Intelligent disobedience

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Questioning the merit of projects and simplifying project management processes can save the enterprise from bad project decisions. by Marcia Jedd

A good project manager is a lot like a guide dog, according to Gopal Kapur, founder and president of the Center for Project Management, San Ramon, Calif., USA. An owner might command the dog to follow an order, but the canine won't carry out that command unless it's safe. In the same way, a project manager shouldn't be afraid to defy authority when it comes to selecting and managing projects. Mr. Kapur calls this behavior “intelligent disobedience.”

“Project managers have been quite passive people,” he says. “They take what's given to them and they try to do their best. Many don't get the authority to make changes.” Professional certifications such as the Project Management Professional (PMP®) are a step in the right direction. However, project mangers must actively assess their own skills and the project management skills of others across the enterprise. At that point, project managers can set about simplifying processes and, when necessary, engaging in intelligent disobedience. It's a tall order, Kapur says, but one that positions the enterprise for project success. “You can learn to make a few waves and become more productive,” he says.


The article is based on material in the white paper “How Project Managers Can Be Productively Disruptive in a
Crazy World,” presented by Gopal Kapur at PMI Global Congress 2005—North America, held in Toronto, Canada.

Formula for Success

It all starts with having the right capabilities. “If people have the right process, right skills and right techniques, then the tools are the catalyst or the accelerator,” Mr. Kapur says. “Tools are only helpful when there's a robust process in place and people have the skills to complete their work.”

These elements are combined with accountability and discipline. For project managers, accountability means team members understand their responsibilities and work toward achieving project objectives. “Everyone must be forthright in reporting their work status and when problems occur, not resort to finger-pointing,” Mr. Kapur says. Discipline is the most crucial element for success. “In project management, discipline means order and predictability where team members can rely on each other for timely completion of assignments,” he says. “It doesn't mean regimentation.”

Armed with the basics for success, Mr. Kapur says the project manager is in a position to challenge project sponsors who introduce ill-conceived ideas and turn them into projects that may not align with the organization's strategies or business initiatives. He says learning to say no is one of the best remedies for scope creep, yet he's quick to point out that project managers may not have the ability or wherewithal to take such action.

Project managers must be empowered enough to push back when they believe a proposed project doesn't support the enterprise or scope creep creates undue risk, he says. “Intelligent disobedient behavior is the ability to say a firm ‘no’ to the demands of executives and customers that put the project and the organization in harm's way.”

Of course questioning authority is never easy. Project managers can set the stage by addressing project viability and merit in regularly scheduled meetings in the project discovery and assessment stages, Mr. Kapur says. Online project forums are another option.

When these elements don't exist, he says the responsibility then rests on the project manager to open a forum for discussion so the proper risk assessment can be performed. Here, project managers must ask questions of project sponsors and stakeholders to determine how the project links back to strategy, among other critical assessment factors. “Project sponsors and customers must learn to trust their project managers to do the right thing,” Mr. Kapur says.

Executive sponsors and customers often haphazardly initiate projects on whims and pie-in-the-sky dreams, without proper assessment—which leads to high project failure rates. From 2003 to 2005, a Center for Project Management survey of approximately 150 U.S. companies found 30 percent to 40 percent of projects weren't completed or, if completed, failed to be implemented. “Of the remaining projects, the companies said another 30 to 40 percent of these projects were challenged—grossly over budget or behind schedule—and another 30 to 40 percent were successful,” says Mr. Kapur.


Just the Facts

Once projects are under way, Mr. Kapur recommends apprising team members of project status by using an inverted pyramid style. The project summary is highlighted first, and explanations are moved to the end of the conversation or document.

Punch line: The most critical concern is stated, such as “Eighty five percent of the testing worked.”

Current status: “The project is 10 days behind.”

Next steps: Tells not only the problem but the solution. “We can recover three days of the delay but not all five if Bill Smith works overtime for a week.”

Explanation: “We did the tests but it didn't work as planned.”

Mr. Kapur says benefits of the technique include swifter problem-solving and reduced meeting time.

