Are you solving the wrong project management problem ?

I just read a book titled “The eMedha Paradigm – A Project Manager’s Billion Dollar Odyssey” and felt terribly disappointed and shocked.

The author paints a make-believe world in which a sadist CEO does insider trading and makes his kith and kin richer, while his technically incompetent, control-freak and sexually-deprived project manager has a field day sinking the project. The team spirit is in tatters but because of the three-year job bond, they can’t leave their jobs just yet. Sales has promised to deliver the project in 1/3x time period, and now the customer is shouting from the rooftop on grand promises that remain grossly unmet. In short, all real-world ills happening in all permutations and combinations at the same time. While this might not be entirely implausible, I am yet to find such a worst-case view of real-world. This is such a picture-perfect scenario – can you think of anything else going wrong in this ?

The best is yet to come. An honest professional at the client side, Kalpana, with no significant credentials in getting a team out of such worst-case mess enters the scene, thanks to her scheming manager, and gets an anynomous mail from one of the team members on what all ails the project. While she is enroute India thinking about it at 40,000 feet mid-air, she has an encounter. Not a small encounter mind you, but The Encounter. God and his heavenly assistant (literally and figuratively, we are made to believe) Kamayani is an expert in some non-descript technique known as ‘eMedha’ that has the potential to transform any toddler into a veteran project manager. Even though these techniques are so obvious (or so the author would have us believe), for some reason our knight in the shining armor Kalpana doesn’t know these old tricks, and needs divine intervention to bestow that commonsense in her.

The endgame is not difficult to predict. Our legend-in-the-making hero goes with the newfound wisdom and changes everything in just two weeks. Bollywood style happy ending.

So, what’s wrong with this story. After all, isn’t this the cool stuff dreams are made of – a magic wand to wave and the magic mantra to chant, and lo and behold, the world becomes a great place to live. Instantly. Painlessly.

I think everything is wrong in it. For one, the author thinks most software development (still) happens a la ‘Modern Times’ – command and control, incompetent and indifferent management, helpless and desparate team members, lofty promises….the list goes on. I mean, I realize there are no perfect workplaces or perfect teams, and the reality often leaves much to imagination, but I would be greatly scandalized if such workplaces – as the one depicted in this story - exist in software industry. But, let’s for a moment accept that there is indeed one such workplace. Now, you have a oversimplified model that trivializes the entire solution into a series of checklist-style action items to fix this worst-case problem – all in under two weeks. No doubt those action items will give you great quick wins (especially since the situation is so bad, the team performance is at rock-bottom), the author gravely misunderstands low-hanging fruits with the real issues in software project management. It can also send a very wrong message that not only there is a one-size-fit-all solution, even a dummy can do it. When was the last time you were sold such snake-oil ?

The hygiene issues are very different from the fundamental issues of what software project management is all about. I don’t think there are too many workplaces and teams left in this world that have basic hygiene issues. To me, that sounds like coal mines or scrap yard in a developing country. And even there, I suspect workers would put up with such control crap. These are simply not the real problems that we know.

How about dealing with real issues of teams with highly technical, young, assertive, choosy, achievement-oriented and mobile workforce that is not shy of confronting its manager when he/she is not quite right, or pick the bags and leave when its talent and efforts is not respected? Workplace where team members don’t feel threatened but much rather enjoy working on problems that challenge and stretch them. A workplace that creates conducive atmosphere for teamwork. Customer who demands nothing less than a Noble Prize winning effort, and yet realizes that there are inherent complexities in the task that leads to unreliable delivery estimates. Technology that threatens to self-destruct itself every few months, only to lead the way to something new, hopefully better, and a little more complex than the last time. That is the real world, and the game of project management begins on this pedestal. How do you deliver a software project with so many moving parts?

To me it is clear that the bar has risen higher, much higher. All low-hanging fruits have been plucked away. There is no scope for shortcuts, nor any use of snake-oil. The success won’t come by applying quick-win suggestions. If hygiene is a problem, first fix that, and don’t confuse it with project management (even though, I must concede, those issues might be included in the all-inclusive ever-broadening definition of project management). With due humility, if hygiene comes across as a problem, it probably is the small tip of the giant iceberg known as ‘Culture’ and as we all know, cultures don’t change overnight. Yes, they can be influenced, even adapted in a small tribe, but never changed irreversibly by a local improvement action. I applaud all such efforts, but we must understand no amount of localized quick-win efforts will lead to radical changes. A project manager might be able to do only so much, but assuming that this is a scaleable process is like extrapolating from a single-point sample.

Are you solving the wrong project management problem ?

PS: I have nothing personal again the author of this book :). I just feel software development community has been taken on a royal ride with so many silver bullets, I look at every prescription with due suspicion and professional contempt. The purpose of my blog is to share ideas for people to think about what is being sold to them (and not to sell shrink wrap solutions, especially the one-size-fit-all types), and hence this constructive criticism.

12 thoughts on “Are you solving the wrong project management problem ?

  1. Erasmo Sayco

    Finally, I found the information I was searching for. I have been doing research on this subject, and for two days I keep entering sites that are supposed to have what I’m searching for, only to be discouraged with the lack of what I wanted. I wish I would have found your website sooner! I had about 30% of what I needed and your web-site has that, and the rest of what I had to have to finish my research. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  2. Fernando Alvirez

    Quote: “I look at every prescription with due suspicion and professional contempt”
    I suppose that is the best attitude and the way to deal with things. The author however obviously made you think about this stuff and that’s already an accomplishment in its own. Good article.

  3. skills train

    solving project problems is a real issue. Thankfully there are options for a long term fix instead of changes to solve a situation only to compromise on another.
    Courses in project management are available.

  4. Amit Kumar

    Totally agree, often Project Managers are considered everything from cleaners to magicians – but seldom managers. We are here to create products and not magic.
    On an unrelated note – we need some really good authors to write fiction around the Indian IT. This book and another one called Transmission were utterly disappointing.

Leave a Reply