A method to the madness

June 2013 » Columns » PROJECT MANAGEMENT INSIGHTS
Christine Brack, PMP

I was working with an engineering firm recently and we were discussing ways to improve operations. They had experienced a spurt of growth, were projecting continued success, but weren't equipped internally to handle that pace. One focus area was project management.

We made a laundry list of small changes and implementations that would be instituted easily in the short term. Most of the recommendations came from those around the table who had been personally distressed by holes in the system. We stepped back and reviewed what we had devised and everyone appeared confident in the decisions — except one person.

This gentleman voiced his concern about too many policies and procedures turning their small, family oriented, fun and fun-loving firm into an extremely corporate, controlling environment found at large firms. Too many rules would steal away from the joy of doing work for clients and it would ultimately ruin the firm's culture.

When he put the word "culture" in the same sentence as "corporate," the demeanor around the table changed and suddenly fewer participants were in favor of what we had designed. Many of them had histories in the big firm setting and didn't want another dose of that. They weren't willing to sacrifice their "culture" for growth — especially if it meant too many rules and regulations. There was a method to their project management madness, they agreed, and maybe they could live with it after all?

Here are a few things I pointed out to the group:

Being organized isn't only a big firm trait.
This particular firm has 10 primary project managers running projects according to their personal style and client preferences. There is no central, shared location for information or data, there are no real staffing discussions, and most people aren't using project financials to measure or make decisions. The ideas we came up with would address these issues — because that's just good project management and good business. Being organized isn't the same as a bureaucratic, paperwork heavy, red-tape system. This firm doesn't have enough employees where that could even become possible. Being organized is an operational advantage, not a trait to be avoided.

Procedures are also an insurance policy.
The frustrations of living with this madness started the conversation and attempt at improvement in the first place. Documents and emails were lost. Delegation of project elements was tough. Whenever a project manager left the firm, picking up the pieces meant starting from scratch. Identifying if a project was on or off track was impossible. Having certain guidelines in place, and then followed, generally ensures these sorts of pitfalls don't happen. It's a guard against poor client service, loss of profitability, and anxiety across the team — and that's a good culture to foster.

Madness is not a great cultural nuance.
My client has already enjoyed growth the last two years — more than they anticipated and accomplished without any kind of planning. They brag about it (as well they should). However, even in that period of growth, it doesn't appear they lost any of their beloved "culture." It's only when we frame guidelines around a better project management system that this loss is feared. The self-described "madness" works for a time, and it's transferrable, but it's not sustainable or sellable. What potential employee wants to work in a maddening project atmosphere? What client would hire you if they really knew your planning or QA/QC process was haphazard?

It is very easy to let one person prevent good changes from happening in the workplace in the name of preserving the firm's culture. However, good project management is a culture all its own and having a really great practice based on that is something all firms — small, medium, or large — should strive for. In the case of this gentleman and his colleagues, they were all able to understand the points I presented and become confident again in the new method we established.

Christine Brack, is a principal with ZweigWhite specializing in business planning and project management best practices. She can be contacted at cbrack@zweigwhite.com


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