"We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him
when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their
I have taught and consulted in some of the most successful organizations
in the world. They have one thing in common. They are absolutely miserable
places to try to be a project manager.
These organizations hold their project managers responsible for their
projects' success or failure then they systematically withhold the means
for the project manager's success. They demand provably unreasonable deadlines,
deadlines which are not met. Success hangs from a thread spun by a wily
story teller, not the mutual satisfaction of good work well done. They
ask for the truth, then discount or dismiss the bearer who dares to cross
the party line. They bait and they switch.
They let the project manager propose their own schedule then change
their minds about what the project should deliver, then they hold the project
manager's feet to the fire for not delivering on the original commitment.
They want fixed prices and variable specifications. They expect the impossible
and more often than is good for anyone involved get close enough to it
that they believe they can summon the power of the Gods to their petty
I see in the horizon tonight the death of project management. It was
a different, a noble profession in its time, when industry was mechanizing
brutal physical labor. But that time left us long ago. Now the techniques
are misunderstood and misplaced, applied as ineffectively as if we expected
water to hammer rivets or rivets to hold a story together.
The regimen of our barbarous ancestors asks us to fit into the coat
we wore as children. It asks us to forget the lessons we've learned at
such terrible cost. It asks us to stay naive and to act dumb and to pretend
that we don't know better. It asks us to stay in our places and obey the
lunatic ravings of the vice president in charge of this merger, who is
terrified that someone will discover that he hasn't a clue what to do next
except to demand, and belittle, and blame. It asks us to sacrifice, to
work in an organization that terrifies us as much as it terrifies them
without ever mentioning how scared we are, without ever acknowledging how
little joy there is in coming to work each day.
And so we don't really plan. We go through the motions knowing that
we'll be more judged by our superficial adherence to process and procedure
than we'll ever be judged by results. Neither do we build community. We
are all about fed up with this operation and if we weren't in hock up to
our tan lines and lusting after that next bonus (which we are sure will
skyrocket us into freedom at last), we'd have left here the day after we
started working here. And we know it's not worth it. And we know we'd better
just keep our heads down and proceed as if it was.
Last week I taught a workshop in one of the most successful organizations
in the world. When I asked a roomful of project managers how terrifying
it was to be a project manager there, one sheepishly reported that it was
an unrelenting four point five on a five point scale. The rest silently
agreed. A succession of mergers, instigated with no forethought, were set
in these project managers' laps. None shirked their duty. Several had not
survived. Those projects that failed embarrassingly had project managers
that had to leave the company. The survivors were exhausted from years
of such unrelenting pressure with the prospect that the future held similar
These years of unending unwinnable challenges had metastasized into
acquiescence. The survivors had lost the power to say no. The organization
demanded positive feedback, as if useful control information could be so
codified. The survivors drag dead bodies across their finish lines, singing
the praises of a team that never could have taken root in such harsh soil.
The gallows humor sparked giggles as their stories unfolded. Requirements
to plan each project to conclusion in detail before the requirements are
framed. Standards that say a good project manager should be able to bring
such a project in "on time, on spec, and on budget." Scope creep is vilified,
as if the scope were reasonably bounded in the first place. It's a tower
of Babel, anyway, since no two constituencies share the same dialect or
the same perspective on the objective of any project.
Such stupidity trumps anything project management might offer. Even
the traditional project management techniques fall apart if no one can
talk about what's really going on and no one's allowed to understand the
project or the objective before estimating the effort needed to achieve
whatever it is we're building here.
Of course the easy suggestions center around rationalizing this whole
affair-- as if that were either possible and beneficial. In a paper-rock-scissors
game where rational and irrational are involved, bet on irrational every
time. Irrationality can trump any spark of reason. My prescription is greater
irrationality; if we are going to succeed we must throw off this child's
cloak of rational management. The world today has gone mad- we're better
off being crazier than it is than we are being saner than thou.
"Anything but that" strategies are our only hope. True North project
guidance strategies was founded on the principle that what seems to be
an "anything but that" idea is very likely to be the most useful in this
crazy world. When your guts tell you to stuff it, let it explode. When
your intuition is whispering in your ear, listen -- then act. We have for
too long been swallowing when we should have been spitting up, suffocating
when we could have been breathing.
Bottom line is that if there's nothing for you in it, you're much better
off not being involved. If you must live in chains to be free, check the
logic of your reasoning before you suggest that any "anything but that"
choice seems crazy. We have a choice, it seems, to be driven crazy or driving
our selves there. I'm packing a lunch and fingering my keys. How about