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Project Managers Are We Managing Or Are We TheorizingEverything was running along smoothly.  We had looked at past project performance and had measured the typical progress trend seen in these new product projects.  In this particular case, we were at a milestone where the software was done and it was working on the hardware prototypes, and we were debugging and tuning the marriage of the software with the hardware.

I noticed that once we passed this major milestone, with one of the best passing quality assurance grades ever, the whole speed of the development effort seemed to slow down.  Since we had measured past performance and had scaled the project based upon this past trajectory, this slowdown — as seen in the defect arrival and removal trends — was a big concern.  So after doing a few calculations, I blasted out a message to the development managers showing them the “before” and “after” rates of defect removal, and the projected trends and said that if we don’t get back to where it once was, we would start to miss our upcoming milestones.

For more on this see Defect Reports Are Your Best Friend

This got everyone excited and moving.  However, the lead development project manager tried to explain to me that there was not a true slowdown only that the easy defects had been fixed and now we were facing the harder ones.  So it was logical, he claimed, for the fix rate to slow down.

This is a typical use of speculation I’ve seen in many projects.  It was a great theory he had. Now he needed  to go and test this theory by looking at real defect data.  Instead, this “fact” just seemed right to the project manager and he told it to me and all his bosses and they in turn began to say the same thing to their and my bosses.  Luckily, before this theory spread too far and impacted what folks were doing, my trumpeting the alarm had caused a clear jump in the defect removal rate.  Also luckily (or maybe because of proactive and objective management), the rate stayed up and we hit all our milestones and went on to deliver the project only ten days from the original finish date after an 18 month effort.

As project managers, we need to distinguish between what we know as fact and what we suspect — our theory — on what might be going on.  It might sound like a great idea, but first do some checking and test our notion before announcing it as a fact.  We may find our original notion does not hold up to scrutiny but we’ll inevitably benefit by often discovering a more insightful reason that goes to the true heart of the issue and keeps us on track to a successful project.

Do you recall any management actions that were based upon an unsubstantiated theory that was accepted as fact?

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2 thoughts on “Project Managers Are We Managing Or Are We Theorizing?

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    More comments from around the web:

    Daniel Ferry • I was dropped into a project where management would castigate the development leads if they didn’t show positive progress every week. Accordingly, the leads claimed progress every week until the overall project seemed to be at 90% completion, when in fact it was two years away from completion. When CSC Corporate investigated, the PM was replaced with a hit team from Corporate. But it still took two years to complete the work.

    Bruce Benson • Daniel,

    I’ve never seen a “tiger team” or “hit team” etc., ever save a project that had gone bad. More often, at best, they redefined the project and then completed it that way.

    The bad management habits I’ve primarily seen are similar to what you saw. Management wants progress, the project manager – even when he/she knows the real progress – tells them what they want to hear. The project goes badly, the project manager is replaced, and the replacement manager tells senior management … what the old project manager had been originally telling them.

    In one case, I was the new guy, I had completed my quick analysis of the project and laid out what I thought we should do to get it back on track. I had very little knowledge of what the previous project manager had been saying. After I finished my presentation. I noticed the senior team was looking at each other. The chairman finally said to me, “OK, I guess maybe we should do that.” Apparently, the previous manager I had been telling them the roughly same thing for quite a while.

  2. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Mark Maclean • Interesting article Bruce. My take is that this is often true if your Organisation does not have a culture that supports open and honest communication, or one where the management style is “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”.
    To change the game we need data, persistence, the right communication skills… and some intestinal fortitude 😉

    Bruce Benson • Mark,

    I’ve come to believe that the essential part is the “intestinal fortitude” because when I’ve investigated these situations, many people knew and understood the problems. It was just hard to do anything with this knowledge that didn’t feel career limiting!

    Great comment.

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