The devaluation of project management – is there hope for the project manager?
Today's corporate environment has a myriad of considerations in the continuation of employment for employees. Where there was once a long-term “employee agreement”, in which an employee would satisfactorily meet the expectations of the work assignments and have continued employment, there are now “no guarantees” of long term employment. Instead, the senior managers of the corporations look at current and future indicators of company health plus internal and external business conditions to make decisions about employment. These decisions include “how many”, “what types”, locations, compensation, benefits, and many other employee related attributes of the corporation. However, at some point, all of the top and middle level determinations will result in a very basic – WHO; who has a job and who continues to have a job. This paper will discuss the specific vulnerability of Project Managers to maintain their jobs in this current corporate environment.
The scenario presented is a fictitious company in which Senior Management has decided that downsizing is required due to poor financial results. One particular organization with a total of 100 employees must reduce by 13. It is expected that the Group Manager will submit names of the 13 employees to the Human Resources Group and the processing for transitioning of these employees will be implemented. The organization (referred to ORG X) consists of 6 smaller groups including a Project Management Organization. The 5 Functional Organizations are; 1) Research and Development, 2) Marketing, 3) Operations and Metrics, 4) Products, 5) Human Resources. Each of these functional departments is managed by a Director. The PMO is managed by a Manager considered a peer to the directors. All directors and the PMO Manager report to the Group Manager and are considered the Staff.
The Group Manager has decided to ask her staff to make a unified decision on which employees will be laid-off to meet the edict from her superiors. The company has been experiencing tough times the last few years and downsizing has occurred at least twice yearly. Many employees and managers believe that the employee population is much to low already to meet the demands of the business. There appears to be no “extra” employees that can be shed in the name of downsizing and it is increasingly more important to fight for resources to fulfill job duties. Of course, the Directors and PMO Manager themselves have a sense of vulnerability that can be amplified by reductions in their own staffs. If the front-line employees are removed – why would the company need a Director or Manager?
The Staff tries to maintain a professional demeanor and process for addressing the downsize request. No matter what happens, thirteen people will lose their jobs and this weighs heavy for the decision makers. Emotions and politics are bound to play a role even with all intentions to ignore or minimize them. In order to maintain a “fair” and “objective” view of the situation, the process and discussions will center on the VALUE a particular employee brings to the company.
Discussing the value to the company of individuals may, at first, seem logical and objective, but immediately brings into a view the fact that the Directors and PMO Manager may value the work and contributions of individuals differently. Functional work, producing easily measured results, is considered highly valuable. It is also quite easy to identify the individuals that perform this type of work because their job codes and descriptions were understandable and easy to interpret with regards to the work output. A Software Developer obviously develops, tests, and provides software solutions. The Business Analysts are doing critical and valued work analyzing the data and other business needs to make sure the business is running well.
A process to identify employees contributions to the company and the value they bring can be managed quite quickly and consistency when the employees perform functional work. However, when employees perform “project” work, their contributions and overall value may often be defined in different terms than a functional employee. The objectives, end-results and “product of the project” may be intangible making it more difficult to value the Project Manager who is responsible to delivery it. Projects have life-cycles that can vary the work effort over time, and this may be difficult for Functional Managers to place a value on. Besides the work efforts, the project tasks themselves vary greatly. This means the Project Managers are doing many different types of work everyday which can make it be difficult to measure value. All-in-all, the contributions and value that Project Managers provide could be vastly different to measure than a functional employee. Where one example for a functional employee could be the number of gadgets fixed per hour needs to be compared with the management of a virtual team located around the world to meet objectives of increased quality of a process.
In our scenario, the Directors and the PMO Manager reach a level of frustration as they find they have differences of opinion regarding the value of “functional work” verses the value of “project work”. More direct discussion includes points of: why should a Functional Employee be laid off while a Project Manger is not?, Projects come and go but the functional work is consistently needed to be handled., and maybe all the Project Managers should be downsized and the organization will handle any “projects” with the functional employees on a temporary basis.
With the battle intensifying among the Staff, the PMO Manager offers the group a suggestion to decide on the 13 employees to be removed. He suggests using other criteria in addition to the “value” measurement since they can not agree and have differing viewpoints of what constitutes value. Suggestion Number 1 is to use a criteria that measures individuals on their work being CORE WORK.
