Project Management Institute

The "all-in-the-family" project syndrome


John A. Bing, PMP

Like most families, most companies suffer from a lack of good internal communication. Add that to the informality inherent in an in-house project and you'll soon find out why it's better to “think like a contractor.”

I must admit, I like to have an audience to talk to and to give advice to (some might say pontificate). Now and then—a lot more than you might think—I also listen, and I've learned a lot over the years. The Chinese say: “We learn from each other.” Now I want to share with you readers some of what I have learned from listening, and how it has given me some insights into this profession called “project management,” and most important, how to improve our performance.

It all started when I got together with a group of project managers to swap stories. Some of them liked to tell of their victories and how they solved big problems; many more of them talked about their problems and how frustrated they can get with their projects. Like most project managers, I like to solve problems, so I gave close attention to the complainers—not whimperers, mind you, but people who were frustrated with their project struggles. Frustrated because things weren't right or weren't going the way a project manager wants things to go.

But let me back up a little. What I'm about to relate has come about coincident with the dramatic expansion of project management as the management system of choice for undertakings that meet the definition of project. The use of project management is no longer dominated by the Engineering & Construction and the Defense industries, where projects involve an “Owner” or “Customer” company, which contracts the work to one or more major contractors. Now there seems to be no project too small or diverse to be managed better with project management, but this often leads to some big project struggles.

In my 40 years on projects, I've heard just about every complaint possible. What surprised me was the clear pattern that emerged from the people who complained and were so unhappy about their work. When you hear where a project manager works, and what kinds of projects he or she works on, you can pretty well predict the happy ones from the unhappy ones. The unhappiest project managers tended to be those who worked on projects for another department or group within their own company (the “inhouse” project), which I have labeled the “All-in-the-Family Project.”

Yet, why should working on projects as a “Provider” for your own company be more annoying, irritating and puzzling than working on projects with other companies? I began to examine some of the most common complaints made by these All-in-the-Family “Provider side” project managers:

  • The goal of the project was not clear cut.
  • If there was a goal, it kept changing.
  • No one in the “Customer” department was willing to be responsible or accountable, but a lot of them were ready and willing to volunteer advice.
  • When the “Customer” department did name someone to be responsible and accountable, that person was often changed.
  • The “Customer” department expected the best and expected to get it “fast” and “cheap” from the “Provider” department project team (without room for negotiation).

The “Customer” department thinks it can just let the “Provider” department do the project as if it's “all in the family” and “we are all on the same payroll.” With that attitude, how can any project be done well?

  • The “Provider” department expected the project manager to justify the project and fight their battles for them.
  • The “Customer” department tried to dictate what they wanted done, but seldom said what the business problem or need was. The “Provider” department project manager might have solved the problem for half the cost if only he or she had known what it was.
  • The “Customer” department took weeks, or even months, to approve the project and then blamed the project manager for being late in developing or constructing the deliverables.
  • The “Customer” department made commitments for key equipment without consulting the “Provider” department and then expected the project team to make it work properly.
  • The position or status (and thus legitimate authority) of the “Provider” department project manager was much below that of the “Customer” department representatives. This created what is, at best, a “Weak Matrix” project environment or, at worst, a “Functional Hierarchical” project environment. Hence the project manager had to rely on informal authority to get things done. He or she had only indirect leverage in entering into any negotiation with the “Customer” department and as a result became the project scapegoat when project problems escalated.

These project managers commonly complained about the lack of real support, even from their own “Provider” department management.

Let me comment here that none of these complaints are one-sided. The “Customer” departments have their own frustrations and complaints. To list the most frequent ones heard:

“I'm not technical, how was I to know …”

“Why didn't you tell me …”

“If I'd known what it would cost, I'd have done it myself …”

“Don't both me with these details, can't you see I have an operation to run and it's much more important …”

The list of complaints goes on and on, but I think you see the problem. I believe all this is the result of the way the “Customer” department thinks about its project. They think of it from the standpoint of what they will do with it and how they will finance it but they give little thought to how the work will be organized and managed. They think they can just let the “Provider” department do it as if it's “all in the family” and “we are all on the same payroll.” With that attitude, and the underlying conditions, how can any project be done well? Everyone gripes, but what can be done about it?

As a problem solver, I have one broad general answer and a number of specific things that can make a difference, and a couple that might put a smile on the face of “in-house” project managers.

The broad general answer to the project manager is, “Think Like a Contractor.” Stop looking at in-house projects as family-affair efforts, with all the casualness that goes with that type of environment. Start thinking of the project as a balanced business effort that requires a meeting of the minds of two responsible parties, each of whom must manage a distinct set of project risks. In other words, treat your “Customer” department as if it were a separate business or enterprise, with dignity and respect, but without sacrificing your “Provider” department's own dignity, respect and stability.

There are also some specific recommendations as to how a “Think Like a Contractor” mentality would approach an in-house project such that many problems can be avoided or stopped altogether.

Perhaps the most important thing a contract does when asked to undertake a project is to get the customer to define precisely what they want done, as clearly and completely as possible, in a Request for Bids or in a Project Requirement Statement. You can't start the work or even make a bid until the goal is known.

This definition of the project doesn't necessarily mean to describe it down to all the nuts and bolts. In may be simply a clear definition of the objective of a project such as “To improve the air conditioning of the XYZ building,” or “To develop a software package to perform general ledger functions in a client/server environment.” If the customer doesn't know what he wants, the contractor can't guess. However, this often is resolved by the contractor working cooperatively, hand in hand with the customer to define the project goal, what it will cost, and how long it will take, before they start the work.

The problem of changing goals can be reduced significantly by better initial scope definition. However, changes are inevitable and often desirable and necessary. What the “Think Like a Contractor” approach will do is to insist on defining the change, including any cost and schedule effects, and getting the customer to agree before doing any work on them. Believe me, this alone can stop most unwarranted changes.

These suggestions might sound like strong medicine and might irritate those of you who reside in the “Customer” departments of today's in-house projects. Yet, what will irritate you more: to continue with over-budget and late projects? Or to be forced to be more businesslike in initiating projects?

And to you “Provider” department project managers, which is better: to be more businesslike in your dealings with the “Customer” departments? Or to continue being frustrated, blamed and saddled with poor projects?

It should be obvious that “Thinking Like a Contractor” is an opportunity for a win-win solution to the problem. You decide. ■

John A. Bing, PMP, has over four decades of project management and project executive experience on domestic and international projects in the refining and petrochemical industries. He is a charter member of the Orange County PMI Chapter.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • November 1996



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