The Criticality of Project Management

Project management over the years have gone through somewhat of a bad rap for technology projects, especially. They always seem like a luxury afforded by management, and whenever things go south in a tech project, the first stop for blame is always on the project manager. It’s a tough life. On one hand you need to appease the forces that hold the budget (the business) and on the other, you need to deal with a bunch of geeks who are talking binary stuff and whom you know would rather not have you in the room because you don’t talk tech as much as them.

We used to have a Project Management Office, receiving work from other large projects looking for business analysts, project leaders, program managers etc. It’s not cheap upkeeping these guys, what’s with their PRINCE and PMP certifications and their training and hours. The problem was also when the project ended, then basically we had to go look for other projects to take them on. It’s an expensive affair, unless you have a constant pipeline of internal or external projects to keep them busy. The thing was, we noticed project managers tend to stay as project managers. You couldn’t get them to go into tech audits, or develop software or do compliance work. At least, for the ones we hired.

In the past, Project Managers are fairly agnostic in terms of technical capability. They have a set of domains they are good at (whether they are good at telco projects, compliance projects, migration projects), but overall, the discipline more or less remains constant. Methodologies used by these managers include lean, SCRUM, Agile etc, or simply PMI/PMBOK guidelines, which some of our managers tend to gravitate to. But aside from this basic competency of managers, there is inherently a personality that project managers need to have. Leadership is obvious, decision making capability, the ability to stand strong when being questioned and able to communicate the project properly. The ability to pull people together, from technical to consultants to internal business, and yes, the inherent charisma that one must have to become a successful project manager. He or she needn’t be the most technical in the room, but they must be able to sniff bullshit and weed it out. Time, budget and quality are the basic triangles of forces that need to be met, and good project managers are aware of this.

Due to cost and lack of demand, we shuttered our PMO a few years back, but our guys still practice basic PM work in our compliance project, and in some smaller companies, we actually end up taking the informal role of the project leads. We wouldn’t call ourselves project managers, because not everyone who calls themselves project managers are actually project managers. However, for larger companies, we do defer to the project manager in charge, and in our time we have had some experience with some of the best in the business, and some of the absolute worst. The problem is because being a good PM or absolute garbage is so difficult to assess.

It MAKES A HUGE difference who you put as a project manager. It spells either success or complete doom to your project the moment you assign a good or a garbage project manager.

For a compliance like PCI-DSS, there are some specific traits a manager should have, as PCI is a fairly technical project. And most PCI projects tend to drag on past 4 months or so. Some even a year plus. It does require a fair bit of technical knowledge, persistence and goodwill to successfully manage the project. Here are some of what we observed, and having experience good ones, and the bottom of the barrel type of project managers, we can probably give a fair opinion of what are the points of success (between good manager (GM) and hapless manager (HM)):

a) Technical Capability

This is more of a trait than a skill.

The GM know they don’t need to be experts, but they also know they need to put their backs and time into understanding the whole thing and trying to absorb the technical matters of it. They would attend training sessions and they would ask very good questions. The hapless managers go: OK, everyone knows their spot here. Consultants, I will look to you to answer all PCI related questions. I am here to gather information for all parties, so I want everyone to come for every meeting we are going to have moving forward.

The hapless one basically just comes in, fires off a few questions on project matters, and then sidles down and constantly have a far away look in their eyes when we start talking about the project tasks and updates. Or glued to their phones or laptop, furiously typing out stuff with their brows knotted up. Their strategy is that everyone else will carry their own load so they don’t need to know anything technical because they are too busy with other more important things, like buying food for their cats online. Occasionally, they bark out some orders here and there but you can tell, they know jackshit. After 4 – 5 sessions, they are still clueless and that’s when they start losing grasp of reality, and if the consultants are not available, the whole project is stuck, and then they move into the stage of looking to blame people for their ineptitude. Oh yeah. We have had plenty of these experiences for sure.

