A crystal ball, a bottle of whiskey, and a revolver--the essential project management skills for leading a software project

Introduction

What are the essential skills of a successful project manager in a software development environment? Are all project managers well suited for every development project? Why do project managers with great records of success become ineffective on a project? Are you more effective in one project stage of the project life cycle than another?

I have been involved in the assignment of project managers to a variety of software development projects for many years. Many have done well, but in equal proportion many have struggled with no discernable pattern. They were all skilled and experienced project managers from a variety of backgrounds applying a similar methodology. The projects had different objectives, but each project manager had an opportunity to work on several of them. Some struggled from the very beginning, others started well then faltered, and still others pulled victory from almost predictable defeat. Was it the project manager (i.e., skills, training, personality), the type of project (i.e., product implementation, R&D, new software development), or a combination? In reviewing my own experiences and the experiences of these project managers, I discovered a project manager assignment puzzle to solve. Through this paper, I will examine two of the major pieces of this puzzle—essential project manager skills and project types, and attempt to develop a conceptual model that will fit them together.

The Back Story

Several years ago, I was asked by the Human Resource Department to develop the competency requirements for project managers in a software development environment, and to deliver the information in the form of a presentation to a group of senior executives. I began my research with a review of the commercially available project management training information. There are of course the basic managerial and leaderships skills that serve as a foundation, but the real question was what makes a project manager successful. I reviewed a great array of information on general project management skills such as communication, negotiation, team building, authority, planning, and risk management. The software development environment added another variable to the challenge in the form of necessary business and technical skills. I came up with a basic outline through the use of a large amount of research, culminating in a list of 12 competencies and skills. I then related the competencies and skills to a standard set of project types: Creative, Problem Solving, and Tactical Execution (Larson & LaFasto, 1989).

On the morning of the presentation, I arrived at the room early to hear the first two presenters, since they were friends of mine. As I sat in the back of the room half paying attention to the presentation and half reviewing my material, I realized that a power point presentation almost identical to mine was flashing before my eyes. This presenter, my now former friend, was delivering a presentation on the essential skills of a manager in a matrix organization. I began to laugh nervously as my stomach began to rise into my throat realizing that there was no way that I could use my presentation. There is an anonymous quote that states, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and at that very moment it was a necessity that I invent something. I don't know what triggered that moment of inspiration, but as I sorted through my presentation on my laptop three objects came to mind that metaphorically encapsulated the answer: a crystal ball, a bottle of whiskey, and a revolver. I quickly changed my presentation to describe the three objects in terms of the essential skills of a project manager in relation to the project types. The presentation, though brief, was successful. In the months that followed, I took more time and effort to develop the concepts behind the three objects. Once I understood the relationships between them and the project types, I began to solve the puzzle of project manager assignment.

The Essential Project Management Skills

Each object (i.e., the crystal ball, the bottle of whiskey, and the revolver) represents a profile that explains an essential project management skill, its importance, and how it can be used. These profiles represent the first piece of the project manager assignment puzzle, and serve as a foundation for developing a conceptual model. These profiles and related skills will be presented individually, but in reality, an individual project manager will posses all of them in varying degrees.

The Crystal Ball

The “crystal ball” symbolizes the skill of planning and estimating. Every good manager or leader must know how to plan and estimate, but a project manager of software projects must take this to the next level. They must be able to look into the future and see a project completed. They must be able to predict how long it will take, with what types and level of resources, and at what cost. They must then develop a plan for getting there. Good planning was found to be one of the most important characteristics of the best projects across all industries in a review done in 1993 (Hentzel, 1993). Software projects that have the objective of creating something new require the project manager to have a broad knowledge of planning and estimating techniques. In fact, they must have the ability to mix different techniques and/or create new ones. There are many techniques and related tools for the project manager to use, but many times it comes down to the clarity of their crystal ball. In many cases, especially when developing new software, the experience of the project manager in estimating and planning is all that can be relied upon to initiate a project. Understanding Analogous, Parametric, and Bottom-up techniques in order to produce an estimate that is the input into a project plan is the skill of using the crystal ball. An accomplished project manager will know how to continually collect improved data to produce a more accurate estimate and then translate it into a more refined plan.

