Managing the easy way--with the lights on


Some ideas are so good, so right, that they seem like no-brainers. Sometimes they are accepted and implemented easily and sometimes not. Implementing a Performance Management Business Process (PMBP) that allows managers to spot problems early and to estimate future budget needs or excesses after each period (what’s the “period” refer to?) seems by many as a no-brainer—it’s clearly the right thing to do. But, why isn’t everyone using it? Implementing a PMBP that is responsive to the needs of the team and that helps the team to understand its performance and the risks it is taking can be an extremely difficult endeavor for any organization. However, the organization, team, and individual will be highly rewarded for taking the effort. It is my intent in this paper to demonstrate how and why.

During the past decade, organizations have come to the brink of death before doing something to improve their business processes. Several organizations have wanted a strong performance management system and tools but have had monumental mountains to climb before convincing their bosses, peers, customers, stakeholders, partners, etc. to adopt a sound PMBP that uses performance management concepts. Once they see it and implement it, they seem to agree that it is the best thing, and they wonder why they had not adopted it earlier. This article also discusses some of the hurdles that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has gone through and is still going through to adopt a Performance Management Business Process.


Before 1988, the Corps was an organizational structure where there were many functional specialists, each performing a highly skilled yet very narrow tasks. Over time these specialist areas grew quite self-serving, which led to parochial interests; these in turn created artificial barriers between functional areas. The concerns of department functions became the primary focus, which undermined the needs of the whole project—many times taking precedence over the needs of the customer or the organization. A process that was designed to deliver quality products in an efficient and effective manner significantly increased product delivery time and costs—the exact opposite of a good project management system! At times, delivery times and costs increased by a factor of 10 over what was originally promised or possible. A new culture has emerged within the where teams and knowledge management are viewed as central to the Corps’ success. The new paradigm is very simple: define the work, assemble the right team, initiate the work, do the work, measure and compare the work to the baseline and focus to deliver the product early and under budget. This is commonsense. It is the right thing to do.

The Model

Here’s how it is supposed to work. Project teams are being designed to work in this way. In a project-based organization, teams are formed by members from various functional areas to work in a cohesive environment toward a common objective. Cross-functional project team members are beginning to share mutual responsibility and accountability. Many believe that the Corps is moving in a direction of a strong matrix organization. Ultimately this will be a strength for the Corps as the Corps culture continues to change and teaming begins to be a natural way of doing business. As the matrix organization gets stronger, empowering the team and making the team accountable for successes and failures will become the norm.

The Reality

Here is how it is actually working. The Corps culture has a way to go to achieve a fully integrated cross-functional project management team. Today, several parts of the Corps exhibit characteristics of a weak matrix functional organization because the role of the project manager (PM) has been more of a project coordinator/cheerleader and expediter than that of a manager concerned with performance. Except for some isolated cases, neither the team nor the project manager has been empowered by management to make decisions affecting “the product.” One problem lies in middle management.

Until recently middle management has insisted on maintaining control and approval of all decisions and products. There are many arguments in favor for such control, but the bottom line is that this type of management takes too much time, leads to scope creep, and removes incentive for team members to comply with quality, schedule and cost agreements made with the PM. For example, a middle manager is typically very busy, often has to find or make time to review “the work.” This can lead to adding three days to three weeks to the schedule. Plus a large number of managers feel that the only way for them to add value to a product is to find things to change. More times than not, the changes add to the scope or only serves to enhance the product without adding overall value. Another example is where the manager has appointed an individual to the work who has not been trained and then adopts the role of reviewer toward this person rather than get the appropriate training or providing the appropriate coaching for the employee as the work is in progress.

Exhibit 1. Desired Behaviors and Outcomes for Members of a Project Management Business Team

Desired Behaviors and Outcomes for Members of a Project Management Business Team

Another way of looking at the problem is through knowledge management, i.e., examining how well the employee has been trained to do the work. Does the employee posses the right knowledge, skills and abilities? In many situations the supervisor does not feel comfortable empowering employees who lack experience or training to make technical decisions. I would argue that it is better to work on someone’s knowledge and decision-making ability than it is for the supervisor to make all the decisions. The goal of most PMBP maturity models is to create a learning organization. The role of a supervisor in a learning organization is to insure that the staff is full trained and is always trying to learn more through continuous innovative thinking and open knowledge sharing.