The idea to use a criteria that measures the individual's contributions to the “core work” of the organization has been used before. An organization should identify and understand what its major core work responsibility is. The Staff establishes some agreements on the Core Work and uses descriptors to document this effort. Because the Staff makes up a contingent of different roles and responsibilities, it isn't a simple task to actually define Core Work that captures all the sub-groups while providing an overarching viewpoint for the organization as a whole. This effort creates anxiety for not only the PMO Manager but also some of the other Directors whose roles are more supportive in nature to other groups.
The struggle does not completely diminish but the Staff decides to agree on some terminology for describing their Core Work. The next step is to review each individual in the organization to see how they measure up to working on Core Work.
When the Project Managers are scrutinized it once again becomes very difficult to measure them on their contributions or relationship to Core Work. Some of the projects have a direct impact on core work but they are in different levels of completion and the Staff ponders if a Project Manager should be kept in the organization even while managing a project with Core Work impacts that will end shortly. How will the Staff know the next project will be impacting Core Work? How do they know that a Project Manager who is finishing a non-core work project would not be best to run an upcoming core work project so they should remain employed by the company? For a second time, it becomes apparent that Functional Employees are easier to measure for their contributions to Core Work than Project Managers. Discontent and anguish are high for the PMO Manager but the HR Director also feels very vulnerable with using “core work” as the measurement for remaining employed or not. Many of the HR individuals are responsible for supporting the other groups, but do they really perform Core Work? The answer is NO. During this exercise, the Staff realizes nearly 30% of the employees in the organization do not actually perform core work. Thirty individuals are named including 7 Project Managers as not meeting core work responsibilities and thus could be listed on the “lay-off” sheet.
While some of the Staff have increased their confidence level to secure and maintain their employees, other Staff members find this disturbing and ask for another criteria be used to identify 13 individuals to be removed “in a fair and just” process. A new suggestion is made to use PERFORMANCE as the basis for criteria.
At first, the Staff decides an individual to individual comparison of employees’ performance would indicate who could be submitted for the pay-off. The company has required yearly appraisals and reviews to indicate each employee's performance. The Staff should be able to obtain and compare these reviews to make their decisions for employee staying or those asked to leave. While initially this process seems sound, almost immediately it is discovered that 8 employees do not have a current review because they recently moved into the organization from another department. The Staff agrees to try to continue on and actually updates the process to rank the employees from highest to lowest across the entire organization.
To perform the ranking, the Staff decides to identify their best employees first. Of course, they must have the proof of their ranking by making the review available for others to peruse. As the Directors begin naming the hi-performance individuals there are sometimes additional support from other Directors who have knowledge of a particular individual. So the additional supporting voiced enhances and supports the process. The Directors are feeling confident that this process may indeed resolve their issues and give them the needed list of 13 employees to lay off.
When the PMO Manager begins his listing of the hi-performance individuals it is not met with the same level of support and enthusiasm as the other Directors. Many of the Project Managers listed on the hi-performance list appear to have much more visibility to Directors who are outside this organization due to the nature of their virtual teams and global projects. Within the organization, many of the Project Managers are more unknown and their performance can not be substantiated and even worse be put into question.
Compounding this issue is the review materials themselves. The PMO Manager has used his own special review to appraise the performance of the Project Managers. This review is much different than the review from the Directors and it makes it difficult to compare the Project Managers performance with that of functional employees. As the PMO Manager fights strongly to rank the Project Managers highly among the other employees, he is challenged just as strongly. Additionally, it starts to become apparent that all of the Directors and the PMO Manager have identified at least 95% of their employees as hi-performance. This means the remaining 5% of employees will not be enough meet the corporate requirement of 13 employees for removal. As they try their best to use force ranking to find the bottom 13 employees, tempers flair.
There are suggestions to remove the 8 individuals without current reviews. There are suggestions to remove the entire PMO population because it can't be ranked using the same criteria as the rest of the organization. These suggestions are fraught with emotion. The process is not working and even worse it is breaking down miserably. What else can they do to meet this target and yet do it the best way?