The profile of a project manager that can use a crystal ball with this type of skill can be described as a Seer. They are able to see into the future of a project, create a plan for the project, and lead a team to successfully completing it. A successful Seer will know when and how much to use their crystal ball depending on the type of project.

The Bottle of Whiskey

The “bottle of whiskey” stands for the skills related to team building. Team building is vital to the role of project manager. A project manager of software projects must be an expert at selecting and building a team to be successful, as it is the project team that will be responsible for producing the project deliverables. The project manager must demonstrate a high degree of flexibility in their team-building efforts depending on the objective of the specific software project. Software projects fail at an alarming rate, and this rate is in direct proportion to the performance of the team. The bottle of whiskey metaphor represents a method of building a team through positive incentives. Project productivity has been linked to well-performing teams by many researchers. For example, the De-Marco and Lister study of 166 developers in 18 organizations found that productivity increased 5.6 times due to a higher level of effective teamwork. Using the bottle of whiskey to build a team means that the project manager understands and can convey the importance of a shared goal, a sense of identity, competent team members, defined roles, team commitment, mutual trust, and effective communication. They employ these attributes to create an interdependent high-performing team.

The profile of the project manager who has mastered the use of the bottle of whiskey I will term the Bar Tender. The Bar Tender is able to listen, negotiate, solve problems, and get their job done while maintaining a sense of positive energy among their team members. The project manager in the Bar Tender role is usually well liked by their project team, but if they play this role to an extreme they will not be successful.

The Revolver

The “revolver” symbolizes the skill of motivating the project team to complete the project. All successful project managers will possess this skill to some degree, as motivating a project team toward meeting a scheduled end date is the essence of project management. An expert at this skill will know when and how to use the revolver. Studies have shown that motivation has a larger effect on individual team member productivity than any other factor (Boehm, 1981). The first choice of a project manager is to provide motivation in a positive manner. In fact, many of the top types of motivating factors are considered to be positive, and an effective project manager will know when and how to use both the positive and the negative. In the book Software Engineering Economics, Boehm presents the top five motivating factors for Software Developers: achievement, growth potential, work itself, personal life, and the opportunity for technical supervision (Boehm, 1981). The revolver should be used in varying degrees depending on the project, the project team, and/or the specific issue.

The profile of a project manager that excels in this skill I will term the Sheriff. The Sheriff understands the positive and negative aspects of the revolver, and uses it appropriately. They are careful not to be manipulative, but to use their skills to lead with integrity. This does not mean that they will not make difficult decisions like extending project hours, driving to achieve a critical task completion date, or removing unproductive team members. The project team respects a Sheriff who protects them from external organizational influences and works for the mutual good of the project.

The Project Types

The three project types represent the second piece of the project manager assignment puzzle. In the book Team Work: What Must Go Right; What Must Go Wrong, three project types are presented based on the broad objectives of a project: Creative, Problem Resolution, and Tactical Execution (Larson & LaFasto, 1989). Projects with the objective of being creative typically are trying to create a new product by exploring new opportunities with only a general direction. The primary goal is to be innovative in completing an ever-evolving set of project deliverables. In terms of software development, an example of a creative project type would be a research and development project or the proof of concept phase of a new product project. Projects with the objective of Problem Resolution are initiated to address complex or inadequately defined business problems. The goal of a Problem Resolution project is to be effective. Examples of this project type would include major enhancements to system applications and/or a software application that solves a complex business problem. The projects with the objective of Tactical Execution have the goal of being efficient. This type of project is focused on completing well-defined deliverables in a rigid time frame. Examples include site-by-site implementations of a software application and/or a systems upgrade.

The Conceptual Model

With the three essential skills and the project types as a basis, the next step in solving the puzzle is to understand the relationships between them. From these relationships, a simple conceptual model can be developed that graphically depicts project managers and projects. The conceptual model is constructed from two complimentary triangular relationships—first between the three essential skills and the second between the three project types. Based on certain attributes, a triangle can be created within the first that represents a project manager, and an oval can be created within the second that represents a project. Finally, the project manager triangles and the project ovals can be matched to indicate the proper project manager assignment.

The Project Mangers

The three objects that symbolize the essential skills represent the first triangular relationship. The perfect project manager, able to balance the three, would be characterized by an isosceles triangle (Exhibit 1). They would be able to move from being a Seer to a Bar Tender to a Sheriff at the proper time in order to meet the demands of the project.

To determine the triangular shape of a given project manager, first identify their strengths in relation to the three skills. It has been my experience that the strengths, not the weaknesses, are what enable a project manager to succeed on a project. In a recent Gallup study of over two million people, it was found that focusing on talents and strengths is what makes a person successful rather than trying to repair weaknesses (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). A project manager's strengths can be determined through several means ranging from an arbitrary assignment (i.e., the reviewers impression) to a more thorough analysis (i.e., 360-degree survey, self scoring, and/or review of past projects). A general personality and/or skills assessment test can be of great assistance. With this data, a triangle can be drawn that represents the project manager (Exhibit 2). Depending on the desired level of accuracy, the strength of each skill can be weighed against the other two (i.e., the skill of using the revolver is twice the skill of using the bottle of whiskey). In all cases, the triangle that represents a project manager will be skewed due to their varying degree of strengths. One project manager may not be a Seer or a Bar Tender, but very much a Sheriff when it comes to using the revolver. Another may be more of a Bar Tender in employing the bottle of whiskey, but not yet to the level of a Seer or Sheriff. The types of triangles are as numerous as the degree of knowledge, experience, and wisdom of a project manager multiplied by the set of different personality types. This process of determining the triangular shape of a project manager's skill is not intended to limit a project manager's career, but instead to create a situation in which they can succeed.

Exhibit 1

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The Projects

The three project types form the second triangular relationship: Creative, Problem Resolution, and Tactical Execution. Within the triangular relationship, projects can be described as ovals. The oval depicting the perfect project would be a circle equally balanced between the three project types, but since there are no perfect projects, ovals are skewed toward one or two of the project types. The goal is to represent a project in relation to the project types (i.e., project A is more of a Creative project then a Tactical Execution project). Developing a set of attributes that describe the three project types, and then assessing each project to determine the degree to which it displays these attributes can accomplish this. The set of attributes should be selected by taking into account the business and technical environments of the particular organization. I recommend the following: specificity of requirements, accuracy of the initial estimate, maturity of the schedule, and the degree to which the standard project management processes are applied (i.e., change management, risk management, issues management, etc.). The attributes of the Creative project type are general business requirements, an order of magnitude estimate, a variable schedule, and the minimal use of project management processes. The Problem Resolution project type can be described as having detailed requirements, a budget estimate, a well-developed schedule, and basic project management processes in place. The attributes of the Tactical Execution project type are specific requirements, a detailed estimate, a fully optimized schedule, and the maximum use of project management processes. Based on these attributes, each project can be drawn with the skew of the oval determined by the degree to which the project exhibits the attributes of each project type (Exhibit 3).

The Puzzle

In 1974, Professor Jerry Harvey wrote a modern day parable based on his real-life experience to illustrate what he believes to be a major problem in organizations. In his book entitled The Abilene Paradox, he wrote about a family of four adults that find themselves eating a below average meal in an un-air-conditioned cafeteria in Abilene, TX on a day with 100-degree temperatures. After driving the 100-mile roundtrip in an un-air-conditioned car through a dust storm, they all realized that none of them really wanted to go on the trip.

