Project Manager and The Three Questions

He was newly appointed as the Project Manager for a moderately complex project. Prior to this assignment, he was trained in the best of methods and had access to the latest of tools. And yet, he was struggling.

He was struggling to get the right answers to the three most basic questions:

  • What is the right time to do begin each activity?
  • Who are the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid?
  • What is the most important thing to do?

He understood how to apply the tools and techniques to plan his project’s activities, but did not yet have the finesse to determine answers to those above questions. He called out all his stakeholders, his Customer, Senior Management, Team members, Program Managers, and process champions to an offsite to brainstorm on those three questions. While some team members were very excited to participate, some were very reserved to stick their neck out. He realized the challenges, but decided to give it an honest shot.

To his first question, his team said the best time to do an activity is naturally when the resources are available – how else could one undertake an activity otherwise? His customer felt the best time was when the requirements were clear and the design was complete. His manager felt the best time was when all risks had been appropriately mitigated. Like in the original story, The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy, some people told him he must plan up all the events in his project plan upfront so that there is nothing left to chance – they were clearly favoring the old maxim “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. However, there were a small number of people who argued that it was actually impossible to plan everything, and hence the predictive planning was a flawed process – it simply was much better to do an adaptive planning instead. All these seemed to be good answers to him, but were neither comprehensive enough by themselves or actionable even if considered collectively.

To his second question, he got even a bigger variety of answers. Some felt the most important people to work with were the requirements analyst – how else could one hope to build and deliver the project if requirements were not clear? Then some said it was all about design. A few felt the developers was nowadays being seriously underrated, and that was the root cause of all problems, while some others felt testers were really the make-or-break guys on the project. He then talked to some methodology gurus and got additional answers that said the most important person was himself – the project manager, and yet followers of a new cult said it didn’t matter because everyone was expected to have cross-functional skills (or, at least that’s what he gathered from their conversation). Some folks also talked about the Customer, but mostly because they were such a nuisance to work with – you better take care of them! Again, to him, all these roles were integral part of the entire project, and even if some role got more important than others in a given phase, when taken holistically, you couldn’t afford to ignore anyone!

To his third question, he got shock of his life when he saw people donning their emotional self and drawing battlelines to defend their argument! The Cowboy Programmers felt the most important thing to do was to just code, code and code (and don’t even bother to fix it – you could always outsource maintenance to a low-cost location – and gave a really sincere thank you to Globalization!). The Feature Brigade was no-nonsensical about getting the PRD right – how else are we going to build the right product? Testers felt developers will mess up the code (as usual!) and hence they were the ones who had divine rights and the ability to find the problems and somehow ship the product. Process Terrorists were hung up on adhering to the process come what may, and the Customer was only interested in when are we shipping the product? Once again, our Project Manager found himself at crossroads because none of them were wrong individually, but none of them could be pitted against one another at the cost of picking just one out of two.

They all came back from the offsite with a new-found camaraderie that would sail them though for the next few weeks, but our Project Manager knew there were some really big chinks in his armor and the real answers to his three questions were still eluding him. He realized that his plans howsoever detailed and meticulous were doomed from the start because everyone among his stakeholders and his team got their individual part, but no one got the entire picture right. As project progressed, his worst fears were that the blind love for one’s own trade would drown the project. The only time to save the project was now or never!

While coming back, he suddenly remembered that he had promised to take his family out over the weekend. On one hand he wanted to call of the outing fearing he would not be at his best, but then he thought why not go for it – if nothing else, at least he will come back little freshened up and hopefully take another crack at the problem.

They went to the nearby water park. It was a great day, and the kids loved every moment of it. He was trying his level best to be the familyman and enjoy his kid’s silly jokes, even though his mind was clearly pre-occupied with things from workplace.

During lunch, he felt uneasy and felt breathless and he was profusely sweating. His family got worried, but he tried to brush it aside. He know they had bought the tickets to an afternoon gala show which his kids had been planning to watch for last six months, and he didn’t want to spoli their plans over what he thought was some minor medical condition that would be over in next few minutes.

Medical emergencies it did turn out to be, but it was not to get over in next few minutes. He wife made the call to cancel their plan for the day and told the family that they need to rush him to hospital. The kids didn’t even once protest – they just picked the things up and got ready while their mother arranged for some help to get their father moved to the car. She drove all the way to hospital, while his kids were besides him. His son was feeding him water, while his daughter was constantly chatting with him and softly massaging his hands. The entire family was focusing on making sure they reached hospital in time, and during the journey to hospital, he stays well take care of. Once in hospital, the medical staff took immediate care of him.

It was due to food poisoning, the doc told them. Though it was not severe, but since he got to hospital in time, they were able to help him much better, and he could leave the hospital by the evening. He felt very embarrassed and apologetic in front of his family that they all had to cancel their plans because of his minor problem. However, his family didn’t agree with him. They were all so concerned about his health there was no way they could have ignored him – wasn’t that the most important thing to go for the most important person in their lives? And right then and there, it hit him! All his questions had just been answered:

  • The right time to begin anything is now. The present is the only time over which we have power. If his family had not acted so swiftly, the situation could have turned worse.
  • The most important person is whoever you are with. During the last few hours, his family was only concerned with his welfare.
  • The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with. He smiled to himself thinking of how his little daughter was softly massaging his hands, and how son was making sure he was doing ok while his wife probably violated a couple of traffic signs to reach him to hospital.

So, that’s it, he realized. I guess I was looking for some cookbook answers. It’s not so much about finding those answers externally or in some process framework as it is about oneself being purposefully aware of own behavior and relationship with others at a given point. It is more about being there for the person in front of you than working with a static set of prioritized relationships, or personal biases or mental models that dictated your behavior depending on where someone was in the pecking order. He thought it was imuch more mportant to address even the smallest issue that was presented to him as compared to even the most complex risk identified in his plan, and of course – the best time was always “now” for anything and everything. He had found an explanation to his answers, and even though he still didn’t know how they fitted in his project plan, he felt he was going in the right direction.

5 thoughts on “Project Manager and The Three Questions

  1. Anonymous

    This is very great article.
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