Exhibit 2. Ways to Achieve Desired Behaviors

Ways to Achieve Desired Behaviors

So, what has the Corps changed and what still needs to be changed with respect to project management? The Chief of Engineers of the Corps recently stated: “The Corps members must be assured that the Corps is not where it wants to be yet and that the Corps is not where it was. The Corps is evolving into a different organization that now talks about business processes instead of stovepipes and about new ways of doing business and not the status quo. Headquarters staff is focusing on the strategic initiatives instead of the operational initiatives. Most importantly, we are now beginning to think and act like a corporation. We are thinking like a team, not like a bunch of districts, divisions and labs all doing their own thing and competing with each other for work.”

In order to have the future the Corps wants, it is important that the Corps continue to change and to refine the goals and the business practices that it uses to execute its mission.

Making Changes

How does an organization go through an organizational change and end up with an organization that is focused on products and performance? A good starting point is to identify the desired culture in terms of values, beliefs, and behaviors (norms). Then, a comparison between the desired model to the current organization will yield gaps that must be filled or eliminated via training, standards, policy, and/or guidance. Once the desired culture is defined and shared and accepted by everyone, a process to reinforce and provide feedback to the organization must be established so that the organization can remain flexible and responsive to customers and stakeholders. The process that provides feedback to the organization should be tied to performance measures like quality, time, and/or costs.

Management must apply pressure to the organization for change and this pressure should never stop. A sound reward system must be developed for the team, and it must support the desired business strategy and culture. Behaviors that get rewarded are the behaviors that get repeated. Without either positive or negative reinforcement for change, there is a natural tendency to procrastinate in making needed changes. The desired behaviors must be associated with the agency’s vision statement and they must be corporately understood, otherwise momentum will slow and fizzle. The Corps’ upper and middle managers must have the necessary resources; otherwise capacity for change will be minimized because the inability to perform will result in anxiety and frustration. Without a clear plan of action, haphazard efforts and false starts will continually leave one at the starting block. Without sustained reinforcement and the continuous drive to become a learning organization, erosion of results and a lack of momentum will be inevitable.

An Example

To demonstrate the above, an example, based on information from actual studies, is furnished for illustrative purposes. It is by no means inclusive or meant to reflect any particular office. The Corps, with the assistance of several focus groups, is identifying a learning framework. This is a critical step for the Corps since the ultimate goal of most maturity models is to be a learning organization that continuously seeks innovative ways to improve. Although the Corps is not to a point where a maturity model can be used to assist each office, it should be noted that the framework is consistent with most project management maturity models where the ultimate goal is to be a learning organization. Thus far, the learning framework includes nine organizational capabilities, which are believed by many to make up the culture of an organization.


Facilitating Learning

Working in Teams

Aligning business processes to customer needs

Operating in a business-like manner

Systems thinking

Building customer relationships

Developing talents

Maintaining technical capability.

Each capability is described in terms of behaviors that we want to see “less of” and “more of” for four areas of responsibility in the organization for key personnel:


Mid-level/first line supervisors

Project managers

Other team members.

After meeting with several offices, the focus group produced the table below (which is still a work in progress) to illustrate cultural issues that are discussed in terms of various behaviors that an organization may need “more of ” or “less of.”

After describing the desired culture, the problem becomes how to build a learning framework to achieve the desired goals. Identifying learning objectives, methods and ways to reinforce what we learn, the framework describes how to achieve “more of” for each area of responsibility. Learning objectives are designed to answer questions such as: what competencies do we need and what knowledge, skills and abilities do people need to have so that an organization can achieve the highest level in the PM maturity model (learning organization that continuously seeks innovative ways to improve)? Exhibit 2 offers some examples of what the Corps focus groups have considered to date.

Values of an organization are taught by example. People take their cues from the project manager. The project manager’s vision is critical to success. The commitment of team members to this vision is just as important. To create and sustain a performance management business process culture, it is best to reexamine how work is done often. By looking at work and by trying to improve how work can be accomplished better, organizations will change beliefs, roles, relationships, behaviors, and attitudes.


Does this all seem relatively straightforward? Does it seem to be a little too obvious? Coming up with the data contained in the above discussion has taken a considerable amount of time. The interesting thing is that several field offices were asked to come up with the same information without the advantage of knowing what others had done. Although the words were a little different from office to office, the ideas were virtually identical. People know that a performance management business process is the right answer but for whatever reason they prefer to manage in the dark hoping that improvements will somehow be made.

The organization that makes a commitment to creating a learning organization that continuously seeks innovative ways to improve will clearly be managing with the lights on. The bottom line—success—will grow as people become interested in working in highly productive teams. The best sign of this will be when people are willing to fight to be on teams. The organization that allows itself continually to be buried in chaos with ad hoc committees, going from fire to fire, will continually be frustrated. That is not a culture that anyone with good sense wants to promote or maintain. At least that much is a no-brainer!

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA