Hands in the blood

It is a phrase that was much used in my last office and its intent was very simple. In every project, there were a number of key people that would be cornered, coerced, or cajoled into giving a definitive answer or estimate for the work on a project.

The purpose was to ensure that you had skin in the game. It’s one thing giving an estimate or detailing tasks when it is a subjective, even academic, exercise; it is another thing entirely when anything you say can and will be taken down and used as evidence later.

This was effective, and became the accepted culture. When a Canadian PM from a sister office joined the project, he was horrified at the phrase. Initially. After a few weeks, after seeing how we needed to be able to hold people accountable, he began to use the phrase himself.

With the attitude so ingrained, it was impossible to distance yourself from your numbers. You could try to be like Pilate and wash your hands, but you would end up more like Lady Macbeth and futilely try to scrub and scrub to no avail.

This stands in stark contrast with the self-organizing teams used in Scrum. The idea here is to enable the team with the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands. By allowing them to define and plan their work and commitments this ensures a greater sense of ownership and commitment.

So my question would be why this didn’t occur in my previous projects? The cynical response would be to state that there was insufficient trust and respect for the team members and, without a collective code of ownership, they would not be willing to go the extra mile to help each other resolve issues. However, this isn’t so much cynical as wrong.

The team itself was very tight and cohesive; they knew each other’s strength and weaknesses and were open and honest with each other. The need for ‘hands in the blood’ was actually a case of realpolitik. There were so many players outside of the team that would leap on any errors, by having a process of blooding all the project staff, it was easy to demand the same of the naysayers and doom-mongers in those peripheral teams.

Unpleasant, but necessary.


As an aside for any fans of either Lady Macbeth or the Bard, look up Macbeth on the Estate on YouTube. The play is set as a drug dealer on a run down urban area but still using the original language and works pretty well.

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Be Lazy to do More

Very enjoyable article in this week’s Schumpeter blog in The Economist: In praise of laziness and the benefits of “masterful inactivity.” The basic premise: “Businesspeople would be better off if they did less and thought more.

Rather than lean in, as has been the main focus recently, we need to lean back – particularly for creative thinking.

Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.

For the more creative aspects of project management – building the teams and matching personalities, forming the strategic vision, creating the planned delivery, juggling the moving parts – maybe we should take this advice to heart and book a room just for ourselves. Turn off the phone, set Outlook to offline, and just let the creativity flow, uninterrupted.

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Oh my, grandma. What big teeth you have…

UP (Unified Process) seems to have appeared in the late 90’s, as part of the increasing acceptance of Agile processes, and describes itself as an iterative and incremental approach within a set life cycle.

UP initially focused on collaborative development and was a low-ceremony approach that could be extended to address a broad variety of project types. This then spawned various UP hybrids, for example Agile Unified Process, OpenUP, and Rational Unified Process (RUP).

As with any Agile approach, UP divides the project into iterations and delivers a working prototype of the product at the end of each iteration. In addition, UP structures the project life cycle into four phases:

  • Inception
  • Elaboration
  • Construction
  • Transition.

The idea was that each step would provide clear decision points for a go/no-go decision off the stakeholder, though other Agile approaches would have that available at each iteration review.

This was all well and good, but in 2003 IBM got in on the act and formalized UP into RUP – Rational Unified Process. Although dressed as an adaptable framework and not a single concrete prescriptive process, IBM then began to slather on extra “Building blocks” such as roles and added defined disciplines into each iteration. Finally, they added the cherry on the cake: Certification.

Suddenly, an Agile process started having a lot of features that didn’t seem very Agile. For example, the certification and focus on the defined processes is in opposition to the Agile Manifesto‘s value of “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” What was worse, many RUP projects began to be associated with a failed process. For example, Michael James’ 2007 post Why RUP failed has:

But every time I hear about RUP nowadays, it’s in association with a project failure, or at least waste that people would like to eliminate. In Agile circles, RUP advocates constantly take on the role of apologists. “RUP is actually incremental and iterative! You just haven’t seen RUP done right! Scrum is just a highly tailored version of RUP!” Etc. It starts to sound shrill. It reminds me of my leftist teachers who kept insisting communism wasn’t actually that bad, we just haven’t seen true communism yet.

Recently, the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) has appeared on the scene, and describes itself as “an interactive knowledge base for implementing agile practices at enterprise scale.” Some in the Agile framework are just seeing this as another way to foist a pseudo-Agile process on the software community (see Ken Schwaber’s attack: unSAFe at any speed). Others are asking whether SAFe has finally Cracked the Large Agile Adoption Nut?

