Survival of the fittest?

Doing things right. Doing the right things


PM Industry

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John O'Neil

Everyone should be concerned about doing things right. The burden of choosing the right thing to do often falls on executive management. In the hectic, competitive world we operate in today, this is getting harder and harder to do. Things are changing faster. Opportunities come and go. Organizations need to do more with less.

Nowhere is the importance of choosing the right things to do more evident than the job of managing a portfolio of projects. Without careful management, the law of the jungle takes over. Too many projects fight for too few resources. Some projects get the resources they need; others languish. “Who gets what?” boils down to a variety of factors: proximity, organizational control, short-term urgency (i.e., “fire fighting”). Very seldom is it because the project best supports the company's long-term strategy or offers the best return on the assets employed.

Darwin would be proud. Unfortunately, while natural selection is extremely effective for managing species over centuries, it is too slow for today's environment.

Nature may offer a better model for the role of the executive in project selection. At the species level, natural selection takes centuries-for an individual animal it can be a matter of seconds.

As a diver, I have spent a lot of time underwater with all kinds of creatures in their natural habitat. A few years ago, I had a chance to observe survival of the fittest up close. I was on a three-week dive in the Coral Sea off the northern coast of Australia. Looking back on it, I can't say whether it was a youthful indiscretion, the hot sun, or a steady diet of Fosters lager, but my mates and I conducted three underwater shark feeds—with-out cages and armed with only a video camera.

Seeing your first shark underwater is a bit like sticking your finger in an electric socket. After you get over the initial shock though, it is easy to become fascinated by these awesome creatures. You actually start looking for them.

During our shark feeds as well as the many other times I have observed sharks swimming freely, I noticed something very odd. While the sharks ate injured or dead fish with a frenzy, this violent behavior had no effect on the other fish surrounding them. You regularly see fish swimming directly in front of a shark's mouth without a care in the world. Sharks were merely fulfilling their role within the symbiotic environment of the deep.

I believe there is a lesson in there for executives managing portfolios. To appreciate this lesson, we must separate projects from the people who work on them. (Note: While I'm sure many of you have known an executive who reminds you of a Great White, please keep your imagination in check here. I am not advocating a shark as an example of the ideal human resource manager.) In our shark example, think of the ailing fish as ill-advised projects—not the people working on them. The lesson lies in how we select projects. Like a shark, we have to remain objective and not get too attached to specific projects. In this rapidly changing “ready, fire, aim” world, organizations must eliminate the stigma associated with project cancellation. Rather than a failure, a project cancellation should be viewed as an opportunity to redeploy resources to a more promising use. This may mean starting anew project or completing another project earlier. In most cases, this can be done without the “collateral” damage (layoffs, etc.) often associated with project cancellation.

John O'Neil is president of Micro-Frame Technologies, which he co-founded with Gary Beyer and Bob Zika in 1984. John has been involved in project management for ten years. Prior to Micro-Frame, he was a proposal and program manager at Aerojet ElectroSystems. At Micro-Frame, he is responsible for company strategy and works closely with Mr. Beyer to select the “right things to do.” He has served as co-chair of a joint effort by the Department of Defense and Industry to improve the cost/schedule management of research and development projects. In /994, John was a finalist for INC. Magazine/Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year. He earned a bachelor's degree in /983 from Georgetown University, where he majored in economics (and rugby).

Mr. O'Neil's underwater adventures these days primarily involve chasing his 18-month-old son Shane in an inflatable pool with his wife Shawn.


Executive involvement in project selection and resource allocation is crucial. But involvement alone is not the answer. Timing is critical. Executives must know when to stay away. The best time to stop an ill-advised project is before it starts. The worst time for an executive to get involved is after the project is well under way.

To do this, executives need to know not only the status of individual projects but the impact of all projects on the organization as a whole, especially regarding resource allocation, manpower planning and the overall business case (revenues, cost benefits, etc.). Executives are becoming more aware of the critical role project management plays in an increasingly decentralized world. Organizations are starting to view themselves not as a static collection of discrete functions, but as a dynamic series of projects and processes that convert resources into value for customers. As companies seek leaner and meaner business models with scores of empowered work teams, the job of allocating resources becomes harder and demands better communication between project teams and executive management. While empowerment may be the order of the day, it is important to recognize the continuing role (and needs) of executive management in this process.

A look at the officer slate of any company will typically find a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a Chief Operating Officer (COO) and a Chief Financial Officer (CFO). What you will not find is a Chief Scheduling Officer (CSO) or even a Chief Project Officer (CPO). In most organizations, executive management is ultimately judged by the return they get from the resources (assets) given them. This is invariably a financial measure. Recognizing executive management's laser focus on financial measures is an important step in the communication process with projects. Managers must understand and communicate the financial implications of their project whether it is a single project or a portfolio. While a project manager may see his or her project as a vital piece of the ecosystem, an executive may think of it as a tasty morsel.

As the recognition of the importance of projects on financial performance grows, I predict we will see a migration towards an executive-level project management function. In many organizations, a staff function reporting to a key executive monitors the progress of all projects. Perhaps a CPO is right around the comer.

He or she will be easy to spot. Beady black eyes. Big teeth. Dorsal fin. ❑

Organization Profile

Micro-Frame® designs, develops, markets and supports a broad line of business planning software. Its customers are typically organizations that are project., product- and contract-driven and employ project management software somewhere in their organization. Micro-Frame's solutions link project planning with resource and financial planning across a department, division or enterprise using a client/server architecture.

Micro-Frame's initial product, Micro-Frame Program Manager, is an industry standard tool for managing government contract cost and schedule reporting (C/SCSC) and is currently in use at over 90 percent of the major contractors to the U.S. government. Micro-Frame's second generation of products, Business Engine®, is a family of integrated, planning, analysis, and decision support software employing a client/server architecture. Business Engine modules include ProjectServer, a SQL-based system for simplifying the management of multiple projects using Microsoft Project; Resource Server, a tool for managing resource usage and costs across projects and organizations; and Portfolio, a decision support tool which helps managers select a portfolio of projects that meet financial objectives while remaining within resource constraints.

Micro-Frame is headquartered in Ontario, California, and has regional offices in San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Internationally, the company has an office in Sydney, Australia, and is seeking distributors in Europe and Asia.

Micro-Frame conducts regularly scheduled seminars throughout North America. Micro-Frame is a Solution Provider for Microsoft Project and conducts training courses for beginning and advanced users of Project, on-site and in numerous locations around the country.

PMNETwork • November 1994



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