The Right Questionsimg

In a perfect world, project sponsors and stakeholders are steeped in the virtues of project management and the benefits of project assessment. They know which projects to take on and have the fiscal authority, political means and overall commitment to guide projects to fruition, says Gopal Kapur of the Center for Project Management. When faced with a sponsor who isn't fully engaged or who loses interest, project managers must step in to question the direction they're receiving from above. They also need more effective processes to filter ill-conceived ideas from viable projects. Especially when considering a project that appears dubious in merit, project managers should question their project sponsors. Mr. Kapur recommends the following questions to steer the executive in the right direction:

What specific corporate strategy or business initiative is the project linked to? Above all, this is the most critical question, because it aligns the project to the true business needs of the organization.

What value does the project provide? The answer should come from the business stakeholders or key people the project affects, such as sales, marketing, call center or other constituents.

What are the measures for quantifying the success of the project? That is, how you will know when the project is working—seven days faster, 20 percent more revenue, etc.

What are the shutdown conditions of the project? The answer may include considerations such as an inability to securing adequate funding or a host of other failures.

What are the implications of doing nothing? Include who and what will be affected, and what strategy or goal would be sacrificed.

Cross-Continent Clashes

Kenwood USA, Long Beach, Calif., USA, was all too familiar with those types of project failure rates before it launched a global restructuring effort more than two years ago. The company is a subsidiary of the Japanese consumer electronics developer and manufacturer—and finger-pointing and arguing over project definitions across continents were prevalent. A disparate structure combined with a lack of standardized processes and metrics meant projects were launched without regard for company strategy, often without formal documentation, says Steve Winstead, the company's chief information officer. “We have projects worldwide, and finding them was a problem. Many weren't going well because resources would never really get allocated.”

Aimed at making the company more competitive globally, the ambitious restructuring included transforming from a dealer network to a national account model to support megaretailer customers. Kenwood also reengineered its supply chain processes from a “push” to a “pull” system and changed its organization, which had consisted of six silos housing 15 business units. “Our key mission is to implement a project culture at Kenwood to allow us to operate on a truly global basis as opposed to 15 different organizations,” Mr. Winstead says.

The overhaul of Kenwood's supply chain management processes called for review and change in the company's project management processes. “We're really trying to create standard measures across the enterprise and standard project metrics using the Center for Project Management's project process architecture methodology.” The system incorporates 24 basic steps around project life cycles in four stages:

  • Pre-launch incorporates due-diligence activities
  • Launch focuses on developing a comprehensive plan
  • Execution includes guidance from the project manager
  • Implementation means turning the project over to end users.

In addition to overhauling its project management processes, Kenwood is starting to integrate its new ways with a comprehensive enterprise project management (EPM) system. So far, vetting projects is a key benefit. The company can review, approve or kill ideas in broader executive forums, primarily around its online project charter forum, resulting in tremendous cost savings. “We're able to find existing projects not affiliated with business initiatives, and take ideas that might become projects and evaluate those ideas before we let them become projects,” Mr. Winstead says. “To date, the return on investment has been several million dollars. because we've consolidated overlapping projects into new single projects, and rogue projects just getting started were shut down before burning money.”

The system also changed how project managers and executives talk to each other. “Suddenly, we're not talking about doing a data warehouse project,” he says. “We're talking about a strategic initiative to increase revenue by seven percent.”

The new processes and EPM system have made decision-making easier for everyone. Mr. Winstead refers to intelligent disobedience as “creative disobedience” when he sees project managers, armed with data, approach executives. “It's very tough to be disobedient if you don't have confidence,” he says. “This common ground of metrics is defendable.”

Meetings are more productive, too. “Meetings are focused on talking about challenges, resource conflicts and business strategy, whereas before, people were going off on tangents.”

As Kenwood USA found, diligent project assessment results in adopting only the projects that strongly support corporate strategy. The Kenwood culture has been transformed to a project-centric one that typifies a mature project management process. “A project management culture is where the sponsors and project managers are each properly skilled, and the project manager reports directly to the sponsor,” Mr. Kapur says. PM

Marcia Jedd is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based supply chain and business writer.




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