Exhibit 2

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Exhibit 3

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The family is comprised of a married couple and the wife's parents. The wife's father initiated the trip by suggesting that they drive to a cafeteria in Abilene for lunch. He did not want to go, but he thought the family would want to do something together. The two women also wanted the family to do something together, but this trip was not their first choice. They went along because they thought the others really wanted to go. The son-in-law in trying to avoid a conflict with his father-in-law went along even though he hated the heat. In the end, everyone blamed this miscommunication on someone else.

Harvey considers this type of decision-making to be a common problem in most organizations, because too often an organization prizes managing with agreement over managing through conflict. He goes on to indicate that the causes are found in wrong assumptions (i.e., what others want) and fear (i.e., of conflict and/or rejection).

In reflecting on the parable, I recounted how many times I participated in a post project review where we all wondered how we ended up in Abilene. How did the project fail or struggle to completion over schedule or above cost? Many times, the scope and deliverables were clear, the stakeholders were involved, and the project processes were managed, but the project was still unsuccessful. Usually the reasons indicated a problem with the original estimate, the planning, the project communication, how the team worked together, or the lack of motivation and direction. All of these are valid reasons that can be addressed as lessons learned for the next project, but at their root is another issue—project manager assignment. More often than not a project manager is assigned based on inappropriate criteria (i.e., like availability or popularity), instead of a realistic matching of skill with project type. This starts the Abilene Paradox. The management of the organization makes the assignment without consulting the project manager. They make wrong assumptions like “they need a challenge,” “a big complex project needs a senior project manager,” or “everyone seems to like them.” The project manager will not turn down the project, because they fear career damage or they misunderstand the reasons behind the assignment (i.e., “this is an important project, so if I succeed I will be promoted”). As the project progresses and problems occur, both the organizational management and the project manager dismiss them because both want the match to succeed. Failure occurs, damage is done, and both do not know how they ended up in Abilene.

Exhibit 4

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The Abilene Paradox is the root cause of the project manager assignment puzzle. The puzzle, while a formidable challenge, can be solved by applying the conceptual model.

Application

The primary application of the model is to match the project manager with the appropriate project. This can be accomplished by comparing the triangles with the ovals to determine the ones that fit best together. For example, a new software product development project would have an oval that is skewed toward the Problem Resolution and Creative project types. This would fit well with the triangle of a project manager that is skewed toward the bottle of whiskey and the crystal ball skills. This seems reasonable since these project types require a high-degree of flexibility in planning, creativity in problem solving, and teamwork. The Sheriff would tend not to be as effective managing this type of project. In contrast, a software implementation project would have an oval skewed toward the Tactical Execution project type. This could easily be matched with the triangle of the Sheriff that relies heavily on the use of the revolver (Exhibit 4).

Conclusion

In the years after I first presented the crystal ball, the bottle of whiskey, and the revolver, I continued to build and apply the related model in many different situations and organizations. I have used it as a guide for my own professional development, as well as in the strategic role of structuring development and project management departments within organizations. The concepts that it describes are not new, but many times they are overlooked as organizations press to produce results with less staff. A final word of caution, as with any model, successful use is all in how it is interpreted and applied. In other words, when you go into your bottom drawer intending to use the bottle of whiskey, be careful you don't mistakenly pull out and use the revolver instead. The result will not be as intended.

References

Boehm, Barry W. 1981. Software Engineering Economics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

DeMarco, Tom, & Lister, Timothy. 1985. “Programmer Performance and the Effects of the Workplace.” Proceedings of the 8th International Conference of Software Engineering. Washington D.C.: IEEE Computer Society Press, pp. 268–272.

Hentzel, Bill. 1993. Making Software Measurement Work: Building an Effective Measurement Program. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Larson, Carl E., & LaFasto, Frank M. 1989. Teamwork: What Must Go Right; What Must Go Wrong. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Harvey, Jerry B. 1988. The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Buckingham, Marcus, & Clifton, Donald O. 2001. Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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 or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 · San Antonio, Texas, USA

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