I expect only time will tell whether this is a brave new world or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events – Human Resources… or Remains

Ah, HR – how doth thou hate us…

At least that’s how it feels. Starting with my swift demise to the slow grind of selecting a new role, I have had plenty of contact with HR. (They used to be called the ‘Personnel Department‘ but that wasn’t grand enough)

Of course, many times I don’t even blip on HR’s radar at a hiring company. For large firms, the important task of scanning resumes for the right selection of candidates often falls to an application that scans the submitted letter and details for key phrases.

Assuming robo-admin flags you, it then goes to some harassed minion to shuffle in front of a hiring manager. Hopefully you catch them when they’re not too busy, or annoyed, so they at least read the first half a page.

Then there is the endless cycle of interviews. First, a few by phone, probably just to check you aren’t a total idiot. Then, an interview, or more specifically a series of interviews, where five different interviewers follow each other in and pretty much ask the same questions. Over, and over, and over again. And this all takes weeks…

The issue seems to be that we’re following a process. When we hire, we have to check the boxes, show due diligence, and then spin the wheel.

When we dismiss the staff, we have our ‘end of service’ script to walk through.

Every single time, it seems to be process over value. Looking back at our annual appraisals, it was always the process that was important.

Where is the value-add?

For a no holds barred opinion on HR with this sentiment, the article by Fast Company: Why We Hate HR pretty much sums up the indictment.

In a knowledge economy, companies that have the best talent win. We all know that. Human resources execs should be making the most of our, well, human resources — finding the best hires, nurturing the stars, fostering a productive work environment — just as IT runs the computers and finance minds the capital. HR should be joined to business strategy at the hip.

Instead, most HR organizations have ghettoized themselves literally to the brink of obsolescence.

The people I’ve met in HR seem to be genuinely nice people, but it always feels like they are for the company first. I have observed that whenever an HR rep appeared on the floor, everyone got restless.

And when some bizarre edict comes down from on high, they institute it without hesitation and sleep just fine; they were only obeying orders.

It’s a bit like having a friend who’s a cop. You like them, you know they do an important job, you know they put real effort into it – but in the back of your mind you also know that it you were to slip up legally, they’d cuff you and have you under arrest without hesitation.

This isn’t sour grapes at being let go. I’m pretty sure most HR do not like dismissing people and, from the body language in my last internal meeting, they didn’t look comfortable. Mine was short, efficient, and pretty painless overall; hiring and firing is part and parcel of the job. But it always feels the same, just another process and no value added.

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Much Ado about Nothing?

With the exception of anyone studying for the PMP, I doubt anyone else noticed that as of this summer the PMI cut fully over to the latest incarnation of their Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge – The PMBoK 5th Ed.

The Fifth Edition hardly introduces a great new Era in Project Management, and it doesn’t mean that all the PMPs who certified in July on the 4th Edition are now redundant.

What is does mean is that those PMs who were in the process of studying had to make a decision to either accelerate and complete before the end of July or hang back for the 5th edition tests and restart their preparations to take account of the changes in the new version.

According to the PMI Standards FAQ, the major updates to the 5th edition are that:

The Fifth Edition continues to reflect the evolving knowledge within the profession of project management. Like previous editions it represents generally recognized good practice in the profession.
The PMBOK® Guide—Fifth Edition continues the tradition of excellence in project management with a standard that is easy to understand and implement.
The major updates to the Fifth Edition are summarized below:

  • The content from Section 3 “The Standard for Project Management of a Project” has been moved to Annex A1. The new Section 3 addresses project management processes and Process Groups as in previous editions.
  • A new Knowledge Area has been created called “Project Stakeholder Management” that increases the focus on identifying and engaging stakeholders. This increases the number of Knowledge Areas from nine to ten.
  • Four planning processes have been added to reinforce the concept that each major Knowledge Area has a planning process focusing on how that area will be planned and executed.

I can’t help but think that, as they have added 4 planning processes, these will definitely be questions on the exam.

Overall, the changes seem to be in line with the PMI desire to keep the PMBoK updated and relevant and follow their path of evolution and not revolution. As such, the 5th edition is only a big concern for anyone new to PMI or about to take the PMP or CAPM exams. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile for any current PMPs to read through the changes, if only to make sure they are up to speed with any newly minted PMPs.

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