Another suggestion is offered. How about if we look at the work of the organization and decide which work could be outsourced? This is slightly different than identifying the Core Work because even non-core work may not always make sense to outsource. So if the Staff stays focused on what work could actually be outsourced to some other vendor, they could then decide which employees should stay and which ones should leave.
This time the Staff needs to categorize the types of work first. Large buckets of work are identified and put into multiple categories. This approach yields a variety of categories with some matching the functions and others crossing the functions. However, as before, the Staff struggles with the Project Management work. Should it be categorized in a bucket itself labeled Project Management or should the Projects themselves be placed in the different buckets.
It is agreed to try both options for categorizing the Project Management work. On the first pass, at the request of the PMO Manager, the Projects are identified by their main deliverables and attempts are made to place them into preexisting buckets of work that have been outlined by the Staff. This task is arduous and after attempting just 3 categorization of Projects this way, the process is stopped.
Now the Staff decides there should be one bucket for Project Management Work. The overall total of buckets is now 12. The next step is to ask the question of each bucket: can this work be outsourced? Against the wishes of the PMO Manager, the first bucket put up for scrutiny is the Project Management Work Bucket. Majority decision is – Yes, this work can be outsourced. The Staff knows this is an organization of 10 people and one manager. By using the “outsource” criteria to make their decisions for employee removals, they can reach 11 of the 13 goal from senior management. This would remove the entire PMO and its manager. A few of the Staff come to the defense of the PMO Manager to voice their concern and feelings that using this process is not in the best interest of the overall organization or company. With some relief, the PMO Manager comes up with a new idea. Why don't we ask for VOLUNTEERS?
This process had to be checked by Human Resources first before it could be implemented. There are some very specific guidelines associated with a “volunteer” resignation on its own verses volunteering to meet a company mandate for lay-off. Getting approval from both HR and Senior Management for this course of action is not the only stumbling block. Other questions start to concern the Staff. What if critical employees volunteer? What if too many employees volunteer? What if too few employees volunteer? These questions are just a few of many.
A lot of the questions can not be answered unless and until this process is fully implemented. The “what if” questions are good to raise awareness of a multitude of scenarios but since this process has never been used before, nobody seems to be comfortable even guessing an answer to the “what if” questions.
Some of the Staff are willing to take a gamble with this approach but others have a very strong objection to it. Consensus can not be obtained to use this approach. And the Staff once again struggles to meet the objective as expected by the senior management. One of the Staff suggests Peanut Butter.
The analogy to peanut butter is pretty simple. Most children like their peanut spread evenly on their bread. So the lay off requirement should be evenly spread to each of the Staff organizations and the PMO Manager. Some people refer to this approach as the paint brush analogy too. That is where you want to spread the paint evenly on the wall. The Staff decides to give this process more consideration and performs some mathematical calculations. The downsize number is 13 for an organization of 107 total. This comes to 12.1% reduction. Each Staff Member must identify 12.1% reduction in each of their organizations.
For some of the Staff with larger organizations the impact is achievable even though not liked. For other organizations this process yields a percentage of a person and they are asked to “round up”. For instance in an organization of 20 employees the downsize number would be 2.42 but instead that Director should contribute 3 employees to the effort. This rounding and the fact each organization is different in size creates conflicts between the Staff on this approach. A very small group of only 4 people should only have to downsize less than half an employee but instead must downsize 1 employee raising their contribution to 25% and possibly causing a huge impact. The Peanut Butter approach is challenged and one last process is offered. Why not let the Staff have private meetings with each other and also with the Group Manager to decide who in their organizations can be laid off. During these meetings, the Staff, knowing they must meet a 13 employee downsize commitment; will provide names to the Group Manager using their OWN CRITERIA. The Group Manager will make sure the total is 13. One of the Staff suggests this process is at least better than DRAWING STRAWS. The anxiety is high and the Staff has gone full circle in their attempts to find a fair and successful way to meet the downsizing requirements.
Friends and Buddies
It is possible that the Staff Members will just get to pick and offer individuals for the down sizing. Somehow the Group Manger will make sure the final is number is 13 but it will vary across the Staff's organizations. This could end up like a popularity contest. The question is who are the most popular employees and who are they popular with? Employees that have been identified in the past as troublesome, hard-to-work-with, and not favored will be targeted in this approach. Length of relationships to the Staff could mean a lot for maintaining a job. Old friends and buddies should fair better than outsiders. Physical locations relating to the “friendship” or “alliance” could also play a role in the decisions. Knowledge of an employee's life beyond the job, their family, political views, values and beliefs may make a difference between staying employed or loosing a job.