b) Communication

This seems a given, and a good manager ensures everyone is on the ball and the scoreboard is known to all. They know how to manage downlines (the people that need to get things done), horizonlines (the peers who are managing other downlines) and uplines (the business or sponsors pressuring the project). This innate ability isn’t bestowed on the hapless one. The hapless manager’s basic modus operandi is to take whatever the team gives, and being questioned by uplines and peers, decide that they don’t know how to explain it and comes back to the team again to ask for more information on how to deal with the questions. There is a complete lack of awareness in these managers that they are unable to overcome. They are unable to argue their points succinctly and always give in when there is pressure. Because of their lack of skill and understanding, they have no clue what positions to take and often waste the entire project timeline by going back and forth hopelessly like grass (or lalang) swaying in the wind.

c) Responsibility

One of the true strengths of character is when things are not going right, the good ones take up the responsibility of the situation and face the issues head on. The hapless ones find a way out, and find a way to blame others. To them, it’s always someone else at fault and never them. This stems from their utter lack of confidence in the project, that the only way they can reverse the situation is by saying, “It’s not my fault.” They usually will turn to consultants, as they are external to the company, and seek to pin the blame on them. It’s tough, but it is what it is. Most companies, given the choice of an external party and an internal person, would side with their own regardless of facts.

d) Time Management

The LLB (Look Like Busy) Trait is a big problem with these hapless managers. Because of their lack of a), b) and c) above, they are running around like headless chickens, being pulled from one meeting to another, unable to resolve any issues properly. So their heads are constantly in their phones or laptops instead of properly leading the project. Firefighting, or looking to assign blame. You can also tell when they are not able to manage meeting times. Many times, we have received calls from project managers requesting either immediate meeting at their office, or to come onsite within the next day and they wail because we tell them we are either overseas or assigned to other audits and we can do a phone. Most don’t understand that (unless we are properly paid and engaged), we are not their outsourced compliance unit so they blame us for non commitment. We are their consultants and there is no service level that requires us to stay in the clients office all the time for their beck and call. Unless, again, if they pay us, but most don’t pay for consultants to sit down and wait for inept project managers to scramble around looking for ad-hoc meetings.

Because they are scrambling and blaming instead of working,these PMs now think they are utterly important because they are so busy, but the fact is because of the ineptitude, they are being forced to seek responsibility, communicate or have technical explanation of the project – all which they are unable to do. So it’s one excruciating, meaningless and useless meeting after another. It’s horrible to exist in that manner for a career, but we’ve seen this many times.

Once you solve a), b) and c), Time Management solves itself.

Bonus points: While this may not be always true, the way project managers approach meetings and projects can actually say a lot. If a PMP or PRINCE PM comes in, there is usually a methodology on the table, tools and actual project management software they utilise for reporting. They are able to standardise our reports to a point where it goes straight to the point and to what they know their uplines need to know. Some hapless PM comes in, not certified in anything, not having knowledge of any tools, software or methodology, but basically armed with an excel sheet they took from another project manager who took from another project manager who used it to make sandwiches. That’s how senseless we see some of these methods and tools sometimes an we just look at everyone across the table and everyone goes like: “What is going on?”

In conclusion, never underestimate the importance of Project Managers, especially in a long drawn project like PCI-DSS. While we have known some excellent ones in our time, we have also worked with yahoos out there that single-handedly managed to trainwreck projects. From this article, it may seem our experience is more on the latter, but the opposite is true – we have the privilege to have worked with some really excellent ones that have also helped us get better, over these years. They are absolutely precious resources in a project, trust me. It’s just that when we do face one or two hapless PMs, it stands out a little bit more because we are so used to working with good ones!

Yes, we have shuttered our PMO as an advisory a few years back, but we also recognise the need for great PMs that might be able to help us out in our projects. If there is any interest, drop us a note at avantedge@pkfmalaysia.com and we will get in touch wth you.

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