Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

People in project management – the ultimate elastic band in terms of productivity!

With thanks to Toby Tester for this topic, I wanted to explore a subject which has been close to my heart for more years than I can say.

How did we get to a situation where the presumption is that human capital productivity stays constant in periods of intense change?

I know this blog is supposed to be a series of incisive commentaries based on personal consulting experience but the reality is that if you question a 5 year old about how successful an activity was, they will give you a relative answer…”it was good but not as / better than good as the last one I did.” And when you ask the question why (if you still have their attention!) he or she will tell about circumstances which influenced their performance…typically, time, materials or indeed mood, health and other external factors which have resulted in a different outcome.

So when we take that insight into a work environment or better still a transformation project, what happens? Well, in the desperate need for certainty and predictability, we create work plans which are, at the most granular level, task focused and we assign times, allocate resources and end dates in the hopeful expectation that these are close to reality….when in fact, we have no idea how long anything will take. A good project manager will instinctively take a conservative approach, which coupled with an equally conservative approach by his stakeholder, adds up to a relatively generous timeframe. Or at least it seems that way at the beginning of the project…not so much at the end usually!

Now, some project managers will recognise that that resource planning exercise is only the smallest start to the ultimate challenge and task which he / she faces: Maintaining the motivation, energy, drive, willingness to question and communicate within the team such that they continue to perform and deliver. Others will presume that having done the plan, delivery is guaranteed or at least, subject to earth shattering events, relatively certain.

Now, if I find myself in the former group which recognises that challenge, where do I find the section in my professional qualification process which helps me develop the set of skills required for that activity?

To reiterate my position from previous blogs, I’ve no issue with professional qualifications or indeed with the planning activity. The former makes an important and, in my opinion, honest and dedicated contribution to what we do, and the latter (for many!) is indeed what we do! My point is that an assumption such as static productivity in resources is fundamentally flawed and without an acknowledgement and indeed recognition that the skills to maintain a motivated and productive team need to be assessed in the recruitment of PM resources, we will continue to see poor results in complex transformation projects.

Categories: Complex transformation, Consulting, Economics, Functional Leadership, human behaviour, Human Capital, Project Management, Transformation

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7 replies

  1. Ben, since I was mentioned in your blog I feel obliged to respond. I would of course agree with you. Human capital doesn’t stay constant. It reminds me of something referred to as ‘Student Syndrome’. Essentially people (including myself and my son I’ve recently noticed) will not complete work assigned to them until the last possible moment before it’s due.

    In effect the time required to do the work was a good deal less than the estimate provided. This is human nature and makes the linear approach to estimating resources a bit silly.

    I read Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints a while ago, which talks about this syndrome, and have applied the techniques to get a better sense of resource estimates. I don’t know if professional qualifications cover this field of study. Maybe they do. Nonetheless there really is no substitute for the soft skills needed to motivate and create focus.


  2. Ben

    You have touched on a topic that is important to me as well, so I feel compelled to reply (albeit the date of this blog made me think twice…). In particular, the true value of a project plan is in framing an ongoing conversation with key stakeholders and not the plan, per se.

    As described by Thomas Gladwin (1964), the Trukese navigators of yesteryear approached navigation with a view to achieving an objective. In contrast, European navigation was based on following a plan and everything was relative to that plan. While there are pros and cons with each approach, the Trukese approach appears to be more appropriate in dynamic environments.

    Relating this back to business, understanding the objective or “why” of a project is a key requirement for delivering positive business outcomes. Moreover, sharing this knowledge with key stakeholders as part of an ongoing conversation is more likely to generate alternative views. This in turn should increase the likelihood of success by creating a shared sense of ownership, higher engagement and a lower likelihood of ‘group think’.

    Any complex project, including large scale global transformation programmes, require a recognition that no-one has all the answers and that no plan is perfect. As your 5 year old knows, there are many factors that contribute to the enjoyment and success of an activity, many of which are external and hard to predict!



    • Very interesting response, thank you John…the analogy between this and the navigators of yesteryear is extremely powerful. Perhaps a similarly different approach exists between Agile and Waterfall based methodologies! I’ve written elsewhere between two quite different cultural approaches, the one in a Spanish environment where the debate around the decision took the majority of time, the other in an American organisation where implementation was the vast majority of time allocated. In the former process, the length of debate upfront dramatically reduced discussion time in meetings which became entirely focused on clean, clear and robust decision making. There is something to be said for this way of doing things.



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