By electing this process, the Staff makes decisions much more privately but also lacking consistency. Each Staff Member could use different criteria to make their choices. It is now - who you know – not necessary your value or what you know.
Maybe the best choice for the Staff is just to have employees DRAW STRAWS. A lottery type of process would give even chance to everyone. Employees would be chosen to stay or leave via luck. The organization could suffer from this approach, but at the end of the process there will be 13 employees identified for the downsizing.
How Would You Fair?
One thing to consider in this scenario is that there actually may be competition between the Project Managers themselves. There is some power and wisdom to unite the Project Managers against the threat of downsizing but also the Staff could decide to lay-off a subset of the Project Managers. In this case, each Project Manager could be “pitted” against the other. In order, to be prepared for this scenario each Project Manager should have a continual and current understanding of their comparison and value within the PMO itself.
The processes use by the Staff did not result in meeting the lay-off objective but any of them could be used at any time. The process of identifying Core Work may be challenging to the PMO. While the assignment of projects is a top priority for Project Managers; making sure the projects are those providing or supporting Core Work is also key. In other words, the PMO should not just being doing projects, they should be doing high value, critical and core work projects. Are you managing projects that would be considered CORE?
The second process considered by the Staff was to use PERFORMANCE. By ranking the individuals in the organization by their performance, non-performers can be identified and downsized. The PMO and the Project Managers need to make sure performance reviews are completed regularly. These performance Reviews should look like Functional Employee Reviews as much as possible. The PMO Manager needs to make sure he or she uses the same fairness and leveling of the appraisal to match that of the Functional Managers. Project Managers need to deliver high performance on par or greater than that of functional employees to keep their jobs. How would your performance be rated by the Staff?
The Staff considered using the OUTSOURCE criteria. In this scenario, Project Managers need to make sure they provide uniqueness. The work and subsequent results should not be easily duplicated by just anyone especially buy others whose labor is cheaper. If you are doing work that anyone could do, you are at risk that someone else will end up doing it. Are you doing unique work not readily available from others?
There could be the chance that downsizing is handled by seeking VOLUNTEERS. In this environment, Project Managers should be current of their view of their won future. This could be a great opportunity to make a move. Being prepared would allow a Project Manager to not only take advantage of this choice but do it with great results. It could be handled by finally taking a hiatus that was always desired. It could be changing careers or accepting a job offer that has been on the table for some time. If a Project Manager has considered this possibility and planned for it, the rewards could be excellent. Are you ready to take advantage of volunteering to leave a company?
The PEANUT BUTTER (aka Paint Brush) approach can be quite scary. If each organization MUST contribute a certain number of employees to be downsized, how will you fair? This scenario is somewhat like a combination of all the scenarios. Someone must go so how does a Project Manager differentiate themselves from others. Being prepared for this type of action requires a person to be able to survive any of the scenarios including the scenario where the Staff picks their favorite FRIENDS and BUDDIES. Are you a friend to someone in power? Are you “connected”, meaning a Staff Member would want to save your job if they could? And if the Staff decides to use STRAWS how lucky are you?
Unless you know for sure which scenario your organization's management team would use for determining who stays/goes in a downsizing effort, you should be prepared for all of them listed in this paper. Build a KMJ (Keep My Job) Checklist of items which can maintain your VALUE as Project Manager and keep you employed. As Project Managers, we all have great skills for planning. You must use these same skills for planning your preparation for the possibility of loosing your job. There are no guarantees that your planning will be totally successful but it could make a huge difference. If needed, think of other scenarios to address on your KMJ Checklist. Keep your KMJ Checklist up to date and best of luck keeping your job!
|My work is CORE WORK!|
|My PERFORMANCE is High!|
|I am RECOGNIZED as a hi-performing employee|
|I provide UNIQUENESS needed by my organization|
|I know where I want my CAREER to GO!|
|In a sea of Project Managers, I STAND OUT!|
|I am CONNECTED to someone in power!|