, to judge and manage the risks and issues and to ultimately deliver the project. One wouldn’t employ a carpenter to craft a high end piece by merely looking into his van, noting his tools and assuming he was good. Yet this is how many companies choose their project managers. A graduate entrant is sent on a Prince course and is given the in house tailoring of that methodologies and is then a Project Manager.

The real skill of successful project management is knowing how light or deep to go into the processes. Knowing which particular tool to use and to what degree in any given circumstance. It’s in using that common sense for every issue, thinking outside the box, outside the regimented discipline of the methodologies in order to get things delivered that the true skills lie. Too often I find ‘project managers’ who are keen to hide behind the process, indeed feel safe in not looking for the quick way to work through an issue because they are protected by the internal process.

The Influx Of Project Managers Into Project Management

With the current economic climate which has resulted in high level professionals suddenly finding themselves unemployed, it’s not surprising that the number of ‘project managers’ offering themselves for work on a contract basis has gone through the roof. I differentiate here between IT/ Business Project Managers and Project Management within the construction sector which I see as a very different role – and one that I don’t think has suffered the same dramatic increase in supply. The increase in supply has led to a decrease in average project management rates but also a decrease in quality delivered to clients. Ironically, as I will expand on later, this has led to an increase in the rate card for those at the top end of the spectrum.

Taking the courses won’t make you a Project Manager
(Image © Anne Davis

So why the decrease in quality? To enter the contract world, the majority of professionals are fairly confident of their ability to deliver and are probably joining the lifestyle from a position of some seniority. I have indeed come across several who have been former clients, formerly managing groups of contractors on behalf of their organisation. So these are often senior management calibre. They enter the contract market and pick on the rather generic title of project manager as it seems like a pseudonym for someone who just gets stuff done. How difficult can it be? Find the end objective and work out how to get there. Simple. 

There are two main reasons why this type of contractor finds it tricky to succeed. The first is the corporate model, the second is that project management isn’t merely another term for senior manager. It takes a certain type of person and takes a certain group of skills which cannot be learnt by taking the standard Project Management courses of PRINCE2 and PMP. 

I strongly believe that project managers within organisations need to be contractors. As soon as one gets to any senior level within an organisation, the corporate mentality takes over. Each individual is incentivised by their career prospects (either in that company or their next step). As a result, almost every move they make, every decision that they take has to be run through a decision tree which says how will this affect my career. How will this affect the corporate relationships that I need to develop to progress my career? For that reason, the decision making process is immediately flawed. A good project manager will be focussed on delivering the scope agreed to the cost agreed in the required timescale. Simple as that. The corporate manager knows too much. At every turn, their are opportunities to flex the scope, decisions which need to be taken in the projects best interests but are taken as a way of advancing the career. Or worse – not taken at all. The contractor doesn’t have these ties. He or she is purely incentivised on the delivery of a single (or a group of) projects. They are measured on their ability to control and deliver to the original project constraints (Scope, time, cost). The ex corporate manager would be much better suited to a portfolio management role where they are tasked with balancing the delivery of project with the wider corporate objectives. Two things stop the recently redundant manager doing this though. Firstly, there are few contract roles of this type and to achieve a contract role as a Portfolio manager, ironically the client will generally look for proven experience of delivery as a contractor. Secondly, the very reason that that role suits them is because it should be a corporate role. Therefore they are rarely on the contractor market. Vicious circle.

The best end up establishing themselves in the interim sector of the market, that is performing permanent corporate roles on a temporary basis. The rest try mistakenly to rebrand themselves as project managers, pitch at low rates and then come unstuck once it becomes clear that the difference between the corporate mindset and the contractor mindset is marked.  

Let me be clear here. I am in no way playing down the skill sets of  corporate professionals. To operate for years in the same global corporation, to manage the relationships, the politics to create strategic direction is a much sought after skill set. All I am saying is that it is not one necessarily suited to project management which is where many are repositioning themselves
The flip side of  the massive increase in supply into the project management sphere is the increase in the reliance of clients on recommendation and previous contact. Agencies are swamped by CVs, are targeted by procurement departments to deliver low cost resource but Client Delivery Managers are aware that this low cost approach does not necessarily deliver results. This results in the route to contract changing – agents are now administrative billing functions rather than recruiters but also in the rewards increasing as clients target individuals rather than generic skillsets.